10 brilliant UX features from the Airbnb website

airbnb site search

Airbnb has been very successful, to say the least. Of course, a disruptive business model has been a big factor, but a great user experience has played a big part.

While travel brands have. in general, been slow to adapt to the web, brands like airbnb (and booking.com) have shown the way in terms of UX.

So, here’s a selection of UX delights from Airbnb…

Easy search box

When you head to the airbnb homepage, user attention will tend to focus on the search box.

It’s simple to get started too: enter destination, check in/out dates and number of guest and you’re in.

Compare this to the ibis homepage (both shots show what’s visible above the fold). The search box doesn’t stand out against all the other elements on the page.

Search results pages

The presentation of site search results is very important. The ease of use, ability to tailor the selection to your needs and find key information can drive more bookings.

Here, the presentation is clear, and there are plenty of ways to sort and filter the selection of homes on offer.

airbnb results

The ability to search by moving the map

I love this, as it suits the way I like to search. Let’s say you want somewhere near the centre of town (Seville in this case) or perhaps near a beach or other attraction – this feature allows you to search around that area without having to start again or amend your search radius.

It also works well too, loading new results quickly and allowing a quick preview of the apartments helps.

airbnb search map

Mapping results is a key feature of most travel sites, but airbnb does this as well as any.

Urgency

Airbnb uses urgency well.

This is a useful tactic, as it pushes the customer to come to a decision on whether or not to make a booking.

Here, when looking for a place to rent in New York next weekend, I’m warned that just 11% of homes are left. This means I need to make a decision quickly to secure a booking.

airbnb urgency

Urgency should be used in moderation – use it too much and customers will learn to ignore the message.

It should convey useful information, like this note telling me I’ve found an apartment which is usually booked up.

airbnb urgency 2

Social proof

Social proof helps to persuade potential customers through the wisdom of the crowds.

So, in this case, if other people have booked here and enjoyed it, then that’s a big push for the potential customer.

Here, it also acts as a quality control mechanism for airbnb, as bad reviews will help to weed out the poorer rentals, while the need to attract good reviews offers a powerful incentive for people to ensure their customers have a great experience.

airbnb reviews

Images

Airbnb works around images. The homepage is image-heavy, but the most crucial use is in apartment listings.

Many travel sites used to expect that a couple of small images would work, but people want to see detail. It’s a huge part of the decision on whether or not to book.

It’s up to the homeowners to take and show a good range of images, but airbnb ensures they are presented well.

There are a few key features here:

  • Plenty of images.
  • Images showing views from apartments.
  • Images showing key features – beds, cooking equipment etc.
  • The presentation. By showing in a lightbox like this, airbnb makes it easy to browse photos.

images airbnb

Clear presentation of information

Home listings require detail – number of bedrooms, cooking facilities, wifi, proximity of local amenities etc.

Presenting this detail without cluttering the page or making it difficult to scan and understand is important.

Airbnb uses features like symbols and bold highlighting to help users scan, while information is laid out with plenty of space.

info airbnb

Price bar chart

This subtle price range chart allows users to instantly get an idea of the range of prices available for their search.

It means they can narrow the price range while ensuring they will generate a good number of results.

airbnb price chart

Neighbourhood guides

This is a great feature, and very useful for visitors unfamiliar with a particular destination.

The hosts have recommended cafes, restaurants, great places to shop in the area near their apartment, shown on this map.

It’s useful when deciding whether to book, but also when you arrive, so you can find a good restaurant without having to gamble.

guides airbnb

Forms/checkout

Forms are well presented with lots of white space and clear information around fields.

There are reminders of total cost, while errors are flagged immediately and field requiring attention are highlighted clearly.

forms airbnb

Bad UX

It’s not all rosy, and there are a couple of features which could annoy users.

This bar encouraging me to sign up for instance. It can’t be closed and is big enough that it obscures a good part of the screen.

Perhaps users want to browse first, then sign up if they want to. This gets in the way of that.

airbnb bad

Then there’s this, in a similar vein. This time it takes over the whole screen. Maybe airbnb has tested these popups and found they increased the number of logins.

bad airbnb

They can work, when applied well, though it’s hard to measure the number of people who are deterred by intrusive methods like this.

The sheer number of adblock users is testament to the dislike for such tactics.

As a user, I’d be happy to sign in if I decide to make a booking, but I’d rather do this when I’m ready, rather than being hounded into it.

Airbnb should rely on its reputation, UX and sheer range of properties to convert customers, rather than intrusive formats like this.

In summary

The last gripe aside, airbnb is a great site to use.

The key processes of searching, viewing and making sense of results, and finding information on rentals is as good as any site I can think of, and better than most.

Airbnb’s General Manager James McClure will be speaking at our new Shift event in London, 24-25 May.

Six tips on measurement from the IAB Programmatic Marketplace

leaning-tower-of-pisa

Not getting too complicated with metrics is just one important point covered in an IAB conference session all about attribution.

Earlier this month, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) held its annual Programmatic Marketplace in New York and here are the six key takeaways from our favourite presentation: “Cross Device Measurement and Attribution: Accuracy, Efficiency and Impact.”

1.Know your audience

According to eMarketer, 84 percent of U.S. adults use the Internet. Of that group, 81 percent do it from at least two devices.

The first thing you have to do is make sure your data collection is strong. In order to measure someone’s customer journey as they toggle devices, you first have to know who they are.

The second thing you have to do is make sure your user experience (UX) is equally strong. No matter who your customer is, you can be sure that they have no patience for slow-loading mobile pages or any of the other practices that compelled the IAB to launch its LEAN Ads Program back in October.

LEAN is an acronym for light, encrypted, ad choice supported and non-invasive. In other words, all the things your ads should be, if you want people to engage with them (and not block them).

2. …and know what you’re up against

Knowing their audience is just one challenge marketers face when it comes to attribution. There’s also the walled gardens of Google and Facebook, the fact that different consumers share the same devices, and the availability of multiple demand-side platforms (DSP), just to name a few.

Multiple DSPs means attributing them, in addition to impressions and conversions. GroupM’s strategy there involves a concept the agency calls “mega DSP,” says Nikos Tsagaroulis, director of programmatic optimizations, analytics and data at GroupM Connect.

