1-800-Flowers CEO Chris McCann At NRF: Voice Is The UI Of The Future

There is a “fifth way of change” in technology that is transforming retail discovery and shopping, Chris McCann, president and CEO of 1-800-Flowers, told the audience at the NRF Big Show this week.

The change he referred to is the role of Connected Intelligence and voice activation and digital assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Okay Google in spurring what he calls “conversational marketing,” And for 1-800-Flowers, it represents coming full circle.

In terms of outlining the path to voice search and conversational marketing, McCann pointed to three periods that have spanned 1-800-Flowers’ retail existence since it opened its first outlet in 1976: first there was the retail store, followed by the use of telephone delivery to bypass walking into a brick-and-mortar location.

The third wave was the web, and McCann touted 1-800-Flowers as opening one of the first e-commerce features on AOL in the 1990s.

The fourth wave of retail change is represented by the impact of mobile and social media and 1-800-Flowers reacted to that by being one of the first brands to launch artificial intelligence-powered bots on Facebook Messenger that allowed customers to transact through that heavily mobile social channel.

“As we all know, the customer is always in charge,” McCann said from the podium. “And it’s the customers who are leading us into these new technologies. It’s not us looking at the technology and saying, ‘We need to get involved in it.’”

1-800-Flowers’ AI-powered concierge.

Retail Tech’s Tipping Point

1-800-Flowers could also lay claim to be one of the first store brands to launch a voice-based application on Amazon’s Alexa platform. The idea was to get involved early and learn right along with its customers, McCann said, noting that company was fortunate that Amazon chose to feature 1-800-Flowers in one of its commercials promoting the Echo and Alexa.

“I think we’re at a tipping point, as technology companies like IBM, Google, Apple, and others that are developing these capabilities at ground breaking speeds,” McCann said. “And so it’s wise, based on the culture of our company. Why, back in 2016, we saw this world emerging and though it’s time to get involved as early as we possibly can.

“When we launched our bot, we were one of the first companies who were launching fully transactional bots in Facebook Messenger platform,” he said. “And why did we do that? Because they have over a billion active Messenger users. That’s where the consumer is choosing to spend time. They’re not necessarily coming to our website. They want to transact with us in Messenger. And we were fortunate that Mark Zuckerberg featured us in his F8 Conference that year, when they really announced Facebook’s personalized time bots.”

Two weeks after that, 1-800-Flowers debuted its own AI-powered concierge built on IBM’s Watson capabilities called “GWYN” (“Great acronym,” McCann said, saying it stands for “Gifts When You Need.”) Alexa is there to help with the top of the customer experience, such as helping to choosing the right product, for the right customer, for the right occasion, for the right time.”

Speeding Tickets Are Better Than Parking Tickets

In explaining 1-800-Flowers’ approach and philosophy about new technologies, McCann emphasized that mistakes do happen, but that it’s better to fail fast rather than move cautiously, since other brands will surpass you.

“We’re feeling the pressure to go even faster and faster, because I think mass adoption of these conversational commerce technologies is happening at a speed much faster than anything else we saw,” he said. “We think that mass adoption of these capabilities is happening in a span of about 18 months, so to stay in sync with our consumers we urge the people in our company, all of our team members, to get speeding tickets, not parking tickets.”

And so, with voice activation, 1-800-Flowers is back to where it started with taking telephone orders. “It all comes back to voice.”

“Our company a couple of years from now will look radically different than it does today, on how we interact and how we engage with our customers,” McCann said. “We’re leveraging AI technologies to deliver more personalized customer experience.

“We’re continuing to move the needle forward there. Voice is the UI of the future. You see studies now that show that Google’s voice recognition is at 95 percent or better on a better recognition rate. And with those technologies behind our marketing, we believe we’re in the midst of another transformation of our company.”

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Yelp’s Chad Richard On The Current State — And Near Future — Of Voice Activation

For the past several years, local digital guide Yelp has been working to move beyond being perceived as a “reviews site” to a platform that help make transactions between consumers and businesses.

For example, its Request-A-Quote feature, which lets Yelp users get the price of services before making a purchase via the guide platform, saw volume rise almost 30 percent over the past year.

Before that, Yelp expanded its restaurant services beyond its SeatMe and Yelp Now reservations tools with the purchase of former partner Nowait, a mobile platform that lets consumers virtually hold their place in line at casual dining establishments.

Yelp’s transaction business also was rounded out with last year’s $20 million purchase of location-based loyalty and retargeting platform, Turnstyle, which runs an in-store platform that then connects marketing services to consumers’ phones at 3,500 business places.

In a conversation at November’s Yext’s Onward 2017 conference with Yext President and Chief Revenue Officer Jim Steele,  Yelp COO Jed Nachman discussed  how the role of Connected Intelligence systems that power voice activated assistants and chatbots dovetails perfectly with the trajectory the 14-year-old company has taken.

“For voice and chat, you have to have the data to handle real-world interaction,” Nachman said of the company’s Yelp Knowledge, a tool that analyzes businesses’ reviews to help  understand the experience at specific locations.

To elaborate on how Yelp sees the rise of voice activation, we caught up with Chad Richard, Yelp’s SVP, Business and Corporate Development. Richard joined Yelp in 2015.

Before that, he spent six years at Apple as senior director of Worldwide Product Marketing focused on the Cupertino company’s operating systems and internet services, which included acquiring and building up the first mass market voice-enabled assistant, Siri.

