How to get started with Programmatic advertising: A beginners guide

You’ve probably heard of programmatic advertising. As with all new and fast-growing advertising technologies, there’s often confusion as to what exactly it involves. This is a beginner’s guide to programmatic ads, designed to give you all the basic knowledge you need to confidently talk programmatic and get started!

In 2015, 55% of all US digital display ads were bought programmatically and 52% of all non-search ad spend was programmatic. Programmatic advertising is predicted to grow faster than all other digital mediums in 2017, which is why you really need to know all about it!

What is programmatic advertising?

Programmatic advertising is essentially the buying of ad space in an automated way. It uses audience data and insights from a variety of sources, to allow advertisers to show highly relevant ads for the audience, at the right time and in the right place.

There are two main types of programmatic advertising; Programmatic Direct, and Real Time Bidding (RTB).

RTB programmatic advertising is the automated process of buying display ad space in real time, by bidding based on the target audience you wish to reach.

There are a few components used in RTB:

Ad exchange:
This is where the publisher’s inventory is sold via an auction, and bid on and bought by advertisers.

SSP (Supply side platform)
A supply side platform (often called SSP), is a system which allows publishers to access the ad exchange and list their inventory to be sold in auction.

DSP (Supply side platform)
A DSP is a demand side platform. This is system which allows advertisers (and agencies) to access the ad exchange auction and bid for ad space.

There are essentially these main steps to how RTB works:

  1. Publishers make their ad space available to the ad exchanges beforehand, via the SSP (supply side platform)
  2. Advertisers decide roughly which audiences they want to target with their ads (this could be based on their existing audience data such as existing website visitors, act-alike audiences of existing customers / site visitors, or new prospecting audiences based on interest / demographics etc)
  3. When a website user visits a web page and it loads, information about the visitor of the page (gathered via cookies) and the content of the page is gathered and reported back to the ad exchange
  4. If the website user on the site matches the targeting defined by the advertiser, the advertiser will be entered into the auction, to bid against all the other advertisers who are also bidding for this audience
  5. Whichever advertiser has the highest bid will win the ad space and their ad shows to that user on that site during that particular visit
  6. Publishers get paid for the ads they show on their sites

All of the steps above (apart from step one, two and six) are carried out in less than a second as the page loads.

Programmatic Direct

Programmatic Direct (sometimes called Programmatic Guaranteed) on the other hand, is where ad space is still purchased programmatically but is purchased in advance, based on a specific number of required impressions and audiences required.

What are the benefits of programmatic display ad buying?

The biggest benefit of programmatic advertising is that advertisers can be incredibly specific with their ads relevance to the audience, because of the amount of data available on audiences. The data and targeting is very powerful and because the process takes place in real time and is assisted by automated bidding decisions based on data, it reaches the right audience, at the right time, in the right place. This simply isn’t possible with traditional display advertising which is negotiated with publishers and bought upfront.

  • Reduced human error in the process of media buying because machines target the right consumer, at the right time, in the right place
  • There’s less hands-on work required from things like creating insertion orders etc, which means that you can focus more on strategy!
  • The reduced need for sales people also makes the entire process cheaper in most instances
  • You can target specific ad messaging to specific audiences, resulting in precise matching of ad relevant to the audience
  • The programmatic buying process does not slow down the page load time for the user, which keeps publishers happy and users happy too

According to Google, these are the top draws attracting advertisers to programmatic:

Challenges of programmatic

Brand Safety

There are always going to be some sites that you don’t want your ads showing up on. The risk with programmatic buying which is based mostly on the user rather than the content of the site, is that your ads could end up in unsavoury locations! You can use a site blacklist to stop this from happening though, where you can list specific sites you simply don’t want your ads to appear on. Generally, blacklists are used by the demand side platform. Websites often change their domains though, so it’s best to constantly update your blacklist.

Some platforms allow you to exclude entire categories of content too, in addition to specific sites. If you have the option to do this, you should use it in conjunction with your blacklist as category exclusions aren’t always exhaustive.