“You basically have a centralized hub where you manage which DSP is good for which campaign and which audience,” continues Tsagaroulis. “This is where programmatic measurement is moving, as well.”

3. Don’t get too complicated

There’s no question that attribution is a complicated process. But Dan Murphy, senior vice president of audience measurement and analytics at Univision Communications, points out that it’s not the metrics that are complicated.

There are really only a handful that matter: reach, duration and frequency, for example. Marketers often confuse themselves by measuring too many things beyond those basics.

“What makes [attribution] complex is, we want to make sure it’s comparable. We also want to make sure its viewable and that its seen by a human being. We want to start introducing data to qualify the audience, so all these things make it complex,” says Murphy. “It’s like a sausage; how many people really want to know what’s in the sausage? But it tastes good.”

Duration is particularly important to Tsagaroulis, who recommends factoring exposure time into DSP algorithms.

“What that means is, there is a set of placements or a set of audiences or a combination of the two that has been proven – always in real time – to have high exposure time,” he says. “Through linkages provided, you can say those are definitely joined to drive high conversion rates and ROI.”

4. Find a measurement balance

“Always in real time” was an important distinction in Tsaragoulis’ point. Today’s technology allows marketer to understand the impact of their campaigns as they happen.

For example, you may have noticed that over the past few months, ClickZ has been less newsy, with more of a “best practices” focus. That decision was based on our Google Analytics, which let us know the kinds of posts that resonate most with our readers. For March, our most read so far teach you about executing Facebook ads and collecting data.

The benefit of real-time is that if you wait six months to measure something, by the time you’re ready to act, everything has changed anyway. But at the same time, it’s important not to get too deep in real time. Measuring on a minute-by-minute basis results in way too much noise.

5. Involve creative

Data and creative are often separate entities, but they shouldn’t have to be. In fact, they shouldn’t be. Dynamic creative – ads that change depending on who’s being targeted – is growing in popularity. Google even incorporated the practice into its Web Designer in November, following some very successful tests with a 580 increase in click-through rate (CTR) and a 75 percent drop in cost-per-click (CPC).

“On the fly, machines are getting smarter and smarter,” says Tsagaroulis. “You are basically reconstructing pieces of content that you have already, but now you’re tailoring it to the location, the audience, the weather.”

rosie-jetsons

The rise of dynamic creative means that data dictates your creative. But it also makes it more measurable at the same time.

6. Road less traveled

Tsagaroulis recommends doing as much testing as possible because “everything is changing as we speak.” Murphy adds that it’s important to not to employ a tactic just because you’re comfortable with it.

For example, Last-click attribution is a fairly traditional method of analytics. But its star is fading, as marketers increasingly long for something more sophisticated.

“The road less traveled makes all the difference,” says Murphy. “We need to stay away from the easy short-term money when we know the short-term negative consequences.”

What is customer retention? A beginner’s guide to increasing CLV

amazon

Customer retention has often been overlooked in favour of acquisition, but it’s something no business should be ignoring.

The best strategy is to find a balance between acquisition and retention. It’s all very well acquiring new customers, but the real value is in keeping them over time.

Which brings us to…

Customer lifetime value (CLV)

This is a metric all companies should be paying attention to. In a nutshell, it’s the total worth of a customer to a company over the course of their relationship.

It isn’t always easy to measure, as customers move between channels, login under different email addresses, and so on. However, if you have a clear view of CLV then this should inform future business strategy so you can find the right balance between acquisition and retention.

The key to increasing customer lifetime value is to focus on customer retention, as a happy customer is more likely to be a loyal customer.

Customer retention: the stats

There are millions of stats on customer retention and related issues. Here’s a selection:

  • 66% of consumers say features, design and quality of product or service are the leading factor that determined brand loyalty (Support.com).
  • The top three reasons consumers switch brands: cheaper pricing (31%), rude staff (18%) and too many mistakes (16%) (Verint).
  • 71% of consumers have ended their relationship with a company due to poor customer service. (KISSMetrics)
  • The probability of selling to an existing customer is 60 – 70%. The probability of selling to a new prospect is 5-20% (Marketing Metrics)
  • On average, customer retention rates are 18% higher when employees are highly engaged in the retention program. (Thanx)
  • According to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, loyal customers are worth up to 10 times as much as their first purchase.

The benefits of customer retention

  • Improved CLV. Customers who stay longer spend more.
  • Data. If you are retaining customers, then you have data on purchase history and behaviour to inform future strategy,
  • Reviews and ratings. Loyal customers are more likely to leave positive reviews of your products or services.
  • Recommendations. Happy customers are more likely to recommend you to their friends and family.
  • A reputation for service.

Examples of retention in practice

Let’s take Amazon. I signed up for an account many years ago, and shudder to think of how much I’ve spent with them over the years.

Indeed, now that Google shows recent purchases, this is a common sight for me.

Why do I shop with Amazon again and again? Well, the stock is always competitively priced for one thing, but it’s more than that.

It’s the all round customer experience. Repeat purchases are easy on website and app, partly down to UX, partly because saved payment details means I have to expend very little effort to buy anything.

It’s also about service – things arrive quickly, they arrive when promised. It works so you trust Amazon to deliver again and again.

Then there’s customer service. You can contact Amazon quickly without waiting on the phone for hours, returns are easy, Amazon pays for returns, and doesn’t ask too many questions (though this customer was apparently banned for excessive returns).

Some companies hold on to customers simply because it’s too much hassle to leave. For example, the car insurance company which offers you the best deal is likely to increase your premium 12 months later when renewal is due, in the hope that you wont notice or won’t be bothered to take the time to find a better deal.

The same applies to energy suppliers. It’s pretty easy to find a better deal and switch online but less than 20% of customers actually do this. It’s retention through inertia.

How can I improve customer retention rates?

You need to have the basics in place – a product or service that people want, the right pricing etc.

Unless you have the kind of business model that ‘locks’ people in, or generally makes it harder to switch, like the insurance examples above or perhaps another subscription model, you have to work hard on retention.

