Thursday, October 16, 2008

If we can believe the numbers, change is accelerating

This article was first published in Marketing magazine.

This is the one hundredth column I’ve written for Marketing. 100 is an important number in western culture – we follow the FTSE 100, the Billboard 100, we review after the first 100 days and we can never forget Haircut 100.

So this week I’m going to look at some of the numbers that tell us a little about how digital has taken our world by storm. The Web is 6555 days old today, counting from when Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau submitted their WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a Hypertext Project – the first use of the WWW term, and even for someone like me who lives and breathes this stuff, some of the figures are staggering.

Then, the internet was a purely text-based environment. But Berners-Lee and Cailliau’s idea of marrying it with hypertext caused a revolution. And despite British Telecom’s failed attempt to enforce a patent in 2002 on hyperlinks, the web has become perhaps the single biggest force for change since the invention of walking.

Every possible permutation of 3 character .com domains has been registered. The BBC has 43 different translations of its website, Facebook has 63.

Worldwide, 74 billion searches are made each month, and the size of the index held by search engines continues to grow apace. In 2001, searching for "search engine optimisation” threw up 12,300 results in Google. That number today is 77.8 million – an increase of 632,420%.

The average monthly number of searches per searcher in the UK is 124 - the same as the average number of cups of tea per Briton per month. And although those results are delivered in the blink of an eye, so far this year according to, users have spent 24 trillion hours waiting for web pages to download.

Perhaps it was worth the wait. In the US, 1 of every 8 couples getting married last year met over the internet.

Proof though that the internet is not immune from external fiscal factors came with the creation of President Bush’s economic stimulus plan, which involved sending cheques of up to $1200 to taxpayers. It was widely reported as having created a 30% boost in internet pornography revenues, which currently run at $3075 per second (or 0.18% of global GDP).

30% of internet users have made a purchase (and possibly had their identity stolen) from spam emails. A recent study also showed that less than one in one million spam emails actually lead to sale – which explains why there are so many of them.

After years stuck in your computer, mobile is becoming a serious force in digital. The number of text messages sent and received every day exceeds the world’s population, and A SIM-free mobile phone sells on eBay every 17 seconds – part of the 1.3 billion handsets that are expected to be sold this year.

Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns describes the exponential growth of change in technological progress. He believes Moore’s Law (the processing power available for a dollar doubles every two years) can be applied to our broader experience of technology. Let’s consider; agriculture appeared 12,000 years ago. The first cities appeared 6,000 years ago, printing 532 years ago, TV 80 years ago, the internet 18 years ago.

If he’s right, half the change we’ve experienced since the internet started occurred in the last two years, and the next 18 years will see 362 years’ worth of change.

So our power to predict the future, to plan our businesses and understand our consumers, is increasingly threatened by this acceleration. And the voices that say they now understand digital are the most dangerous of all, because if they understood it yesterday, things are different today.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Queen takes Buckingham Palace online

This article was first published in marketing magazine.

The good folk of Google UK are steam cleaning the red carpet and practising their curtseys ahead of a visit by royal neighbours, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, this week.

According to Buckingham Palace “the Queen has always kept up to date with the latest technology” although when conferring an honorary knighthood on Bill Gates two years ago, Her Royal Highness let on that she hadn’t yet used a computer.

This hasn’t stopped the house of Windsor’s technological advances though. Last year she became Google’s first royal client, launching her YouTube channel, whose production team she will be meeting when she visits.

Viewers can see videos of this year’s blackcurrant harvest at Sandringham, and catch up on Swan Upping news (fascinating interview with the Queen’s Swan Marker), whilst revisiting old favorites like the 1957 Christmas Broadcast (a million views so far).

Remarkably – if you’re a bit bah-humbug about this sort of thing – it’s pretty popular stuff. The channel exceeded the US President’s White House channel’s daily viewing figures, with nearly 400,000 people visiting it in its first two days, and it continues to trounce Queen Rania of Jordan’s channel with more than twice as many subscribers.

To date the Royal Channel has notched up over 22,000 subscribers, making it the 18th most popular on YouTube, and joining an array of other new media ventures from what HRH calls ‘the firm’, including a podcast of the Christmas Broadcast, a website and an ecommerce venture selling tickets online for visits to royal residences and galleries.

Odd though it might seem for an operation that surrounds itself with people who dress in 19th century outfits, the Royal Family are no strangers to technology. Back in 1980, Prince Philip was at the centre of one of the earliest hacking controversies, when his email account was accessed by two journalists.

