Looking back on 2017 at a glance

Last year was a great one for high-impact industry headlines. A year when even my parents saw articles about digital advertising, started asking questions around DSPs and SSPs and (finally, begrudgingly after 10 years) acknowledged that I didn’t work in IT.

January – as per usual – saw the annual and reassuring figures about the continued rise of digital ad spend and how, despite some background rumblings about this growth slowing, we have fundamentally all picked the right industry to work in for the time being. Happy days.

Yet this was soon washed away with a number of bombshells. Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer at Proctor & Gamble, highlighted one of the most endemic issues within the industry. His call for far greater transparency was as hard-hitting as it was necessary. By the end of October this campaign had earned him Marketing Week’s Marketer of the Year.

Hot on the heels of this came an even more ground-shaking story from The Times, reporting that ad revenues were supporting all manner of undesirable groups. The lack of accountability or even visible willingness to address this issue from the largest players in the market was the real story though. A full 10 months later and unfortunately a similar issue has arisen again in a story that has already rolled into 2018.

Elsewhere we saw an ad entity fully enter the market. While Amazon advertising – in its many guises – is nothing new, 2017 was the year that they truly threw their hat into the ring as the company to maybe – finally – break the ad duopoly of Google and Facebook of recent years. This isn’t a slight on Google or Facebook, they lead our industry for good reason, rather Amazon offered something new and diverse on a media plan.

What else came onto the radar in 2017 that we will witness manifest fully in 2017? Voice search grew and grew and demonstrated a changing approach to users accessing data. Image search functionality further confirmed that search itself is about to go through another paradigm shift not dissimilar to the rise of mobile usage of recent years. Fundamentally, people have started searching differently.

The digital industry was also witness to some structural changes, as we saw the accelerated and continued encroachment of consultancy bodies into the advertising space: Accenture Interactive, Deloitte Digital and PwC Digital Services all continued to acquire agencies and senior digital talent in 2017. Again, we would expect the activity of 2017 to resonate within the industry during 2018 as the emergent digital consultancy arms and the established entities feel around one another to find where they can bring value to their clients – as well as protect their traditional interests.

So a busy year for our industry and one that set us up for a truly exciting 2018. But which areas do I feel will have the greatest impact? How can advertisers make the most of these?

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

OK so let us get this one out of the way first.

As of May 25th all advertisers operating within the EU (i.e. serving ads to or handling data of EU citizens, including the UK even after Brexit) will be subject to new legislation as part of the General Data Protection Regulation. For advertisers, this will manifest itself in several ways. As businesses, and away from advertising, they will need to ensure that they are collecting and handling consumer data in accordance with the new legislation. They also need to allow consumers to readily access and – if they so wish – amend the data the company has stored about them.

However, the more challenging side of the equation is indeed for digital advertising and this mainly focuses on the concept of consent. Collection of data directly from websites, be it browsing behaviour, CRM or dropping cookies on users’ browsers, will also need to change and be highlighted to users. Users will need to give “explicit” consent to share their data. The existing Cookie Law is only soft consent, users will see a pop up to notify them the site uses cookies. Users can ignore, accept, decline. While this law will stay in place, for GDPR users will need to make a positive or explicit action to demonstrate their willingness to share personal data.

So will advertisers – or third party data sources – have to completely refresh their data sets with users who have consented? Not necessarily for first party data collection, providing the user data was originally captured in a way that complies with the new rules. There are still many grey areas to GDPR and one of them is how third-party data sources and ad tech will be able to continue to offer their services. When consumers explicitly consent to allow a recognised company or publisher to store personal data – be it Google, Facebook or Amazon – there is a clear value exchange for this. You want us to deliver your package tomorrow? Here’s the data we want to collect. You’d like to continue using our platforms freely as you have done in the past? We’ll need you to allow us to capture some personal data. But what will happen when, as is prevalent today, an unknown third-party is also gathering user data to help create audiences for profiling? This is where GDPR could have the greatest impact on our industry.

While the finer points of GDPR are still being ironed out, we are making several recommendations to clients to ensure they are as ready as they can be.