GeoMarketing: What’s the state of voice activation and what does it mean for Yelp?

Chad Richard: Voice activation is a rapidly evolving paradigm of human-computer interaction that I’m pretty excited about. The utility of voice assistants and voice activation is especially high when people are on the go, and high quality local content is obviously a vital component to those mobile moments, so Yelp has a big role and opportunity here.

How does the Yelp Fusion API program reflect the influence of voice activation?

Yelp Fusion is a set of APIs and customized feeds for partners and independent developers who want to integrate Yelp content into their apps, websites, and services. Voice-activated devices and virtual assistants is a very popular Yelp Fusion use case and we’re already seeing some cool applications with our data.

How does Yelp work with other voice-activated platforms?

Yelp has partnered with Apple and been integrated into Siri since its launch in 2011. We also supply local data and content to Amazon for Alexa. So, products like Echo and Fire TV products are enabled with Yelp content. We work with Microsoft on Cortana and also collaborate with companies like Hound, both in their Hound products as well as Houndify, their platform where developers can develop their own voice activated applications that are Yelp enabled.

We work with Nuance, which has been part of the roots of all this, from the actual NLP standpoint to understand what people are actually saying. We’re also working with Samsung Voice, in coordination with Viv, a startup launched by the creators of Siri after they left Apple. Samsung bought Viv and it now powers Samsung’s personal assistant, “Bixby.”

So, even at this early stage, Yelp is virtually omnipresent in all the voice ecosystems. We’re powering voice experiences that are really great when you’re on-the-go, making queries to your smartphone, and even on your Echo when you are hanging out at home. You’re already using Yelp when talking to Bixby or Siri on your Android or iPhone.

The other place we’re seeing voice activation starting to grow is in the car. And that’s not just through Apple’s CarPlay, where you’re using Siri. It’s also native in dashboard experiences. So we’re already working with a lot of auto manufacturers via the Yelp Fusion API, and as those interfaces evolve to offer voice, Yelp will help to deliver our great local content as well.

Yelp’s always been pretty successful at getting our content integrated into car dashes, from BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, Lexus, Toyota, Honda, just to name a few automakers. Most of the auto manufacturers are working with us one way or another, either directly or through integrates like Harmon, or others selling into the auto space. In addition to finding great restaurants on-the-go, drivers can also reserve a table via Yelp Reservations so that there’s a table waiting for them when they arrive. Lastly, we’ve made it possible for drivers to “get in line” remotely at a restaurant through our acquisition of Nowait, which is now a part of Yelp Reservations.

How does Yelp serve as the bridge between brands and voice-activated devices?

When you are using voice enabled experience you want answers as opposed to a traditional search experience where you have a high tolerance for scanning various search results to find what you were really looking for. Yelp is a trusted source for high intent searches because we are able to deliver accurate information that’s highly relevant. This serves brands and businesses well by connecting them directly with the consumers via voice services.

How do you perceive the challenges for brands when it comes to using voice-activation?

One of the tough things about voice activation is for the assistant to really understand what consumers are really asking for. It means having as much content about the user as possible — such as identity, location and preferences – to having speech pattern technologies that can break down the query into specific nouns. If someone says  “Hong Kong café,” are they talking about a café in Hong Kong? Or are they talking about the Hong Kong Café down the street?

There are a million examples of how disambiguation becomes extremely important for these assistants to be smart and efficient for users.

There is the natural language processing and identity extraction side of all of this but its further complicated by the fact that these assistants are built with a broad range of data sources and therefore don’t just rely on Yelp data. We work closely with partners to help ensure they know when a question is best answered by Yelp.

How do you expect voice activation to shape marketing at the local level?

For us, voice represents an incredibly exciting human-to-computer interaction capability where local data is highly relevant. If you think about what Yelp’s been focused on for 14 years now — we’ve been connecting people with great local businesses.

But over the last few years, we have been really focused on getting transactional with it. And what’s cool about voice and Yelp’s role in this trend is the evolution from helping you find great restaurants and places to get a haircut, to actually being able to book a table or order pickup or delivery at that restaurant. Or go ahead and schedule that appointment at the hair salon. Yelp not only powers the discovery process, but it can power the purchase actions that follow.

From a marketing perspective, is the use of voice as opposed to text that different?

It’s not just about discovery with voice. Whereas text is offering a series of options for clicking, voice is about driving transactions. The consumer has this very clear intent that we can actually activate.

We’re seeing two types of voice platforms. You have voice platforms like Siri and Bixby, where you use voice to do the query, but then you get a visual response. And then you can “tap, tap, tap: book” or “tap, tap: buy.” That’s cool, but it’s also great in those moments when tapping isn’t an option – when you’re driving your car or using an Echo. You’re able to simply find — and get — that specific thing you want. And because it’s not a “tap-centric” environment, being able to conduct that transaction via voice is powerful.

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Think With Google: 5 Ways Voice Activated Assistants Are Changing Search

Voice activated speakers for the Connected Home are rapidly becoming mainstream consumer products — and those new devices are having an immediate impact on the way consumers search, Think With Google stats show.

For the 72 percent of smart speaker owners, using their voice activated assistants has become a daily routine, writes Sara Kleinberg, Group Marketing Manager, Ads Research and Insights at Google.