I’ll go into some detail on exact retention methods in a future post, but customer experience is at the heart of this.

If you deliver on time, handle returns and customer questions effectively, and make repeat purchases easy, you’re halfway there.

Are rising follower numbers devaluing your social audiences?

social-media-inflation-index

If you remember the early days of social media marketing, then you’ll also remember all those talks where you’d be told that if you could just harness 1% of Facebook’s total audience, you’d have a huge number of potential customers.

In the end, it didn’t quite work out like that, but as user numbers have grown, you’d think that the law of averages would provide you with some new followers along the way.

And according to new research from Trackmaven, that is broadly true. More platforms and more active users (hello millennials) means more brand followers. But (there’s always a but) just how valuable are those new followers?

It’s a complicated question that largely depends on your business. In some cases impressions are enough to support a business model, but I’d wager that in most cases you’d rather have followers who… you know… actually cared about what you had to say.

So some of us are at least attempting to grow better audiences, but for brands a failure hit (and surpass) industry benchmarks could mean that while their audience is getting bigger, the average value of each follower is depreciating.

Let’s take a look at the numbers:

Based on 12 month analysis of 26,965 brands[/caption]

First of all, it’s worth noting sluggish performance by the more established platforms. On Facebook in particular once brands realised people were only following them to get free stuff, they stopped giving it away.

Now there are fairly few reasons to follow big brands on the platform, barring the occasional event opportunity. You can also see a big dip back in March when Facebook cleaned up as many inactive and bot profiles as it could.

According to the report this period saw large brands lose the most, with Pepsi dropping a massive 1.8m fans.

Twitter is following the same path, and while we’ve talked about Twitter’s numerous difficulties which may be contributing to this, I’d assume that users are more likely to follow individuals on the platform, with brands getting a look-in for customer service.

Likewise, Pinterest appears steady but unspectacular – the Opera web browser of social media networks, suggesting it has developed a loyal audience but has passed its early high-growth stage.

LinkedIn is of interest here, because user numbers appear to have surged on the platform recently, with brands seeing roughly 3% average monthly growth rate.

However, LinkedIn’s attempts to re-position itself via its publishing functions have resulted in a storm of content which may have resulted in brand messages being buried in the torrent of ‘only genius can solve’ math problems currently cluttering my feed.

Finally Instagram. At 6-to-8% average growth month-on-month, it’s ruling the roost. In many ways this is unsurprising. Users in general have taken to image-sharing platforms with gusto, and Instagram has been working hard to attract brand partners over the last two years, with strong results.

According to Trackmaven’s figures:

Annually, brands saw 100% median follower growth on Instagram, surging from 11,000 followers on January 1, 2015 to 22,000 followers by January 1, 2016.

Overall this organic inflation is fairly constant:

Annually, the average brand grew its Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn audiences by a quarter (23%, 23%, and 24%, respectively). Brands see the smallest annual follower growth on Pinterest at 20%.

And with an extra billion people due to arrive on social networks by 2020, it’s probably time to get started on that visual social media strategy.

Are search engines ‘semantic’?

baby with sunglasses

Let’s get to the crux of the matter.

It never fails to make me smile when people misuse the term ‘semantic search’, so really… what is semantic web search?

A simple definition of semantic search

We often talk of semantic search as if it’s something new. Semantic search goes back years, even centuries. Here is a simple definition of semantic search…

Let’s take a village. Mark and Claire have a seven year old son, James, and a baby who is six months’ old and who has asthma, Olivia. Mark and Claire want to go to a dinner party next Thursday, alone. They need a babysitter. Not just any babysitter but one who will keep James away from video games after 7pm and someone who has experience minding new-born children and experience with asthma management.

If Mark and Claire were to go to a search engine they might type something like:

[babysitter no video games] or [experience of new born asthma babysitter] or a combination of them both, a semantic query, [babysitter no video games and new born asthma experience].

And we have not even got to the Thursday thing or even included location…

The engine fails to return a list of people/babysitters who are strict and know how to work video games (let’s say James puts a video game on and the babysitter needs to take the video game out or disconnect the console, in the most extreme case) but also has experience with new-born childminding with experience or a certification in infant childminding which covers asthma management.

The day an engine returns a list of babysitters that meets all of Mark and Claire’s requirements is the day we have semantic search. We are a far away off from this.

But what about Knowledge Graphs and bases, are these semantic?

Google’s Knowledge Graph, and Bing, Yahoo and Baidu’s Knowledge Bases have all been working on presenting media objects to the user using an additional SERP snippet or two.

/IMG/763/239763/schema-review-in-search-results-coffee-maker

Knowledge Graph and other engines’ bases themselves do touch on semantic search but engines first need to understand the query. This is something Google’s Hummingbird, and now with the use of Artificial Intelligence, is starting to lead the way with.

Just look at translation services, get a native speaker and you will see that search engines cannot yet properly translate queries into full, local dialect. Keeping in mind that Hummingbird was released over two and a half years ago!

What Google Hummingbird really does to queries?

Google Hummingbird attempts to examine queries, usually more than two keywords long, and first filters out which keywords are required and which are optional. There must always be one required keyword which is also the subject keyword.

Subject keywords are searched for semantically and today this is often just synonyms, a bit like an online thesaurus. For semantic search, the engine must deconstruct the whole query and reformulate it with variations, matching it with semantics, and construct sub-queries for each combination.

To do this properly engines need to add a segmented, semantic tab to their index.

Media objects, such as, webpages, images, audio clips, social media profiles, have always been connected within the current web. This is what Knowledge Graph and Bases use. Not semantics.

/IMG/391/331391/best-albums-of-2015-google-search

Knowledge Graphs and Bases are often called semantic search and media objects are often called entities. Semantic search goes further by also connecting media objects to objects themselves (e.g. people, places, organisations and events).

Modes of collecting semantic search on the web

  • Voluntarily tell the engine through Schema
  • The engine discovers this themselves by using HTML scrapers
  • The current modes, above, cause unfair coverage bias since Schema and HTML scrapers will not cover all websites. Schema is only used by those who know what it is and who can code whereas HTML scrapers will be biased towards popular websites just as most of the engines’ top ranked results are crawled more frequently than less popular websites.