Firstly, ensure you know who in your organisation is responsible for GDPR and data protection in general. Establish processes, areas of ownership and priorities. Work with them to create a supplier review form to distribute externally. Make sure digital marketing is flagged as an area of potentially high vulnerability.

Next, map out your usage of user data across your digital marketing. What data are you collecting yourself – and the collection of which you can therefore directly impact and rectify if necessary once GDPR comes in – and which is sourced from external parties? Which of your digital marketing functionality is vulnerable in the short term? By knowing in advance which areas may no longer be totally viable, you can start planning around any limitations or gaps.

Finally, start thinking about your own value exchange. What are users getting by allowing you to capture their personal data? Why would they do this? Solve this equation and you will be well set to enrich your own first party data while staying fully GDPR compliant.

Changing Role of Mobile

Speaking at a recent mobile roundtable, ROAST were asked “should all media plans now contain a line item for mobile”. As true media specialists would expect our answer was a resounding “no”. However, this was not as we perceive the value of mobile as lesser compared to other media nor because we believe mobile visibility to be an optional extra – quite the opposite. The industry has moved on to such an extent that mobile should no longer be denigrated by simply having its own line item – it is central and fundamental to all digital activity and as such requires full integration with any branding or direct response campaigns.

Nowhere is the development of the world of mobile within the digital ad space more apparent than the change in offering from some of the leading UK agencies. Somo, as an example of an established mobile specialist, has successfully shifted its proposition away from the more mechanical and delivery-centric model of simply buying effective media in line with hitting user acquisition or awareness targets to focusing on the full cross-device experience across their clients’ entire business – be it in marketing, customer service or internal resourcing. Users now expect full multi-device compatibility and functionality across all interactions with brands and so businesses need to reflect this in everything that they do.

Mirroring this shift-change but focusing back on advertising, we are increasingly utilising mobile as the agent of measurement with our clients (as well as running “traditional” direct response acquisition). Smart phone penetration, and with it the continued rise of multi-screen behaviour, has opened up all manner of options for integration with and measurement of wider media activity. As users so habitually have their phones on them, and with this an array of options for understanding their behaviour, we as advertisers are able to leverage this to benchmark the impact other activity. While there are obviously still technical limitations (especially cookieless vs cookied environments), precise mobile web targeting in alignment with other channels – be it via smart TV, digital OOH or radio, for example – can easily create user pools who have and haven’t been exposed, allowing for split testing and future tailored media delivery.

So our recommendation for mobile in 2018 is to fully forget thinking of it as a siloed channel or responsibility – it’s still a specialist skillset in areas such as creative – and start thinking of as the mechanism that is truly user-centric.

Voice Search

We love all things voice search at ROAST. My colleague John Campbell can’t stop writing about it as it’s such a fast-moving aspect of search marketing at present, plus it offers a great opportunity for those that understand how best to utilise it.

As covered in the 2017 summary above, the growth in volume and variety of voices searches has been staggering. But what truly demonstrates the onus being placed on its importance is the competition between the likes of Google and Amazon to get their technology into users’ homes, offices and cars. The launch of the highly price-competitive Google Mini in late 2017 was a clear statement of intent from Google – as has been their desire to integrate voice capabilities with existing technologies and devices.

So why the urgent land grab in this space? Surely it isn’t purely for the revenue driven directly by sales of these devices…

What was long suspected by most of us with the rise of voice search, the end-goal of creating another medium for paid ads, was finally revealed in the first week of 2018. Amazon announced it was in discussions with several companies around Alexa Ads. I doubt Google will be far behind. 2018 therefore looks to be the year that this functionality will open new doors for advertisers.

While we await a full roll out of paid-for voice ads, there are other opportunities for us to focus on. Google’s answer boxes are nothing new, but the increase in voice search has increased the importance of ensuring your brand appears in the results of a user’s question. This is for two reasons: the fact that the style of questions asked verbally by users are different and also because on audio devices, only the top result is read back to a user.