“Voice-activated speaker owners told us that talking to their virtual assistant—rather than having to type—helps them get things done quickly and efficiently,” Kleinberg notes. “And that means more multitasking.”

Here are the top reasons people turn to their voice-activated speakers, according to Google:

  • It allows them to more easily multitask.
  • It enables them to do things faster than other devices.
  • It empowers them to instantly get answers and information.
  • It makes their daily routine easier.

In terms of the specific implications for local businesses, the rise of voice-activated assistants have coincided with the increased importance of location management in SEO strategy — namely, that making sure that business location information is correct across platforms is key to ranking in Google’s “three-pack” of top mapped results, as is using optimal keywords.

Addressing the particulars of voice search is important in the same vein, especially considering that 76 percent of “near me” searches result in a business visit within a day. In fact,  we’ve previously reported that search volume for local places continues to grow — but explicitly stated “near me” requests are on the decline, since consumers now simply expect results that reflect their proximity.

But it’s the very essence of how people are searching via voice versus text that is most important for brands to recognize. And that’s a major reason that Google, which hasn’t typically had a major presence at CES, has one this year, Engadget notices, including a “skin” covering the outside of the CES monorail promoting the Google Assistant in addition to a booth in the event’s parking lot.

Just last week, Google said it had added more features—like Voice Match,  Broadcast and Hands-Free Calling— to the Google Assistant, which “now gives you the power to voice control more than 1,500 compatible smart home devices from over 225 brands,” a post by Rishi Chandra, VP, Product Management, Google Home, and Scott Huffman, VP, Engineering, Google Assistant, notes.

Source: Think With Google, CES 2018

Google Ups CES Presence

Even as Google remains the undisputed search leader, as Amazon Echo’s Alexa, followed by the forthcoming Apple HomePod smart speaker powered by Siri, the market is still up for grabs.

But not for long.

As GeoMarketing‘s Lauryn Chamberlain (who happens to be covering CES 2018 this week) reports, over two-thirds of consumers who currently own an Amazon Echo or Google Home plan to buy another device in the next six months — and 75 percent of Amazon Echo owners and 69 percent of Google Home owners will purchase the same brand again, according to new research from Strategy Analytics.

“This degree of loyalty may suggest that consumers are highly satisfied with the voice-activated devices they’ve chosen — or it could be simply a “recognition that the technical platforms are different and that switching would involve unwanted complexity,” Chamberlain writes. “But in either case, these findings indicate substantial consumer loyalty to one brand alone.”

Meanwhile as Google seeks to understand the changing shape of voice-fueled search, here are some of the stats that buttress previous studies that highlight the dramatic changes in the way consumers find places and products:

  • 62 percent of those who regularly use a voice-activated speaker say they’re likely to buy something through their device within the next month
  • 58 percent of smart speaker owners use it to manage weekly shopping lists
  • 44 percent voice assistant users order groceries or household items once a week
  • 52 percent of smart speaker owners would like to receive info about deals, sales, and brand promotions, while another 42 percent want to hear about upcoming events/activities featuring favorite brands

Time For A Conversation

As voice-activated assistant observers and execs have emphasized, the use of Natural Language Processing (NPL), is the most important aspect to fully connecting with consumers — something that has been fairly difficult to manage in typical product searches.

Almost 70 percent of queries to the Google Assistant are made in natural language as opposed to the “typical” keywords people type into a search box, says Kleinberg, adding that 53 percent of smart speaker owners say it feels “natural” speaking the device.

“Every industry can [add] value based on just having a conversation,” explained Dave Isbitski, Chief Evangelist for Alexa and Echo at Amazon, in a recent interview with GeoMarketing. “And while the technology that consumers are using to power nearly every aspect of their lives has indeed evolved, “it’s still almost like what’s old is new. We’re going to back to just having a conversation.”

And after decades of analyzing how word-of-mouth marketing has the greatest influence on a purchase, way beyond media and advertising channels, Google’s stat is particularly game-changing for brands: 41 percent of people who have a voice-activated speaker say “it feels just like talking to a friend or another person.”

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Voice Search Changes Everything: For Marketers, ‘Context Is Queen’ In Today’s Voice-First World

Use of voice-enabled speakers is projected to grow by 130 percent in the next year — and an estimate 50 percent of all searches will be completed via either speech or image search by 2020.

In other words, voice as a primary search interface is here. But according to Yext VP of Industry Insights Duane Forrester, too many marketers are still at square one when it comes to thinking about a voice-first strategy.

For that reason, Forrester just released an e-book titled How Voice Search Changes Everything [registration required] aimed at helping businesses understand how this technology is changing the consumer experience — and the critical steps they can take to communicate with customers and become discoverable in a voice-first world.

GeoMarketing: We’ve seen a substantial rise in the volume of voice searches over the past year — and even the past few months. Why is this trend so important for marketers? And what was the impetuous behind writing this book now? 

Well, as a self-described early adopter of technology like this, I’ve seen this “moment” a number of times: the point where we’ve found ourselves at the tipping point of general mainstream adoption of a product. Smartphones are an ideal example of that — everybody can remember and understand that adoption curve.

With our smartphones today, we now have the ability to stream music, stream video, interact in a live environment, edit documents, everything. Yet throughout all of that evolution from the [comparatively simple] smartphone of over a decade ago, the interface has remained pretty much the same. It’s always been about touching, tapping, or typing on a screen.