    The middle man can easily be left out. This isn’t semantic web search.

    Why are engines investing in semantic-like technology?

    The internet has changed how our brains obtain and store information. We search to retrieve information rather than store it. This is why search is a popular online activity.

    Engines want to maintain happy, returning users. Otherwise they will miss out on all that paid search activity which keeps them afloat.

    Knowledge Graph and Bases simply retain the searcher for as long as possible and vastly diminishes us from visiting other websites allowing us to subconsciously feel that the engine itself is more trustworthy, which reinforces search loyalty.

    Is Google, Bing or Yahoo! a semantic search engine?

    No. They are starting to move in the right direction with their use of semantic technology, Google has been creating an entity network within images since 2006 by naming them with numeric values as supposed to text strings, but all you need to do is play around with a search translation tool to see how rusty this is.

    Or, even worse, ask the engine for a babysitter…

    Google reveals its three most important ranking signals

    We’ve already heard that RankBrain, Google’s artificial intelligence system, is the “third most important signal contributing to the result of a search query” and it seems like we may have confirmation on the top two factors as well.

    During a live Q&A from WebPromo with Andrey Lipattsev, the Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google Ireland, SEO expert Ammon Johns suggested to Lipattsev that, knowing what we know about RankBrain, it would surely be beneficial to everyone if we also knew what the other two signals were.

    And surprisingly, Andrey Lipattsev, obliges…

    “It’s content and links pointing to your site.”

    There you go.

    I think what’s most surprising about this reply is Lipattsev’s candour. It’s a straight answer with little hesitation, that has an air of “look, you know this already” about it. And to be honest, we did. It’s just nice to have the confirmation.

    Ammon Johns follows up with, “In that order?” To which Liplattsev replies, “There is no order.”

    And although we believed RankBrain to be the third most important signal, Liplattsev reveals that this position is in fact “hotly contested.”

    As Liplattsev warns himself, you should take the following with a pinch of salt…

    “If you look at a slew of search results and open up the debugger to see what has come into play to bring about these results, certain things pop-up more or less often. Certain elements of the algorithm come into play for fewer or more cases… If you do that, you may see elements of RankBrain having been involved.”

    HOWEVER!!!

    “It’s not like having three links is ‘X important’ and having five keywords is ‘Y important’, and RankBrain is some ‘Z factor’ that is also somehow important, and if you multiply it all together [you’ll understand how your page is ranked] it’s not how it works.”

    Google is trying to get better at understanding natural language and the meanings behind search queries, it’s still very early days for its machine learning algorithms.

    Lipattsev also states that although it’s difficult for Google to claim that ‘typed queries’ on mobile and desktop are subsiding voice search is certainly becoming more and more important. Google is also expecting this to bring about more stop words and mechanical language from users, because we still overthink our queries.

    Before typing a query we often ask ourselves, “What is a query that is completely non-human in nature that sounds like what the machine will understand.”

    It’s probably time we stopped doing this and let the machine learning algorithms get used to the way we actually use language.

    Ultimately Google wants to support the people who have just started using the internet, those whose first experience is probably on a mobile, who haven’t developed this unnatural approach to search in the way that we have.

    For Google, that’s the future of search.

    So at the moment, yes it’s links and content that are keeping your webpages at the top of the SERPs, but with machine learning quickly developing and figuring out the best way to serve results as relevantly and naturally as possible, surely it won’t be long before intent is everything.

    Check out the full one-hour long video below. It’s a fascinating watch and also features Rand Fishkin from Moz, Eric Enge from Stone Temple Consulting and Bill Slawski from Go Fish. The key information regarding ranking signals is at the 30 minute mark…

    Can artificial intelligence save social?

    past

    There has been a lot of talk in the recent past about the ‘demise of Twitter’. Will the platform continue in the future, or will it slide slowly into irrelevancy?

    It’s a complicated question, but not one without precedent. One only has to look at the fortunes of MySpace to realise that no social platform is too big to fail.

    I have always believed one of the key issues is that new users find Twitter confusing. Onboarding is a struggle because in an attempt to drive new connections and higher ad revenue, the company focuses on ‘mainstream’ content.

    TV shows, large sporting events, huge movie or music releases. While these are undeniably important talking points, this approach plunges a user into a torrent of content with no means to easily separate solid commentary from noise (Chris Lake commented extensively on this in his excellent post earlier this year).

    Unable to find depth, new users become disenchanted with the experience and leave, while advertisers are encouraged to push towards ever-wider audiences, reducing relevancy and response (But increasing the coffers of the ad platforms themselves, at least in the short term).

    This issue isn’t unique to Twitter. Noise is on the increase across every platform, as businesses attempt to adopt publishing models, and ad-based businesses fail to evolve past ‘put more pop-ups on everything’ thinking.

    As Doug Kessler put it in his excellent presentation, the internet is in danger of drowning in a torrent of ‘crap content’. I genuinely believe that in the near future, we’ll all be looking at hiring full-time ‘accelerators’ who take charge of lighting a fire under our content distribution.

    If we’re all accelerating though, how do we help our audiences cut through that huge wave of distribution and get to the stuff that really matters to them?

    Where are we and how did we get here?

    In the nascent days of social media (And here I’m talking about the fully-formed, Facebook-and-Twitter-and-LinkedIn platforms, rather than obscure Arpanet forums) sharing was easy and multifaceted.

    Users shared content and links, but also thoughts and events. Each user had a certain amount of reach, so that reach was a transferable commodity.

    User A shared something with user B. User B shared this with User C, who in turn followed user A, and recommended user B, and everyone’s reach and authority increased incrementally, depending on the quality of their output and the time they dedicated to their network. Your ability to become an influencer was regulated by the knowledge you were able to share.

    In this climate, being an expert (or at least being able to give the impression you were one) was valuable. Knowledge = recognition = reach. This model allows ideas to travel freely around various networks.

    As this model propagated however, something new happened. Eager for content, publishers began both producing their own content, and also curating the knowledge and content of others.