So how much of her time does the Queen really spend online? What would a peek at her digital media diary look like?

It is reported that the Queen mastered emailing in the last couple of years and now has a Blackberry so that she can keep in contact with the family while on the move. The Duke of York, the most tech savvy of her heirs, also suggested that her senior aides be equipped with Blackberrys too. And William bought her an iPod two years ago, on which she reportedly stores the Last Night of the Proms.

Last year’s Christmas message was uploaded onto You Tube almost 50 years to the day that her message was broadcast for the first time on TV. Perhaps presciently, the theme of the 1957 speech was technology: “I very much hope that this new medium will make my Christmas message more personal and direct”.

So whilst many would have thought the Queen more silver salver than silver surfer, there’s no doubting The Firm’s determination to reach out using whatever tools come to hand.

The death of deference, particularly in the mainstream media, means the royals share a common objective with politicians, companies and celebrities, to get a message across to the public without editorial interference.

It’s hardly the stream of consciousness ramblings that we’re used to from the blogosphere, but professionally-produced content albeit with a slightly homemade feel. Video captions look like they were produced at home, but there’s a clear strategy here. Show the royals in action – visiting troops, supporting community development, helping charities.

No video footage of junior ranks falling out of Mahiki here – it’s all hard-working nobles, designed to build confidence in the monarchy as a solid, practical and valuable part of UK plc.

Google are used to visits from CEOs who don’t get digital but are keen for the association. But as Googlers stand by their beanbags to show the Queen around, they’ll be welcoming a business that’s seized the web with both hands.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Affiliates at Christmas

This article was first published in marketing magazine.

Last week, I wrote about how marketers can prepare their search activity for Christmas. Whilst search campaigns for the holiday season have been in planning for some time now, there’s still a lot that can be achieved in the short time that’s left before the slimming season takes over.

So assuming that search is all sorted now, this week we’re going to look at affiliate marketing. Unlike search, there aren’t many different strategies needed at Christmas – rather it’s the intensity of competition that demands merchants up their game.

Weakness on the high street is leading more retailers to focus effort and investment on their internet plays, and this fourth quarter is likely to see some of the most intense rivalry yet, as merchants compete for customers’ hard-earned cash.

I’m going to look at three actions that are specific to the season, and at elements of good practice that simply become more important as competition peaks.

First, content affiliates – who run websites with content designed to draw in traffic mostly sourced from natural search. Most will be optimising their sites for Christmas right now so those merchants that can provide them with copy, product ideas and creative in good time will stand more chance of being featured prominently.

Secondly, some affiliates specialise in Christmas – creating sites and search campaigns aimed directly at consumers looking for seasonal goods. Your existing year-round affiliate relationships may not include these outlets, and it’s useful to review coverage at this time of year to ensure you’re represented here.

These specialists look to get their sites up and running three months in advance of the season’s peak in order to maximise coverage within the search engines’ natural listings. But many will still be finalising sites over the next couple of weeks – so there’s still time to get materials out to them.

As ever with affiliate marketing this is about effective communication. The offer to affiliates itself is one thing, but building a direct relationship with affiliate partners stimulates lower churn and better prominence, as well as useful intelligence about what affiliates are looking for to drive their businesses.

You wouldn’t manage a sales force through email alone, and affiliates are no different. They have their own goals, marketplace dynamics and challenges to their businesses – a dialogue with them not only enables them to work more effectively on your behalf, it enables you to shape your offer around what they need – keeping you ahead of the competition.

Third, as with search, if you can capture data and good practice around seasonal activity, this becomes a vital resource for future campaigns. Key actions can be recorded and used to build a process which can be applied repeatedly, benefiting from the ongoing accumulation of experience.

And you won’t have to wait until Christmas to apply it. Half term, Valentine’s Day, financial year end, Easter – all present seasonal opportunities which affiliates cluster around, and all therefore present an opportunity to dust off your model on a regular basis.

Affiliate marketing is a burgeoning sector which is becoming increasingly complex as it grows in value as a route to market. The competitive peak around Christmas will test merchants’ capabilities in managing this channel, and a good performance here will provide solid experience for the year.

Affiliate marketing was a £3 billion market in 2007, and it’s still growing fast as consumers increasingly turn to the web for purchases in the tightening economy. Christmas 2008 will be the biggest yet – and there’s little time left to grab a piece of the action.