Of course, humans being humans, we would prefer something that is easier for us. Enter voice search. It’s been the Holy Grail for a long time; it actually started [quite a while ago] with military applications, and then it evolved over time — similar to how GPS began as a military technology and now it’s standard for everyone.

Anyway, that’s where we find ourselves today with this technology: With the major companies — Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon — investing at unprecedented levels in the voice search arena, it has progressed to the point where functional voice search is a reality. And what’s more, most people become adopters of the technology once they’ve tried it. As soon as they try it, they see how useful it is and how easy it is.

That is what brought me to thinking about this e-book. I interact with dozens of companies in any given week, but in having these conversations [with them] around voice search, in most instances, the conversations are not, “Here’s what we are doing to activate that voice search.” The conversation is more, “uh, yeah, that’s something we should really look into.”

A lot of businesses are still at the very [early stages] of trying to understand what is voice activation and search, how does it work, and how do I play in that field. There just became a natural conversation upon which to build this piece of content and put it out there.

Michelle Robbins at Search Engine Land wrote about your stance on the shift from a “content is king” to “context is queen” world. What do search marketers need to know about the importance of context in today’s marketing landscape?

For about the last four to five years, there has been a really big push in the SEO world around content. Prior to that, you did have a subset of SEOs who were always stressing this — but then, eventually, the search engines actually came out with a statement, “Content matters because that what people are looking for.”

But working in this industry for a long time, I was fortunate enough to be able to understand that content is a sign post on the road. The road is still going somewhere; we’re not there yet. What I mean is, if [a brand basically says], “Hey, I’m going to stand next to this sign. It says, ‘content.’ I feel like I’ve reached the destination,” and they don’t explore where the road continues to go ahead of them, they’re missing an opportunity. That other opportunity is context.

We’ve seen that shift starting to happen, but the adoption of mobile and the advent of voice search have really forced context into the spotlight. It’s so incredibly important. If I’m sitting at home, and I ask my device for information about a restaurant in downtown LA, I’m doing research. That’s very clearly what I’m doing; I’m 50 miles away from the location. I’m not likely to walk in there. There’s nothing immediate about my voice query related to that restaurant. That’s the context of me in my home.

This notion of context, then, flips over completely when my device can tell that I am in my automobile, and I’m driving in the direction of the location, and I ask about it. Now, it understands, “Oh, do you want directions to that location from where you are? This is the best route. I can make reservations for you.” All of these things now have a different context, compared to when I’m sitting in my living room.

We can see, in the very near future, a deepening of this context idea, where the systems will be able to understand things about me — like if I go to Starbucks in the morning five days a week. Then, on Saturday morning, I’m out running errands, and the system will see that I’m running errands because it’s all in my calendar. During all of that, it can actually bring forward the notion that, “Hey, you know what? You haven’t been to Starbucks today. Maybe you want to go to Starbucks.” It can ask me if I want to open the app, pre-order something, and so on.

This is the next kind of generation of contextual alignment. And this is really hard, because it’s not as simple as keyword research in the world of voice search. We’re talking about incredibly long-tail queries. Almost all of them are unique instances; how I would ask for something versus how you would ask for something may be substantially different — even if we are technically asking for the same concrete thing. That is not an easy thing for computers to crack, but that’s the point that we’re at today.

How can brands start thinking about positioning themselves such that an intelligent assistant or voice assistant might recommend them as the best option to users making voice queries?

For example, is it about framing their content such that it’s written in a way that actually answers users’ questions? Is it just making sure that all their business information is really consistent? What are the tips that we can extract here?

Yes and yes — it’s all of that and so much more.

Here’s the reality: You have to think about the customer’s journey. That is the foundation for all of this, right? This is a relatively straightforward thing to do: I mean, all of us are consumers ourselves. So take a look at your own actions during a customer journey. Whether you’re going to get groceries, or you’re going to buy a new Xbox, take a look at the discreet steps you go through as an individual.

To purchase an object, for example, there may be four or five distinct steps that you take. So now you know as a search marketer that there are at least four or five stages this person has to go through. So, then, how do you position your business? How do you create content that actually intercepts those people at each one of those points in that conversation — because you don’t know exactly when you’re going to show up in a search, but you do know that at some point, the person is going to ask for the help or directions, right?

Voice search is very much about “ask a question, get an answer.” It’s not just about, “Let’s go do some keyword research and focus on keywords now.” This has expanded into the concept of topics: If I am purchasing a new Xbox, what else might I be purchasing? I might be purchasing HDMI cable. I might be purchasing an extra controller. I may want games. I’m probably going to want a subscription online. So there are at least four other discreet elements there that are directly related to the purchase someone is making that, as a marketer, I need to be talking about [in my content.]

It’s very important to understand that there are discreet questions, and you need to have answers for them. There does come a point, though, where it gets to be too much. But that’s up to the marketer to determine. Right now, we don’t have reliable tools and systems out there that give us all of this conversational data broken out — that is still difficult to come by.

But you have to adopt that long-tail, conversational phrase approach to targeting what to produce content around. You do need to build the detailed answers. You have to think about this in terms of the common and uncommon questions that are related to your product and services. Let’s use an example: If a person buys a “red widget,” inevitably, they’re going to need a widget polishing cloth, and you sell a widget polishing cloth. Well, that means you have to talk about red widgets. That’s an easy win for you.

