The third full-day SearchStar annual conference was billed as being the biggest and best to date, and we’re not unduly confident that it lived up to expectations. Close to 350 delegates from fantastic companies, charities, institutions and agencies turned out to fill Bath’s Apex Hotel and listen to the latest digital thinking from Google, Facebook, Hitwise and, of course, SearchStar.

With a clear theme of “growth”, the eight presentations were curated to give those present food for thought and real inspiration to evolve the thinking behind their digital marketing strategies and take advantage of cutting-edge developments in the industry.

Initial feedback from the day has been wonderfully positive, and we hope that all those who attended left the conference feeling better informed, more inspired and ready to put some of the thinking into action.

For those who couldn’t make it, and for those who are keen for a recap of what was covered, here’s a summary of the day’s presentations.

Conference Summary: Advertising & Growth, 2020 and Beyond

The State of Advertising

Dan Fallon, Managing Director, SearchStar

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In his trademark style, Dan’s opening presentation very much set the scene by introducing topics that would be covered in more detail later in the day.

Dan has spent a lot of time with senior staff at Google recently, and used the knowledge gleaned from his discussions to frame much of his content. The key message was that advertising shouldn’t be just about efficiency - it had to be about effectiveness too.

Yes, efficiency in advertising is important but successful advertisers and agencies must be focused on delivering more than that; they must show they can drive growth. And that growth can come from a number of areas (but probably not from the bottom of the sales funnel).

Firstly, mobile is an ever-evolving medium that continues to increase in importance within advertising. Thanks to advanced targeting capabilities, the opportunities afforded by machine learning, improving mobile commerce experiences and an ability to provide ever greater relevance to users, mobile really is - and will continue to be - at the vanguard of digital marketing success.

Secondly, the big push into advertising being made by Amazon represents not only a challenge to the Google-Facebook “duopoly”, but also an opportunity for advertisers to take advantage of the incredible data on offer from Amazon, alongside an ever growing suite of ad solutions.

Dan highlighted the growth potential of markets beyond the UK and Europe, arguing that ambitious brands can’t afford to be limited by international borders when it comes to building success.

Finally, we were reminded of the incredible power of Artificial Intelligence in advertising, and how it can deliver better ad experiences through the automation of creative optimisation, bidding and audience targeting.

Summarising his view, Dan was optimistic that, while the ad industry faces challenges in uncertain economic times, there are plenty of opportunities for all advertisers to continue to drive performance, growth and success.

Future-Proofing in the Age of Machine Learning

Roxanne Brownlee, Agency Development Manager, Google

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A presentation from Google always promises a wealth of excellent content. Roxanne did not disappoint as she provided a full view of how machine learning and AI can be leveraged to deliver real business growth from advertising: not just in the future, but right now.

Roxanne, once again, highlighted the dominance of mobile in today’s digital landscape and the massive growth it has seen over the past decade. As a proportion of total web traffic, mobile visits have rocketed from just 1.5% in 2010 to over 60% in 2019.

Simultaneously, there has been an explosion in the volume of data being created online, which now totals 2.5 Quintillion bytes each day (I lost count of the zeroes) and an incredible revolution in the power of AI.

With AI essentially “powered” by data, these two developments go hand in hand, and current technology is already heavily reliant on AI - everything from predictive modeling of routes in Google Maps, to Gmail content filters and automated tagging in Google Photos.

Likewise, Roxanne was keen to demonstrate how AI is already powering better advertising. Whether it’s employing automated smart bidding in paid search - the only way to effectively manage the wealth of advertising signals that users now transmit - or fully embedding data driven marketing at the centre of your business strategy, those advertisers that use such techniques see, on average, incremental growth of 20% in revenue.

Of course, growing businesses requires demand to be created as well as captured, and we were reminded of the importance of upper funnel activity and how AI can help here too.

Short term campaigns may generate peaks in demand, but sustainable growth comes from sustained brand building activity. With users exposed to up to 5,000 advertising messages each day, it’s increasingly hard to stand out, but AI-driven solutions from Google and YouTube help advertisers do just that.

Smart Display campaigns that leverage the reach of the Google Display Network, and automated video ad generation that massively extends the range of advertisers who can feasibly tap into the power of video ads were the standouts here.

The final message - automate anything that distracts from growth, advertise across the full customer journey, and measure what matters when it comes to building long-term success.

Google Analytics: A Year of Change

Jon Boon, Lead Analytics Consultant, SearchStar

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Jon loves Google Analytics. And, given the chance, he’s always happy to share that passion with an audience. So, we gave him the chance and he delivered a brilliantly expert view on the good - and the not so good - developments in the field of web analytics.

The first big bit of good news has been the arrival of the Shop Visits metric in Google Analytics. Using modeled geo-fencing data, the functionality enables us to report on channels that have driven actual visits to physical locations.