    Because of their ability to invest in push media, certain sources became ‘Important’. They became influencers in their own right. And because of this, information introduced to the network could not spread easily unless it was verified by these influencers

    This does not mean that influencers are a bad thing, they are fundamental in building the tribal groups of the internet, and having influence in a sector is always of worth, but it also encourages bias.

    The more your sources converge around the same pieces of knowledge, the less room there is for disruptive or dissenting voices and ideas. We see this every day in broadcast media, and while there is room to drive great good, it’s often a divisive force.

    This isn’t a new phenomenon either. Jim A. Kuypers talks extensively about proximity creating bias in journalism in his book Partisan Journalism: A History of Media Bias in the United States.

    Essentially, journalists who bunk together tend to develop similar narratives because they are all exchanging notes. The same thing occurs in social networks. When noise reaches saturation point, ideas cannot rise based on merit, only on endorsement.

    This leaves us with a new, and interesting state of affairs. The source is no longer the primary influencer. We have a radical abundance of knowledge. I’m sure you’ve all heard stats about the rising levels of data creation.

    Since 2013, we’ve pumped out more data than during the entire history of the human race, but it’s currently sitting in silos and servers, unread and unusable. If we want to distribute ideas effectively, we need an adaptable, systematic network.

    issue

    This means that new platforms that rely on gimmicks are not the solution. Character limits, or lack of ads, or even privacy are not the fundamental reasons people share things. They share because they find something to be emotionally affecting.

    But once they have seen this too many times, that emotional effect is negated, and they lose interest. New ideas are critical to sharing.

    How do we change this?

    This is where things get really interesting. Last year I attended a talk by Kevin Ashton, who spoke about the future of connectivity in cities, and Milton Keynes’ “MKSsmart” project in particular.

    Cities have always generated a lot of noise. Radio and TV, traffic and phones. But smart cities harness a new layer of information, generated from sensors, phones and wearables that are tied in with existing infrastructure to allow the city to adapt to the needs of the ‘user’.

    You do not need to listen out for a traffic report when you can watch each and every car as it clusters at red lights. Rather than avoid this traffic, drivers can be automatically rerouted through traffic signals and satnavs, or alerted when parking spaces become available. These are small changes that have massive effects on traffic jams and therefore fuel usage.

    There are plenty of working examples of this, from complete, advanced projects like Masdar City project in Abu Dabi, or Japan’s Tsukuba Science City, designed to utilise technology in every surface, to the retrofitting of Glasgow and Bristol with sensor clusters designed to automate simple tasks (If you are interested in this, then I suggest you check out this marvelous post by Matt Jones,which looks at these themes in far more depth).

    Tsukuba_Center_&_Mt.Tsukuba01

    This project also offers us a nice analogy. The social networks of the future need to monitor their own traffic flows more efficiently, and allow new ideas and information to be onboarded and distributed more effectively. We already have speed, but we lack efficiency in distribution.

    Marketing automation may be a precursor to this, with dynamic content and messaging delivered in response to user actions, but there is far more to be done.

    Again using it purely as an example, Twitter has always been mooted as a ‘Town Hall’. Everyone comes together and discusses a topic. But in reality town halls are not permanently open, and the discussions they hold are moderated around single topics and debate.

    Twitter’s town hall is now too open to be effective. Too much noise and too much content has the same consequences everywhere.

    Now let’s look at Reddit. Where thousands of tightly moderated communities exist alongside one another. Users are free to hop into other communities, as long as they aren’t trying to talk about London in a New York subreddit.

    The one thing missing from this is a method of discovering not only those new communities, but the specific content within them, as it is required. Better search functions can help (Possibly alongside the ability to switch from content based on what your network is sharing, to content that is being shared by curated sources outside that network), but we need a dynamic medium.

    We must be able to write to platforms actively as well as consume the content they offer passively. We need the platform as a platform.

    Social network providers have a ridiculous amount of data on users. Six or seven years of browsing and clicking and retweeting and sharing habits should be more than enough for Twitter to map conversations to me directly, and serve them up as I am discussing something. But currently we rely on targeting that uses primitive identifiers like bio keywords.

    solution

    Instead, we should be thinking about utilising people directly as system architecture, monitoring and matching advertisers ever more closely to target audiences, with publishers acting as roving ‘town halls’, adding ideas to discussions as and when they are needed.

    There is so much more to say on this, and I think much of it ties into the rise of various post-capitalist economic models. While the Blockchain might not accomplish it, it does posit some interesting new ideas on the nature of ‘value’ which will become more important.

    I often think that social media acts as an outlier of things to come. The move towards content and then intent marketing have both begun there, but this is a much bigger issue.

    AI is beginning to offer some hope, and may yet prove to be the saviour of online publishers (And you should definitely check out the recent ClickZ podcast on this, because it’s going to be increasingly important in the next year), but until platforms themselves start integrating this technology efficiently then we’re going to have a rocky ride.

    I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers (or even all of the questions), but it feels to me that if we can capture and connect community content using deep learning machines, then social will have a real future, rather than becoming a digital echo of older broadcast models.

    What is Digital Leadership?

    Tron_172Pyxurz

    I have a difficult task.

    In order to promote our upcoming two-day digital marketing event called Shift, taking place in London on 24 – 25 May, I have to define what it means to be a digital leader.

    Why ‘difficult’? Well if you’ve noticed our own editorial shift over the past 6 months on SEW and ClickZ, then you’ll be aware what a dislike we’ve taken towards buzzwords. It’s the digital marketing industry, there are a lot of them about. But confetti-like usage of jargon doesn’t help anybody.

    The main focus of Shift 2016 is to help you become a ‘digital leader’. However this is a hugely wide-ranging term that can mean a vast array of things. And as we all know, the more general a term is, the more open to interpretation it is, and the more chance someone will flower it up with unnecessary language. Just check out the Wikipedia definition of ‘single customer view’.

    So here I am, about to answer the question ‘what is Digital Leadership?’ as clearly and succinctly as possible without sounding like… well… the Wikipedia definition of ‘single customer view’…

    What is Digital Leadership?

    To be a digital leader you need to not only excel at every discipline touched by digital within your organisation but also set an example to other organisations and individuals who are struggling with digital transformation themselves.