Along with that, two other points: Make sure you clean up your own house. That means making sure your website is completely crawlable, it’s fully indexable, that everything is there and logically laid out. Manage your internal link structure properly. If you make it difficult for people to find content that’s related to something you do, or you have broken links, the engines won’t send people to that poor site. They will shift to something else they feel is a better user experience. So secondly, that means making sure of [simple] things like that you are mobile friendly and responsive. In fact, if you are not mobile friendly today, you’re just fighting a losing battle at this point.

That’s just table stakes today. 

Yes. Actually, I’m going to take it even a level lower than table stakes: Think of the little sign on the front door of a restaurant that says, “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” If you’re showing up and you’re not mobile friendly, you’ve got no shoes. You’re not even getting into the building to play the game of poker at that point — period.

Read How Voice Search Changes Everything here.

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Speaking To Search Engines: How Marketers Can Drive Better Results In The Intelligent Future

With search engines shifting from delivering blue links on a page to structured answers and knowledge cards, a quickly growing number of searches result in a user never visiting a web page at all — and this means major changes for marketers who may have dedicated the majority of their time to writing website copy.

If the most important audience isn’t a group of people but search engines themselves, how can marketers make sure that their business is providing the right information when customers need it most? At a panel moderated by GeoMarketing‘s Lauryn Chamberlain at Yext’s ONWARD conference, SEO experts discussed this topic — offering tips to marketers on “how to speak search engine” in the intelligent future.

Below, an edited and condensed version of the panel discussion.

GeoMarketing: Let’s start by talking about the knowledge graph. How can marketers work to make sure their business is represented there — and how is the knowledge graph different from featured snippets?

Adam Edwards, head of SEO, US, Reprise: When we talk about featured snippets or featured answers, the best content wins. This really has little to do with structured data; it is controlled by Google programmatically, and it [simply] pulls for the content that answers the search query. If you are structuring your content in a way that conversationally makes sense [on your site], Google is going to serve that to the user as the best answer.

When we talk about the knowledge graph, that is completely structured data driven.  So we [need] to mark that out: We can mark up our logos, we can mark the hours, we can mark up the site.

And Google has evolved this considerably over just the last year: Now we can actually go in and respond to customer questions directly from the knowledge graph. That’s fantastic — especially if you’re a local business — to be able to have that evolution in the knowledge panel, which is a way for you to push offers out and to respond in real time to actual questions from your customers.

Casey Markee, founder, Media Wyse: [It’s important to note] that feedback is very important on featured answers; Google does make mistakes with featured snippets all the time. For example, about three months ago, if you typed in “who owned the New York Jets?” the featured answer was “Tom Brady.”

That was just one of the funniest examples. But in the event that they do get them wrong, definitely avail yourself of the feedback option.

How do you manage your search marketing such that you’re reaching people who already know what they want — e.g. searching “new Camry” and seeing the knowledge card with prices and configurations — versus those who are making a more general search? Are there “search commandments” today, or does it vary?

Casey Markee: When we talk about search commandments, when we talk about qualifying for position zero, when we talk about marketing to the machine… we have to [talk about] JSON-LD schema. It’s a beautiful language, and it’s very easy to learn. Google loves it, and they’ve updated basically every bit of documentation they have online around structured data to say that JSON-LD is a recommended standard so you should be using that.

Google is never going to come out and say, “Hey, you should do this.” But when they say, “This is our recommended standard,” you tend to want to use that.

Also in regards to the knowledge graph, if you go in and look at the help pages from Google, they’ll tell you how to mark that adequately. Just type “knowledge graph” into Google and look at help pages; I’m always shocked at how many SEOs have never visited those pages. Google tells you what they want you to do, and it’s just a matter of you implementing those examples and filling out that material as much as possible.

Brendan King, CEO, Vendasta: To me, it’s really important that everything is marked up so that Google understands it [and so it addresses] what consumers are looking for.

[But] to me, the real challenge is to get [business owners] to understand that they need to get that structured data there, and then you can use all kinds of of tools to make sure it’s marked up correctly — and then after that you still have to find a way to close the loop. What good is the data if it doesn’t actually result in a conversion where [that business] gets some money?

Casey Markee: Right. And I don’t know if I’d use the word “commandment,” but one of the biggest things that I try to instill into my clients is recognizing that we need to get everyone on the same page. Not everyone needs to know everything about the different schema, but they need to know that this is important.

We can’t talk about the future of intelligent search without touching on the role of voice: 20 percent of searches in the Google app are now by voice, and humans are intuitively built to talk and listen. How is voice transforming search, and, as an extension of that, what role do intelligent assistants like Amazon Alexa now play in how brands need to interact?

Casey Markee: You could almost look at voice search as a no user interface — it’s literally like a blank slate. What I mean is, you don’t even see the screen, and so as marketers, we have to predict what people are going to ask with literally very little feedback and you have to invest in that.

It’s not just about having mark up; it’s about having content that will actually answer these questions that users are asking. I’m sure in the future there will be some artificial intelligence solutions, but right now, answering someone’s question is going to come down to just understanding what people could ask.

Adam Edwards: This is also kind of why schema continues to be important: There is going to be a new schema introduced next year that is currently pending right now. It’s called speakable, and it’s specifically optimized around marking up conversational content. So, the idea is that it will allow everyone  to actually pull out snippets and just mark those up with structured data — so that it’s easier for voice assistants to pull that information programmatically from the page in as clean and easy a way as possible.