Previously the preserve of Google Ads, this metric is now applied to all channels reported on in Google Analytics and helps advertisers with bricks and mortar shops or offices better understand the full impact of their online marketing efforts.

Google Signals has been another big development, increasing the confidence with which we’re able to report on cross-device behaviour of users. The functionality provides reports on device overlap and device paths, so that we can start to build a much clearer picture of the impact that each device type has on delivering results.

For instance, it may be that mobile devices have previously been undercredited for their role in helping to discover brands, since consumers were making final purchases on desktops and their was no clear link between these devices. Now we can see mobiles have been used to generate interest that has subsequently motivated those desktop conversions.

Unified Web & App tracking is a dream for advertisers who operate both a website and an app. Previously, data between the two environments was very much siloed and it was hard to draw conclusions about the impact of one on the other. With unified tracking, we can now apply common metrics to web and app interfaces and understand how users move between the two, building a much better picture of the full customer journey.

In a similar vein, Google’s partnership with Salesforce enables data from the CRM platform to be fed directly into Google Analytics. This helps us report on and remarket to audiences based on that offline data. We’re no longer restricted to reporting on the number of leads that a particular channel has generated online - we can report on actual closed sales.

The not-so-good developments are both related to a potential restriction of the actual data that can be collected in Google Analytics. A recent blog from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) took a very strict line on how GDPR legislation should be interpreted, dictating that users needed to give explicit consent to website owners in order for analytics cookies to be set.

If enforced, this policy would massively limit the number of users against whom we can report on in Google Analytics. However, at present, it doesn’t seem to be being enforced and there are few websites that appear to be following the letter of the law on this matter.

Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Protection (ITP) similarly limits the cookie information that can be collected by Google Analytics, as it places a 7 day cap on the duration of any tracking cookies set on the Safari browser - the default on iPhones.

From Localisation to Digital Transcreation

Rawad Jammoul, Head of Paid Media, Adapt Worldwide and Ryan Webb, Conversion & Analytics Director, SearchStar

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When it comes to memorable stage duos, Morecambe and Wise have nothing on Rawad and Ryan. The pair took us on a fantastic tour around the world of localisation and transcreation to uncover exactly what is meant by these two terms and how they can be employed to turbocharge international growth.

Ryan first introduced us to the opportunity presented by an increase in “local” searches, such as those containing the phrase “near me”. Paired with the wealth of location data that Google holds on its users, these searches can power better ad targeting, ad messaging and more relevant landing page content.

This form of “localisation” can certainly have a massive impact on the performance of advertising activities but, as Rawad was keen to point out to Ryan, this isn’t his understanding of what the term means.

For Rawad, localisation is about taking brands to new international markets in a way that’s sensitive to the local language, culture and audience behaviour in those markets. Translation is one aspect of localisation but really what’s needed for it to be effective is digital transcreation.

That is, translation and content creation that meets the need to be sensitive to the nuances of local language, culture and behaviour in order to better reach and resonate with local audiences.

It’s not enough to literally translate English ad campaigns into another language and expect them to perform well. Google isn’t the dominant search engine in all countries - Yandex is the leader in Russia. Naver is big in South Korea, and in the Czech Republic, it’s all about Seznam.

Without understanding the differences between markets and how best to operate in each, performance is never going to be optimal. But if you do pay attention to these things, the benefits are tangible, providing better reach (in the form of improved keyword selection), better CTR (in the form of more relevant ad copy), higher Quality Score, better conversion rates and more revenue.

Building a Zero Friction Future

Lars Kossmann, Partner Manager & John Carr, Global Agency Manager, Facebook

Lars and John provided an excellent overview of the solutions that Facebook and Instagram have to offer in reducing friction for consumers in order to “deliver on the promise of now.”

Customer expectations have never been higher, with a real desire for businesses to be able to provide what customers want instantly and seamlessly. Moreover, these expectations are constantly rising, so businesses have to work incredibly hard to keep up.

Any friction in meeting these expectations can be massively damaging to businesses as a result. That friction can come in the form of long page load times, lengthy forms, tortuous checkout processes and insufficient information, to name but a few examples.

Facebook and Instagram offer solutions to reduce that friction at each stage of the customer journey. At the Discovery Phase, Lars encouraged us to “Spark Love” using engaging and native ad formats such as those in Instagram Explore. Meanwhile, Collections and Instant Experiences, alongside AR Discovery Ads help inspire action.

When it comes to the Purchase Phase, products like Facebook Marketplace and Instagram Shopping help to reduce friction by shortening the customer’s path to purchase.

And even in the Post-Purchase Phase, friction can be reduced by employing Facebook Messenger as a means of providing instant customer support and advice.

To summarise the message as simply as possible, looking to reduce friction at each stage of the customer journey will really create incremental gains, and help deliver sustainable growth.