If your brand is super-sensitive, you can take the opposite approach, which is to whitelist and only have a set of sites your ads can be shown on. This however will limit your ability to reach your audience. This will however likely make your buy more expensive.

If you’re using an agency to run your programmatic ads, you should ask them what they are doing to exclude low quality and sensitive sites from having your ads served on them. Because low quality / sensitive category sites often provide cheaper traffic, often agencies will not use a blacklist or not be extensive with it because it can drive up the cost of the buy and make reaching your delivery KPIs more tricky.

Cookie reliance

Programmatic is reliant on cookies to track users across devices, which can mean that when it comes to tracking users across devices, it can be a challenge. This is however the case across almost all display advertising, with the exception of platforms such as Facebook where the user is logged in so can be tracked even without cookies.

Ad Fraud

Ad fraud is a big concern across display advertising in general, however, programmatic ads are viewable at a rate of 44 percent to 55 percent, which brings them in line with industry benchmarks. The industry average for suspicious activity is 16%. This means that programmatic advertising can have lower levels of ad fraud than other methods of display advertising. The machine learning techniques used in programmatic can actually even help identify fraudulent ad issues and avoid them.

URL Masking
URL masking is where a publisher lists their website in the ad exchange as another, more reputable website. This is one way publishers try to abuse the programmatic auction process.

How to get started with programmatic

There are various programmatic solutions available for advertisers, depending on your budgets and experience.

Getting started with DoubleClick:

DoubleClick Campaign Manager is Google’s DSP solution, where you can create your campaigns and targeting. Unlike AdWords, you can’t sign-up to access this directly via Google. Instead, Google have certified marketing partners who you can work with to access Double Click. There are only 12 of these partners in the UK. You can find a list of them here.

If you’re an agency, you can work with one of these partners as a reseller so they provide you with access to DoubleClick, and you can then run your client campaigns via DoubleClick accessed from them.

For the best results with DoubleClick, there are minimum spends required which can be around $5,000 per month, and can vary by country and the number of regions targeted.

The approval times can also be lengthy with DoubleClick, compared to other managed services.

If you’re familiar with AdWords, DoubleClick’s interface might be easier to navigate for you.

You can find a more detailed guide to DoubleClick here.

Other programmatic options:

If you have smaller budgets and would like more of a guided way of using programmatic, you may prefer working with platforms such as Admedo. Admedo doesn’t really have minimum spends, and have account managers to guide you through planning your campaigns. Ad approval is also much quicker which is ideal if you need a quick turn-around time.

Admedo also provide access to over 30 ad exchanges, compared to DoubleClick which is only one ad exchange.

The future of programmatic advertising

As programmatic continues to grow, we’ll start to see it more across TV buying and radio. This will take a long time to progress, as currently there are not enough of a need for TV advertising to become programmatic as the ad space always sells out anyway, so there’s no need to move to auction type sales. In the future, if TV diversifies, this may change.

As mobile phones know more and more about users interests, demographics, and their locations, we’re likely to even see outdoor advertising such as billboards become programmatic. Information about the users in the local area will be shared with ad networks, and then advertisers could bid on the ad inventory for that half-hour of the day for example.

Programmtic advertising growth shows no signs of slowing, so test it out today and see how it can benefit your biddable media mix!

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The Complete Digital Marketing Events and Conferences list 2017

In 2017 there will again be hundreds of Digital Marketing events around the globe. Where to speak? Which ones to attend? It’s a decision that you can’t make without knowing what events there are.

Like every year in the past five years, we would like to make it a bit easier for you. By publishing our annual events list. This year, it’s bigger than ever! More than 310 events in one overview! You can click through them below. If you want the overview in one sheet, that is available as well! And yes, you can even get it as an excel sheet, you can add it to your agenda or publish on your own website if you want! Just fill in the form below!

Help us spread the word about the list and tweet this:

The 2017 Events List from @stateofdigital is back. It’s bigger than ever! Over 300 events!
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Want to see the events in one overview? Look below!