Brendan King: Yeah, they call it voice “assistance” because it isn’t really just search anymore. It’s interesting the uses that these devices see, and it [brings about] a whole change in your behavior. At my house, the people that use it most are my grandkids — and they’re turning the lights off, playing music, et cetera. [There are ] just so many use cases here.

It really is the future, and the only way that it works is with that structured data.

Adam Edwards: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s now table stakes to have that data out there.

Brendan King: If people hear or see an ad, they expect that they can go immediately look for that business. If they don’t find that business right away, they’re going to find a competitor.

So I like to say the best place to hide a dead body is on the second page of the Google search results, because nobody goes there.

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Hilton’s Melissa Walner: To Rank In Voice Search Results, Craft Content That Answers Specific Questions

As search has evolved to provide structured answers to users’ queries, businesses of all stripes are faced with rethinking their SEO strategy in order to rank in these results — especially as an increasing number of searches are made by voice and don’t result in a customer visiting a webpage at all.

But the more physical locations a brand has, the more daunting this task can seem.

“We have over 5000 hotels, so consistency is a challenge with that many locations,” said Melissa Walner, director of global SEO at Hilton, explaining the difficulty of maintaining both listing accuracy and SEO best practices. “Education is important: we have to communicate what corporate is trying to do for them on a daily basis.”

Following a panel entitled “What It Means To Rank Today” at Yext’s ONWARD conference last week, Walner talked to GeoMarketing about managing SEO for diverse franchise locations — and what marketers need to know about the future of search.

GeoMarketing: You mentioned the difficulty of coordinating SEO practices in a franchise model. How do you manage search strategies — and online-to-offline marketing in general — from a national-to-local property perspective? How do you stay consistent?

Governance is important in general: It’s just making sure that the brand itself has a key brand standard in place [at the corporate level.] I hate to say rules and regulations because nobody relishes that aspect, but there does need to be some level of that in place — just to make sure that everybody knows what they need to be doing, what they’re allowed to do from the top down.

General SEO training and education is another big piece of it. But governance for sure is the big thing.

What’s your top priority at Hilton right now when it comes to search?

I would say structured data. Because, like I said, we know that when you have that in place with the rich snippets, your click-through rate is much higher. It’s a little bit challenging, but structured data is critically important, especially in today’s day and age.

I [would also say] that map consistency is a quick win and an easy win — just making sure all of your locations are correct and consistent.

Additionally, everybody has been talking about the HTTPS changeover, so that’s a big priority for us as well — and really anybody.

The things like that are a little bit more challenging to execute around a site that has over 500,000 pages — versus somebody who just has 10 on a website. We’re working through those types of challenges behind the scenes, but I would say making sure you’ve got the SSL certificates in place is key.

Hilton tends to attract customers who plan their vacations ahead of time rather than the last-minute road trip traveler — although you said you do get a smaller number of day-of bookings.  How does this affect your SEO and/or search advertising? How do you make sure that you reach the person in the planning phase — particularly on mobile? 

Well, for the long range guest, think about a large resort where most of the business is probably going to be leisure, travel, maybe some business. It’s important to make sure that you have content on your website that is there for  those micro-moments that matter — and that it speaks to the [kinds of activities] they’re looking for.

In this “dreaming phase,” if customer wants to find a place that is pet-friendly, for example, you have to make sure that you’ve got content on your website that is speaking to that. You can’t just be a pet-friendly hotel; you have to say it [clearly and] explicitly.

For the shorter term hotel guest — someone who is just driving by — local search is critical. You want to make sure that you’re showing up on the map. That means having correct listing information, because that person is probably doing a “hotel near me” search — and very likely doing a voice search if they’re driving and on their mobile phone.

What’s the most important “future of search” trend for you? Is it voice, as you just mentioned? Or something else? 

It is; voice is definitely significant.

What I see as a challenge for some people is making sure that they have the content on their website that is answering the questions that customers are actually looking for.

This means making sure you know exactly what your customers are searching for: Looking at different types of search query data is very helpful. A lot of times, people will think they know what their customer is looking for, but then you find out later on — especially when it comes to using voice search — that they didn’t know the intent [behind the query.]

This is the key: Knowing what your customers are looking for, knowing the intent behind it, and then making sure you’ve got content on your site that specifically addresses and answers that.

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Consumers Are Ready To Tell Their Voice-Controlled Devices What They Want For The Holidays

Nearly half (44 percent) of consumers are reportedly ‘somewhat’ or ‘very likely’ to make a product purchase through a voice-controlled device in the next year — and the crunch of the holiday shopping season could mark a decisive turning point in this type of voice commerce, according to research from Walker Sands’ Future Of Retail 2017 Holiday Report.

Shoppers aren’t going to purchase every gift on their list via voice. But as the volume of voice-based searches overall continues to skyrocket, it makes sense that consumer familiarity with the technology — not to mention the relative cognitive ease of voice over tap or swipe — will lead to an increase in consumers looking to avoid store lines by simply saying, “Alexa, order X.”

Voice Assistants Become ‘Essential’

Walker Sands’ research bears out much of what NPR found in its recent examination of the role of voice-activation and consumers’ media usage: Consumers increasingly rely on voice assistants to power the way they discover, interact with — and yes, make purchases from — the world around them.