Amazon Advertising: Threatening The Duopoly

Sian Miller, Senior Technology & Innovation Manager, SearchStar

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Sian made use of her wealth of experience with Amazon advertising to show how and why the ecommerce giant is coming to represent a major force in online marketing. Indeed, advertisers are already recognising this, as Amazon’s share of digital ad revenue has grown from 2% in 2016 to 9% in 2019, and is forecast to grow to 14% by 2023.

This impressive growth can be put down to three things: the development of the Amazon ad offering; the incredibly rich customer data that Amazon has access to; and, the physical Amazon products that are increasingly ubiquitous and feed the company with yet more customer data and more opportunities for advertising.

The development of the Amazon ad offering can be traced from 2012, when they launched an initial foray into providing display advertising services. In 2014, this inventory became available to buy programmatically.

More recently, there has been a real effort put into improving the range of ad formats and audiences available, as well as a clear focus on the provision of better reporting and attribution functionality that will reassure advertisers their money is well spent.

The power of the data that Amazon hold is obvious. They don’t just know what people are searching for or what they like - they know what people actually buy, how often, how much they spend, and where they like it delivered.

Such powerful signals can only be inferred by the likes of Google and Facebook, and this unique view of customers is a definite selling point for Amazon’s advertising services. Moreover, products such as the Amazon Echo range, Firestick and tablets, as well as Amazon Prime TV, all feed the company with even richer data that allows for incredibly accurate and granular audience segmentation.

As for the future? Expect a greater degree of automation, yet more data, more inventory and fresher ad formats. Importantly, the extent to which we’ll be able to see a joined-up picture of the full customer journey across Amazon will really come to the fore as they start to properly get to grips with the thorny issue of attribution.

The Trends Shaping Digital Advertising Today

Charlotte Plastow, Customer Success Manager, Hitwise

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Hitwise is a company driven by data, and seek to help advertisers and agencies uncover important insights and opportunities for growth. Taking internet usage data from a panel of 3 million users in the UK alone, they’re incredibly well placed to do just that, and Charlotte took us through three of the most interesting trends that have emerged over the last year.

Returning to the growth of Amazon Advertising, Charlotte examined the extent to which it was threatening Google’s stranglehold on the market. Incredibly, Amazon can reach 80% of the UK market and accounts for 25% of all web visits to the top 10 retail sites in the UK.

Moreover, it consistently has a conversion rate of at least twice that of other top retail sites, so when it comes to simply selling stuff it is untouchable. However, while around 784 million product searches are made on Amazon each year, Google clicks to retail sites total an incredible 3.5 Billion - the dominant player in this game is still very clear.

The second trend that Charlotte examined was the change in TV viewing habits and the shift in consumer habits away from terrestrial TV towards paid-for streaming services. This has led some commentators to proclaim the death of TV advertising.

However, the incredible impact that Love Island brand sponsorships had on visits to the websites of those brands was made very clear, opening up the interesting trend for digital-only brands to obtain advertising success from TV. So really, TV advertising isn’t dying, just evolving.

Finally, Charlotte examined the growth in search volume for political, environmental and social topics such as “Brexit”, “Toxic Masculinity, “Sustainable Fashion”, and “Extinction Rebellion”. While such topics can be divisive, it was shown how both Nike, with its campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, and Gillette’s “Best men can be” campaign had driven massive spikes in web traffic as a result of choosing to take a stand on such issues.

The Future of Digital Advertising

Ed Culliford, Insight Director, SearchStar

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Rounding off the day, Ed looked to tie some of the themes together to deliver his view on what the future might look like for digital advertising.

It was contended that the industry had got stuck in a bit of a rut, experiencing Groundhog Day when it came to endlessly labouring the importance of mobile, video, attribution and personalisation.

Change in the industry isn’t happening as fast as it might, not because of a lack of technological innovation or consumer appetite, but because of an entrenched conservatism and reluctance to embrace change among advertisers.

We saw that the future of advertising could be summed up with five themes. In a Post-Digital world, where digital doesn’t automatically mean different, advertisers will have to gain advantage by thinking more carefully about how technology can be applied.

The future will also see a prevalence of Programmatic advertising, not just on our computer and mobile screens but across other channels such as TV and out-of-home. We can expect tomorrow to be increasingly personal, with the ever growing power of mobile - alongside the continued development and adoption of wearable tech and home assistants - meaning that we’re often advertising to an audience of one.

Predictive power will further change what advertising can achieve, while the growth of purpose-led brands will also define what success will look like in the future.

Ed asked us to imagine a future of advertising that was more secure, more useful, more effective and simply more positive than where we are at present. The key to achieving this change? Experimentation, innovation and adaptation across the advertising industry to ensure that we don’t simply end up doing more of the same.

A Final Word

A big thank you to all our speakers, everyone who attended, and all who made sure that the conference was another fantastic SearchStar event. If you have any questions, feedback or thoughts you’d like to pass on, get in touch here >>>

What’s in store for 2020? You’ll just have to wait and see...