Get your copy of the 2017 Events List

Would you like to have the entire events list available in Excel? Or want to add the events to your calendar or on publish it on your website? You can! Just add your details below and we’ll send all you need to you!

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Want to add your event to the list? Submit your event here.

Would you rather see the events in one overview? Sure thing! Here it is!

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How to Listen to Your Audience

There are two core groups of people you can split your business’ audience into; customers and consumers. Those who have purchased from you, and those who may purchase but are yet to. Understanding the wants and needs of these groups will strengthen your brand’s position in the market. For customers, it’s all about securing their loyalty for maximum lifetime value and inspiring them to become brand ambassadors. For consumers, by resonating with what they want, you’ll be able to convert them into customers faster and at a higher value. But – how do we really listen to these groups instead of just guessing?


When it comes to holding a conversation with your audience, the first thing that should come to mind is to simply ask them the questions you have. Direct interactions with the people who may be purchasing from you will tackle the information gap head on. You can use surveying tools such as Pollfish (great tip from Kirsty Hulse, will literally change your life) to put your questions to particular demographics and get real data from these groups. If you’re on top of the latest Google news, you’ll also know that they recently launched Google Surveys 360 as a new way to collect data on your core audience groups, at a faster pace than other tools will do currently.

Of course, if it was as simple as that, then everyone would be doing it. But surveying can be expensive, time-consuming and tricky to execute. The investment that it takes to reach a large enough survey audience for the data to be significant can be extremely large. If you’re looking to cheat your way around a survey, then you can always utilise the data stored by Yougov in their Profiles Lite tool. If you are a big enough brand then it is likely there will be audience personas built on your already, if not you can select some aspirational brands to research and combine their audience information to gain a picture of yours.

User Testing

User Testing platforms (such as enable you to directly see individuals interacting with your website and brand, gathering both written and verbal feedback from them. Through building scenarios on your site, and on competitor sites, you can test the most important interactions that people may have with your website to check how your messaging translates. Questions such as which of these three sites would you trust the most? And what do you think is the main USP of this brand? will help to gain qualitative judgements on the website, so you can understand what the audience is really thinking.

However, there is no perfect test when it comes to this method. Those testing are not real-life customers, and may not even fall into the category of consumers if they are not the suitable audience. As a result, your test groups are out of your control in terms of selection, which means that you may be asking people who are not relevant to the brand. There is also a risk that the wording in the questions and scenarios you set may create some form of bias. It’s important that they are not worded in a leading manner in order to gain the most accurate feedback.

Session Recording

In order to see your actual audience interacting with the site (if you think surveying might result in skewed answers or be too intrusive to their experience) you could also use session recording to gain insight. From a free tool such as Hotjar, up to more advanced platforms like Decibel Insight, any type of session recording can help you to see the direct interactions with your website – in a more advanced manner than Google Analytics.

As this method only passively records, a lot of the conclusions drawn from the findings will be based on assumptions. If you are collating a large number of recordings then it will be easy to find patterns in behaviour, however, the causes behind the pattern may not be clear. Correlation does not equate to causation.

testing and data collection

The Best Way to Listen

It’s clear that all of the methods above have their advantages and disadvantages. In an ideal world, directly gaining honest and genuine feedback from a brand’s audience would be the most accurate way of understanding what the audience wants. However, as we live in an imperfect world, it becomes increasingly important to find ways around this. A combination of the three research methods above will be the best way to collate data on your audience and understand them fully. Integrating these data points will help you understand that if there’s a pattern flagged in session recording, then it should be tested directly in user testing, alongside an optional survey to real life users, to truly gain insight into your audience groups.

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3 Marketing Predictions of Christmas Past That Turned Out To Be Wrong

Benjamin Franklin once famously stated:

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death, taxes and a December marketing blog featuring predictions of what’s going to be the next biggest thing in the industry next year.”

Well maybe I’ve added a little bit at the end, but it certainly is true.