    You’re all okay with what ‘digital transformation’ means right? Because if not, we’re screwed.

    Digital transformation

    Digital transformation ultimately means putting the customer as the sole focus of all your organisation’s actions.

    You already know that digital has opened up this amazing and occasionally intimidating ability to measure, track and market to customers in a way that we’ve never achieved reliably before. So if a company has digitally transformed it means it can react relevantly, in the moment to the ‘right person’.

    And by the ‘right person’ I mean ‘the person most likely to give a crap about what you’re selling’.

    Only a truly digitally transformed company will be able to do that, because it has the skills, tools and processes in place to find that right person.

    And of course digital transformation isn’t just about the tools you buy for your company or the analytics packages you install, which you stare at blankly from time to time, without really knowing how they can help. Digital transformation is about the culture and the people at the heart of your company.

    There needs to be full understanding of exactly what digital can do for the entire organisation and its customers, and this can only come about through education and training. The whole team needs to be on board, right from the upper echelons of the C-suite to your intern that started a week ago.

    And this is where Digital Leadership comes in…

    Sidenote: do you know how difficult it is to visualise ‘digital leadership’ without using cheesy stock photography or those aliens from Toy Story? Very!

    Who are the digital leaders?

    Digital leaders can be the people within your own organisation. The ones who are driving major change and who can prove with stone-cold data that digital transformation not only benefits the company, but will provide amazing customer experiences and create loyalty and yes… revenue.

    A digital leader can be anyone, at any pay grade… CEO, office manager, CTO, editor, the IT person… it doesn’t matter. If that person can make a difference to your organisation with ideas that can improve the culture of your team and the interactions your customers have with your brand, then they’re a digital leader.

    If you’re a digital leader you’re also open, honest and transparent. As an example, I just used three words that describe the exact same thing. I need to work on that because you probably tuned-out halfway through the second word. Sorry.

    But seriously, every process, every channel, every decision made, every screw-up, every win, should be open to everybody. Every team should work with each other, not fenced off in its own little clique.

    Every employee should feel comfortable to bring any ideas they have to the table. Every one needs to be brave and yet be confident they’re supported by the rest of the team.

    Digital Leadership doesn’t only have to come from within. A digital leader for you can be a brand, a business or a person operating on the other side of the world, in a totally different industry, who you feel inspired by.

    A true digital leader will also help those companies that are struggling with the demands of digital change.

    Heroes and villains

    As a great example of a hero, check out Gov.uk, a centralised government hub developed by the GDS that has worked incredibly hard to transform traditionally complicated services, constrained by limited accessibility and endless paperwork, into quick and easy-to-use online services.

    UK bank holidays GOV.UK

    What makes the GDS team even more heroic is the fact that every single webpage and tool it has developed to make its visitors lives easier, has been uploaded to Github so any government in the world can download them for free and provide their own visitors with the same brilliant experience.

    You hear people talk endlessly about new companies that best represent digital transformation. Uber is such a ubiquitous example that we now talk about any connection-based start-up being the Uber of something. And Uber should indeed be applauded for its success. It has put the human being using its service right at the centre of the experience and in complete control, particularly when it comes to convenience and cost.

    However with the controversies surrounding the way it treats its drivers and the graceless way it has confronted its opponents, can it really be said that it’s a digital leader?

    Next week we’re going to ask you to nominate your own digital hero and villain.

    han solo gets a kiss

    darth vader
    Then during the run-up to Shift, we’ll be engaging in a two-month long conversation about what it means to be a digital leader, and we hope you will join us in the discussions. These will take place here on SEW, at ClickZ and on our social channels.

    Those that interact the most will be rewarded for their efforts, and this will all be trackable on a leaderboard. We’ll follow up with more details next week.

    In the meantime, take a look at the line-up we have at Shift – it features speakers from BBC, Travelex, Heathrow, Vodafone and Nissan – and think about how you too can become the driver of change and ultimately a digital leader. Book your place today.

    Three recent changes to Google Shopping you need to be aware of

    expanded PLAs

    If you haven’t noticed by now, Google Shopping is taking center-stage for retailers as we move deeper into 2016 – with more traffic, more tests and more features.

    You certainly wouldn’t have missed Google removing text ads on the right-hand rail of their search engine results pages, leaving the space wide-open for even more product listing ads (PLAs).

    With this update, it’s important to understand the changes taking place made to accommodate for an increased amount of advertisers spending on Google Shopping Campaigns.

    Here are some of the latest updates you need to be aware of:

    PLAs getting more third-party traffic

    In 2014, Google announced it was partnering with a number of retail and ecommerce sites to allow them to show product listing ads on their web properties. This was dubbed ‘Adsense for Shopping’, and after some initial buzz in the paid search community — all we heard were crickets.

    Fast-forward to Merkle’s recent Digital Marketing Report and you can see huge spikes to Google’s Search Partners’ share of PLA traffic in Q3 of 2015. Sounds like the partnership is ramping up and hopefully will continue to do so into 2016.

    What it means for you: were you a retailer running Shopping Campaigns in Q3/Q4 2015? If so, check your metrics, did you notice an increase in impressions YoY attributable to this? Did CTR and CVR metrics stay stable?

    Google’s expandable and scrollable PLA tests

    In January 2016, we reported on seeing an expanded PLA view – showing up to 16 products at one time. This allowed PLAs to take up the majority of above-the-fold real estate on the SERPs – likely causing an increase in impressions and clicks – especially for retailers who don’t typically fall into the “first five”.

    Now, in March, many advertisers are starting to see ‘scrollable’ PLA results on desktop, almost like a carousel. The emulates the scrollable results seen on mobile search for PLAs.

    scrollable plas

    What it means for you: Google is always testing different formats and we can see its attention is currently on the right experience for PLAs. Do a few, quick searches for your products and see how they are showing up. Have you seen any fluctuations that might be due to a new format?

    These insights are hard to nail down since we don’t know the testing parameters or have insight into the backend data, but at least sharing the story of what’s going on behind the scenes should help explain some performance.