As we reported last month, roughly 65 percent of people who own an Amazon Echo or Google Home can’t imagine to going back to the days before they had a smart speaker, and 42 percent of that group say the voice-activated devices have quickly become “essential” to their lives, NPR’s research said.

“This is another [means] of search functionality, only this time done through voice,” Pandora’s Keri Degroote told GeoMarketing at the time. “Users are already turning to smart speakers and voice assistants to talk, search, entertain, shop, etc in moments where they may have used a screen in the past. [And] data from a follow up study on the Pandora Soundboard suggests that Voice Assistants are going to be key referral sources for a whole range of consumer needs.”

In other words, the number of customers willing to make a purchase directly through a voice assistant without ever visiting a website is climbing — but one of the most important shifts for marketers is the even greater number of shoppers who will use the devices as what Degroote called a “referral source.”

As we’ve written previously, this means marketers need to think about the many new paths customers are taking to find a product or gift to purchase in the first place; more and more often, this is happening through a voice search or a voice command.

“Brands need to be aware of messaging to consumers on Smart Speakers, or any Connected Home device for that matter (Smart TVs, Fridges, Games Consoles),” Degroote concluded. That includes preparing their underlying data layer for consumption by these intelligent assistants, as well as thinking about the growing role of speech-based ads as part of the “audio renaissance” — this holiday season and beyond.

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Geo 101: What Marketers Need To Know About Micro-Moments

From geo-targeting to voice search, technology is opening up a world of possibilities for marketers. But it’s also complicated, as new capabilities and use cases seem to emerge every day.

With the goal of breaking down some of the most important concepts to provide a better understanding of the basics — and a jumping off point for exploring how far the power of location may take us — we introduce the next installment of our GeoMarketing 101 series: what marketers need to know about the evolution of micro-moments.

What Are Micro-Moments?

Google first used the term “micro-moments” in 2015, as a means to describe the way mobile has created the consumer expectation for immediately being able to find — and get — what they want within instants after registering their interest online.

Essentially, the idea is that customers have always experienced moments where they want to “know, go, do, or buy” something, as Google puts is. But the smartphone allows users to solve for those wants while on-the-go, and nearly immediately. As such, it’s critical for brands to be present during these (often location-specific) “micro-moments” when wants are registered and decisions are made: After all, 76 percent of location-related searches result in a same-day business visit.

But the way that customers search for and find information during these “micro-moments” has evolved over the two years since the term was coined.

“Consumers have become more empowered than ever to get what they want, when they want it,” ThinkWithGoogle put it in a recent report. “Waiting has become a thing of the past. That translates into today’s pervasive micro-moment behavior — immediately turning to a device to know, go, do, and buy. To capitalize on that behavior and win over consumers, marketers have been forced to rewrite the rule book. [They’ve] had to double down on addressing the needs of consumers in the moment, committing to being there and being useful each and every time… In short, marketers have had to start being a lot more assistive.”

Successful Micro-Moments Marketing

In order to reach customers on their personal devices at the right moment, there are a few trends that marketers today should be aware of to start:

  • “Near Me” is now implied: In the early days of “micro-moments,” customers used the phrase “near me” en masse — and this was an indicator that they were looking for something to do our buy in the real world in real time. Today, Google’s research suggests that customers expect their search results to be “near them” by design: As search results have evolved pursuant to customers’ real-time, “near me” desires, they’ve become increasingly mapped to the physical world: For example, Google’s mapped “three-pack” of results appears at the top of search results. Additionally, if a consumer searches for “new car,” they don’t simply see links — they see the knowledge card, with prices, configurations, features of cars for sale, and more, all seamlessly. As we wrote earlier this year, Google now assumes people are looking for something in the physical world, which wasn’t the case several years ago. All of this appears to have rendered the “near me” search irrelevant — even as people expect more location-specific, targeted content than ever.
  • Search isn’t just text — it’s voice, too20 percent of searches within the Google app are by voice, and the volume of voice searches is growing across the board — particularly those facilitated by intelligent assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri. In this year’s 2016 Internet Trends report, venture capitalist analyst Mary Meeker cited Google Trends statistics that keywords associated with “voice-related commands” have risen 35x since 2008, when Apple and Google first unveiled their respective speech-activated controls, and continue to climb. Essentially, customers are searching by voice during “micro-moments,” too — and that trend is likely to continue.

Brands are taking these changes seriously, prepping their underlying data layer for consumption by voice-activated intelligent assistants as well as thinking about how the voice/audio renaissance impacts what resonates with consumers during micro-moments.

For example, Pandora is taking a cue from shorter video ads currently being offered by YouTube, Facebook, Fox Networks, with a similar version for audio ads in order to help better capture mobile consumers on-the-go and drive sharper creative. As we wrote earlier this month, following tests of the shorter format that showed lifts in ad recall with pest control service Orkin and jobs site ZipRecruiter, Subway is planning to use the Pandora 10- and 30-second audio ads in the next few weeks. This shorter ad length reportedly prompted greater recall and action amongst younger demos.

Essentially, brands of all stripes will need to think about the future of search in order to remain discoverable during crucial micro-moments — as well as to create compelling mobile content that communicates relevant information quickly enough to match consumers’ desires and ability for recall.