But what does this actually mean for advertisers? The answer is found in the format of your site content. Think of someone asking a voice assistant “what is a credit score?” Google will look for content that can most succinctly answer this query, likely an explanatory paragraph or sentence. Now if the user asks “how do I improve my credit score?” the best response will likely be different – in this case a list or set of bullet point detailing the different factors that are used to calculate ones credit score. As voice search continues to rise as we move into 2018, these subtle nuances need to be reflected in the content we create for our sites.

One of the current barriers to truly harnessing the rise in voice search is the limitation of reporting: there is no pre-built functionality to see which searches spoken rather than typed. Nothing in Google Analytics and nothing in AdWords’ SQRs. Due to the lack of information on the reporting of voice search the SEO team at ROAST have developed Voice Search Ranking Reports which can track which domain and pages Google references in their voice search answer. This market-first report is the initial step to understanding who occupies the converted position which is read out by your device.

 

Image Search

Much like voice search, the arrival of image search looks to be another mechanism that will fundamentally change the way that users look for products. How can you search for something with keywords if you don’t know what it is called?

While the launch of Google Lens in mid-2017 came with somewhat limited fanfare, there was a cluster of other technology releases in the latter stages of the year. ASOS launched image search functionality within their app, allowing consumers to take a picture of a style they like and serving visibly similar products.

eBay also released an image search based functionality with Find It On eBay, allowing users to search for items against the site’s vast stock list.

While it is early days for these new technologies, and as yet, they do not offer an instant opportunity to brand without direct relationships with the retail mammoths, undoubtedly as the artificial intelligence powering the results improve and more companies release similar capabilities, the volume and value of image searches will increase.

For now, there are two clear recommendations. For ecommerce retail brands, have a review of your feed quality. In the background of the technology the AI will be matching images against predefined categories (colour, product type, gender, size, style etc.). So much like when Google’s Shopping Ads first came out, those who moved quickly to align their feeds to the requirements of this algorithm saw excellent – and incremental – revenue growth.

 

Amazon

Can Amazon surpass the existing ad tech duopoly in 2018? Their starting point, and market predictions, strongly suggest otherwise unless something truly industry-shattering happens. However, there are areas where we see them leading the pack over the next 12 months.

As discussed above, voice search is already significant and Amazon certainly has a lions’ share of “real estate” here with the prevalence of Alexa and Echo tech over competitors and has made the most publicly-visible move to monestise this new ad space.

Amazon also potentially have the best starting point as GDPR roles in. Users want their deliveries and they want access to the latest TV shows via Prime Video – as such they will far more willing to consent to Amazon’s collection of PII and other ad-driving data to receive these services. Speaking of Prime Video (and Fire TV), these are also going to grow as sellable ad space in 2018, further filling Amazons coffers.

But most importantly in my opinion (and the factor that is going to help Amazon accelerate in 2018 and beyond) is the quality of data that Amazon is accumulating. They have access to actual shopping habits, both on Amazon.com and – with the acquisition of Whole Foods in the US and the roll out of Amazon Pay – consumers’ offline behaviours as well. To put it more succinctly: Google knows what you search for; Facebook knows who you are and what you like; Amazon, however, knows what you actually buy. The power of this cannot be underestimated.

What should brands be doing to capitalize on this then? Firstly, remember that Amazon is not just suitable for retailers. The variety of their ad inventory (which the are continually expanding in a highly strategic manner) covers not just the obvious product search but also app installs, VOD and branding.

As such it is highly advised that brands and marketers become familiar with Amazon’s ever-increasing proposition. While their internal set up and naming conventions are not as advanced as their peers, the tangible benefits of trailing and testing are there to be seen.

 

Some Final Thoughts

This list of our predicted major changes for the digital ad industry could have been twice the length that it is, there are just too many potential changes afoot at the start of 2018. How will the increased scrutiny of media buying manifest itself over the coming year? Will the consultancies’ model of acquisition continue as is or spread beyond the strategic, creative and analytical categories we have seen so far? Will AI and blockchain revolutionise how we do our jobs? Will the ad tech giants continue to in-house the insight and value-add traditionally offered by agencies, a scenario made even more likely by the continued consolidation of influence within the industry?

After ten years in the industry there is something of which I am certain – I have never witnessed a period of such potentially significant change. 2018 should be an exciting year for everyone in the industry.