    Ranked PLAs for key searches

    Though it’s been in testing since 2014, a new PLA ranking system has just come out of beta. Now, when a user types in a keyword with a modifier like ‘best’ or ‘top’ they will provide a tiny grey number icon to rank the items.

    ranked plas

    Wait, isn’t that unfair? According to Google, no. The way it works is simple – on queries containing ‘best’ or ‘top’ only the top-rated products are selected to participate in the auction. Once in the auction, the products then compete against each other for ad position.

    Essentially as a user you won’t always be getting the ‘top’ product – you’ll be seeing a list of top products with the how much the advertisers are paying being taken into consideration.

    What is means for you: check out those ratings of yours and make sure your products are ranking high enough to be considered for auctions like this.

    Another thing to do is pull a search query report for your Shopping Campaigns to see how many times your products have matched to queries like ‘best’ or ‘top’. How are those terms doing for you? With strong performance, you might want to start caring about your reviews even more.

    Since these are just a few of the tests and features rolling out for Google Shopping Campaigns in 2016, please comment below with any features you’ve seen and of course, what they mean for you.

    How to use visual social media – part two: Tumblr and Snapchat

    A screenshot of the Tumblr search results for "adblock", featuring a number of blog posts sharing scripts or workarounds for blocking unwanted ads on Tumblr.

    Visual content in all its forms has become the driving trend online, as improvements in technology and bandwidth push the boundaries of what can be done with visual media.

    Nowhere is this more true than in social media, where having a good visual strategy can be key to taking advantage of marketing and promotional opportunities.

    In recent years, the popularity of visual social networks like Instagram and Snapchat has made them an increasingly important source of visibility and ad revenue, while new players entering the social media space also frequently revolve around visual content like videos, graphics and animations.

    In the last part of this article, we looked at two out of four major visual social networks, their unique features and how you can gear your social strategy towards them: the dominant titan Instagram, and the dark horse Pinterest.

    To round things off, we’re going to look at why you shouldn’t ignore the creative teen hub that is Tumblr, how you can turn Snapchat’s disappearing media to your advantage, and some general tips that you can use when planning out your visual strategy on any social network.

    Tumblr

    Tumblr often tends to be overlooked in round-ups of visual social media, but there’s no reason why it should be.

    The visually-focused blogging platform boasts a highly engaged user base, which research by Adweek has revealed is also the wealthiest amongst any of its rivals.

    Tumblr’s users tend to skew young, tech-savvy and cynical, and are quick to share ways of blocking the adverts and sponsored posts appearing on their dashboards, so a well-thought-out content marketing strategy is likely to go further than advertising.

    Some marketers may be put off by the popular image of Tumblr as an obscure, cliquey and jargon-filled hive for Millennials. While the last part of that stereotype might be true (69% of Tumblr’s users are Generation Y-ers), Tumblr is also a creative, interactive and social environment.

    Interesting, shareable and funny content goes a long way, which is why brands from McDonald’s to the White House are using Tumblr to enhance their image with young internet users.

    Being on Tumblr says something about where you want to take your brand that will pique people’s attention, and being effective on Tumblr will keep it there.

    So here are some pointers to get you started:

    Keep it short, catchy and visual

    Tumblr posts can be longer and can be based around text as well as gifs, images and videos – which we’ll get to in a moment – but for the most part you want posts that will grab users’ attention as they’re scrolling through their dashboard or browsing the main page, and make them want to share.

    Reblogs

    Speaking of sharing, reblogs are a key component of Tumblr, similar to repins on Pinterest.

    As Tumblr founder David Carp said in 2014, “90% of content on Tumblr is actually reblogged.”

    The vast majority of Tumblr blogs are elaborate pieces of curation, so if you can create good shareable content, a boost in visibility and engagement will follow quickly behind.

    This goes both ways, of course, so interact, engage with the community and find relevant pieces of content to share and repost.

    Make your tags count

    Although the first 20 tags of any Tumblr post are searchable, the first five are the most important, and will determine which posts show up if a Tumblr user is tracking that tag for updates.

    Also, Tumblr users often write little messages in their tags once the important ones are out of the way, so tag on a funny little epithet for some extra cred.

    Mix it up

    Tumblr has the flexibility of being a platform for text articles as well as images, so you can mix it up with some long-form written pieces and reports.

    IBM’s The Social Business blog is a great example of Tumblr’s text capabilities used effectively. Tumblr can support all kinds of embeds as well, so splash out with data visualisations, infographics, videos and of course, gifs.

    Snapchat

    Snapchat is a bit of an outlier among the four platforms listed here. It’s also one of the newest major entrants to the visual social media scene, but that hasn’t stopped it from making a huge impact as its popularity grows and more and more brands rush to take advantage of its young, mobile-obsessed userbase.

    Several key things set Snapchat apart from the other platforms we’ve looked at in this article. For one thing, it isn’t possible to connect with another The logo for the social app snapchat, which shows the outline of a white cartoon ghost, its arms slightly raised, in the middle of a yellow square with rounded edges, patterned with black dots.user on Snapchat unless you already know their handle or have them in your contacts.

    This creates an intimacy within the app as people share content with genuine friends rather than ‘followers’ or acquaintances, as Mike O’Brien points out in his article on Snapchat and ‘bestie brands’.

    Its ‘vanishing’ media might be frustrating to some brands who would rather build up a more permanent presence that customers can come back to; but it also guarantees the attention and constant engagement of users who repeatedly check the app for updates.

    And while Instagram is chiefly a mobile app and Tumblr and Pinterest are increasingly mobile-centric, Snapchat is the only one of these platforms which is mobile-only, without even the possibility of a user accessing the site via desktop.

    So if you want to take advantage of Snapchat’s audience of young, snap-happy mobile users, where should you begin?

    Think vertical

    Whether you’re shooting video for a Snapchat ad or just snapping Story updates, Snapchat users vastly prefer content that they don’t have to turn their phone to view.

    Vertical video drives a much higher engagement rate on Snapchat as it fits more naturally with the way that mobile users hold their devices; and all signs point to vertical becoming the dominant trend on mobile in general.

    Real-time updates and ‘live’ content

    Snapchat’s ephemeral style lends itself to real-time updates and ‘live’ content, such as General Electric’s collaboration with Buzz Aldrin on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.