Read more about micro-moments marketing:

How ‘Micro-Moments’ Changed The Marketing Game For Booking.com, CVS

Macy’s Turns Toward Omnichannel, With Special Attention For ‘Micro-Moments’

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Voice-Activated Intelligent Assistants Are Already Influencing Holiday Shopping

While the temperature is still in the 80s across most of the U.S., it’s not too early for retailers to think about the holiday season: Over a third of customers will start their shopping for the December holidays in October or earlier — and voice-activated intelligent assistants are already influencing consumers’ gift choices as a search tool, according to a new report from eMarketer.

As students head back to school and shoppers turn their attention to the fall and winter holidays, several trends from last year will hold true: Customers will start research early; they will look to their mobile and connected devices for guidance throughout the shopping journey both in-store and out; and retail sales — both physical and ecommerce — will grow. The key shift is in how customers looking for gifts are making their searches — and what kind of digital options they expect from the retailers they will patronize.

What does this mean for marketers?  Well, “consumers expect variable fulfillment options,” eMarketer‘s report states. “Half now buy online and pick up in-store.”

As such, implementing in-store pickup programs should be of great importance to retailers as they begin now to prepare for the holiday season. Several have seen the writing on the wall: Target, for its part, offers in-store pickup and also recently rolled out same-day delivery in advance of the holiday sales push.

Secondly, as voice-searches continue to surge — especially those made via voice-activated intelligent assistants — they will continue to impact the way that customers discover and choose products across the board. This is a trend for retailers to be mindful of now, considering that eMarketer reports that the technology is already assisting users with searches related to the holiday season.

“The way to participate [here] is for a business to develop a ‘skill,’” said Bing Ads’s Purna Virji in a panel discussion on the topic last month. “To use a travel example, if Expedia had a skill that it creates for Cortana, I could talk to Cortana to book me a flight. I could say, ‘I’m going to Boston next week, can you get me a hotel?’” This works for retailers as well.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, brands can begin the process of listing or correcting their digital location information, products/offerings, and more such voice-activated assistants may see them as the best option to recommend when a consumer makes a branded or unbranded search.

As J. Walter Thompson’s Elizabeth Cherin explained in a conversation with GeoMarketing at Cannes Lions this year, “This idea of algorithm optimization [is] like the new SEO: Brands [need to get their] underlying data layer ready for consumption by these devices.”

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What Do People Use Smart Speakers For?

Roughly 65 percent of people who own an Amazon Echo or Google Home can’t imagine to going back to the days before they had a smart speaker, and 42 percent of that group say the voice-activated devices have quickly become “essential” to their lives.

Still, it’s the earliest of “early days” for this Connected Intelligence technology, as a mere 7 percent of the population actually has a smart speaker in their home, a report by Edison Research commissioned by NPR suggests.

Given that smart speakers and the connected home are only starting to reach mainstream interest — and Apple’s first speaker, Homepod, isn’t even due to hit the market until December following its June preview —  it’s not surprising that just 7 percent of U.S. adults own one.

NPR’s Smart Audio Report was based upon a national online survey of 1,620 Americans ages 18 or over, including 15 in-home interviews in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Allentown, PA.

About 800 respondents indicated that they owned at least one Smart Speaker (160 Google Home, 709 Amazon Alexa-enabled, and 69 who owned both.) 820 respondents did not own a Smart Speaker device, and were “surveyed for comparative purposes.”

Amazon Prime Time

While Amazon Echo’s dominance of the space is no surprise, NPR’s report puts it in a bit more context: 82 percent of the smart speaker owners subscribe to Amazon Prime, the e-commerce’s giant’s discounted sales and shipping membership program; 44 percent of those surveyed who don’t own a smart speaker subscribe to Prime, indicating that Amazon Echo has plenty of room to go grow — as do its rivals.

It’s remarkable to gauge the speed with which voice-activation, although it’s been around popularly through Apple’s iOS assistant Siri debuted on the iPhone in 2011, Still, it’s one thing going from using Siri to open an app on a device, to using a digital assistant to book restaurant or hotel reservations.

In 2017, 35.6 million Americans will use a voice-activated assistant device at least once a month for sudden rise of 128.9 percent over last year, says eMarketer.

At the moment, Amazon’s Echo device has a huge lead with a 70.6 percent of users in that space. Google Home, which only launched last October, will have to catch up as it has just 23.8 percent of the market.

Earlier this summer, a Raymond James survey of 500 consumers found that 14 percent of iPhone owners are interested in buying Apple’s Homepod. To put that into perspective, three years ago, when the Apple Watch was first announced, iPhone owners’ purchase intention of that product was only 6 percent.

Source: NPR and Edison Research

What Are Smart Speakers Used For?

In looking at over two dozen use cases, just 13 percent of smart speaker owners use their smart speakers to find a local business, according to an NPR survey.

Again, considering the relatively small penetration, and Amazon’s particular push to use Echo and its voice assistant Alexa to push products through Amazon Prime, that low number is not a surprise. As consumers get used to the idea of using their smart speakers to connect them with places in the physical world, that number will rise quickly.

 

While most of the people surveyed said they used their smart speakers to play music (68 percent) or check the weather (58 percent), most of the uses offer additional points of connection for brands.

For example, the calendar and appointments use case (23 percent) might allow OpenTable to make better restaurant suggestions through its existing Alexa skill.

“As these platforms where people are actually spending their time adapt, and allow you to stay within the platform more and more, that, to me, is [the future],” Birchbox CEO Katia Beauchamp recently told GeoMarketing‘s Lauryn Chamberlain.

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