    The astronaut took over GE’s Snapchat account to deliver an exclusive message to a transfixed audience of followers.

    A Snapchat snap of moon landing astronaut Buzz Aldrin, wearing a T-shirt which reads "Get your ass to MARS". Next to him a hand-written caption reads "Walked on the MOON" with an arrow pointing towards Buzz.

    While many would shy away from live updates on platforms like Twitter and Facebook where the resulting posts can horribly clutter up your feed, live updates on Snapchat bring all the benefits of increased attention and engagement with none of the drawbacks.

    Exclusive content

    For the same reasons, Snapchat is also an ideal platform for ‘sneak peeks’ and exclusives, as the content is there and gone, and is logistically much more difficult for users to share elsewhere, requiring people to tune in directly to your Snapchat channel if they want to catch the exclusive material.

    Fashion brands in particular have embraced this aspect of Snapchat, with Burberry running an exclusive 24-hour campaign on Snapchat, shot by photographer Mario Testino, to preview their spring/summer collection.

    Designer brand Michael Kors also used Snapchat to showcase live, behind-the-scenes content at New York Fashion week in February 2015.

    Cross-platform promotion

    Snapchat exclusive content is also the perfect opportunity for cross-platform promotion, using your other social media channels to build the anticipation while directing your followers over to Snapchat to catch the big moment.

    Having a buzz on other platforms around your Snapchat-only content also creates a sense of mystery that will compel people to check it out.

    This worked well for Audi in 2014, when it partnered with The Onion to create a series of hilarious captioned images to be broadcast on Snapchat during the Superbowl, which kept viewers chuckling the whole way through.

    Audi’s snapchat campaign is honestly my favorite part of #SB48 so far

    — Denton Baird (@DentonBaird) February 3, 2014

    If you have snapchat and you haven’t added @Audi, you’re doing it wrong. #SuperbowlSnaps

    — Lauren Kortbein (@laurenkortbein) February 3, 2014

    People think I am laughing at commercials in hotel bar. Actually @audi on @snapchat is the best part of this game.

    — Kye Strance (@KyeStrance) February 3, 2014

    Approaching visual social media

    Having a list of dedicated tips for specific platforms is useful of course, but what about those times when you want to plan your approach to a new platform that’s visually based, or want to improve your strategy for incorporating visual media on channels like Facebook and Twitter?

    Here are some go-to tips for approaching visual social media that you can apply across the board.

    Always keep mobile in mind

    More and more internet users are accessing content primarily through a mobile device, so make sure that your content looks as good on mobile as you would want it to on desktop.

    This can be anything from shooting for a vertical screen to just making sure that the information around your visuals appears how you want it to.

    For example, pin descriptions on Pinterest for mobile are shorter than on desktop, which could result in some important information being cut off.

    Don’t be afraid to throw in a GIF!

    This is the internet, after all, and a well-placed GIF is almost always a good idea. Platforms are increasingly catering towards this – for example, Twitter recently added a dedicated GIF button to let tweeters search for the perfect animation to express their feelings.

    Cat skateboard

    On Tumblr, meanwhile, GIFs have been the currency of the realm since time began.

    Adding in a GIF can quickly add some personality or a bit of humour to a social media update, as well as making it more eye-catching.

    You can also make your own to show off a product or feature, as Samsung did for the Galaxy S6:

    The ridiculously good-looking #GalaxyS6. #BlueTopazpic.twitter.com/cpu2qcYZv6

    — Samsung Mobile (@SamsungMobile) March 10, 2015

    Think about the visuals that match your brand

    Even if you don’t have a product or business that lends itself easily to visuals, there is a huge array of options for creating visual content based around your brand.

    Think about your brand ethos and what best represents it visually.

    Take Red Bull for example: it would be pretty boring if all of their visual media showed pictures of drinks cans. But Red Bull has expertly built a brand image around daredevilry and adrenaline-pumping activities, so its social media channels are full of dramatic photographs and videos of death-defying stunts.

    To use another example from the drinks industry, Indian mango drink Frooti uses its Instagram account to post brightly-coloured graphics and stop-motion animations featuring mangoes and mango drinks.

    The overall effect is fun, original and memorable (and makes you really want a mango).

    An instagram image of a large mango next to a bottle of Frooti mango drink, with a green straw feeding from the mango directly into the bottle of juice. The mango and drink are flanked by palm trees and set against a bright purple sky, standing on a bright orange floor. Little stop motion figures are climbing over the two objects or ranged around them on the ground.

    Look out for free tools

    If you don’t have the resources to allocate to paying a graphics designer or animation team to create dedicated visuals, or if you just want to create a couple of one-off images, there are some great free tools out there for creating professional-looking images and graphics.

    Piktochart is an infographics maker that’s amazingly easy to use, and Plotly is great for creating all sorts of charts and data visualisations.

    Pinstamatic is a flexible tool that allows you to create a variety of slick-looking graphics, from ‘sticky notes’ to quotations, photo captions and calendar dates if you want to highlight an important event or day coming up.

    They’re designed to be Pinned on Pinterest, but you can easily save them for use elsewhere.

    Typographically illustrated quotations are popular on platforms like Pinterest and Instagram, and are a simple yet effective type of visual content.

    Don’t take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to visual media

    All platforms have their individual quirks, and you can achieve the best effect by playing to those, like Instagram’s square format or Snapchat’s immediacy.

    As Liz Nixon said in our piece on thinking vertically in the age of mobile video, “Visual elements that artfully play into the functionality of the platform will always perform best.” It might be more time-consuming, but it will pay off thoroughly in the long run.

    Think about how to draw your reader into the content

    Content should be not just visual but interactive. Challenge them to find something in an image, or put together clues to win a prize.

    Fashion retailer Ted Baker used Instagram’s filters to truly ingenious effect with a competition which encouraged people to ‘regram’ a specially designed picture using different filters.

    ted baker

    The image would reveal different clues depending on which filter was applied, leading to a solution to the riddle.

    The campaign deftly played into Instagram’s unique features and encouraged people to interact with the brand, all while promoting its product.