A marketers job is to stay ahead of the competition, so we read these blogs hoping to get an edge on competitors by discovering brand new or upcoming tools and tactics. But how good are these blogs at predicting the industry and what’s going to work?

I’ve trawled through the old internet to find some predictions from the past that turned out to be just a little bit wrong.


1. MozBlog Predictions for 2011: Mobile Will Have a Negligible Effect on Search/SEO

The MozBlog is obviously a fantastic source of knowledge and inspiration for many digital marketers, and it is where many budding SEOs start their journey with their brilliant Beginner’s Guide to SEO (easily one of the best examples of evergreen content).

However, the following prediction from the man with the most famous moustache in marketing is unfortunately turned out to be rather wide of the mark.

“I’ll boldly predict that not only will mobile usage of search NOT skyrocket in 2011 on the long-awaited J-curve, but that the mobile and normal web browsing experiences will continue to merge toward a single experience, thus negating much of the need for mobile-specific sites and SEO.”

Now, Rand Fishkin was partly correct. 2011 was not the year of the mobile revolution (that was 2015 when mobile searches overtook desktop) and in another blog on the topic, he identified that mobile search was growing faster than traditional search.

But of course, the part on mobile-specific sites and SEO is wrong. We now know that Google are seriously focusing on mobile and mobile experiences which was clearly seen in Mobilegeddon, the introduction of AMP and the recent introduction of the Mobile Index. This is a trend which is surely going keep going into 2017.

Read more about these important aspects of mobile and SEO:

Mobile First Index and 7 Things You Need to Stop Doing Immediately

How Google Has Taken On Mobile Search

Get AMPed – What You Need To Know About Accelerated Mobile Pages

Side Note: Kudos to Rand for actually reviewing and grading his past predictions every year!


2. Entrepreneur – Web Marketing Trends for 2010: Let Blogging Rest

This is certainly an interesting one and arguably contains some half truths. For 2010 this article suggests that people need to give blogging a rest for the following reasons:

“If you’re writing a blog to help with search engine rankings or to inform existing customers, you should continue to test or invest. If you’re blogging in an attempt to attract new prospects and convert them to customers, however, 2010 will be a year that exposes the blogosphere’s vulnerability to the law of averages.”

This statement certainly caused some alarm bells to go off. Saying to only blog for SEO and to disregard attracting new prospects seems to be the opposite of what content marketing hopes to achieve. In fact blogging is a proven method of attracting new customers. This is shown in a 2015 study by Hubspot:

Image from Hubspot

Obviously it’s well known that blogging is an important element of SEO. But content always needs to be made for a user and not a search engine. SEO benefits of blogging should come from creating great optimised content for a relevant target audience with a pre-planned outreach strategy.

The prediction is very slightly redeemed with this following point:

“Instead of blogging to convert your website visitors into customers in 2010, work hard to test and develop great landing page content.”

He’s correct in one sense. Having great landing page content is an absolute must to convert visitors. But it shouldn’t looked at instead of blogging. Blogging is a great tactic to funnel visitors to these pages and attract traffic through long tail keywords, which is sometimes difficult to optimise landing pages for.

Read more about Content Marketing:

The Importance of Emotion in Content Marketing

6 Reasons You Need a Content Strategy

Customer Journey Analysis and Search Scenarios


3a. Content Marketing Institute – 42+ Social Media and Content Marketing Predictions for 2009: Twitter isn’t for Advertising

For this piece, the Content Marketing Institute gathered the thoughts of 42 digital marketers. There are a number of reasonable and well thought out predictions. Unfortunately the second prediction on the page contains this bold statement:

“Twitter is not an advertising tool.”

Below is a graph that shows the quarterly revenue of Twitter which certainly disproves that theory.

Image from Statistia

The comment is preceded by this;

“While I’m sure that some people may want to follow their favorite company, I’m seeing many of these feeds as a derivative of spam because they just prattle on about their products and services all day.”

While there is a point to be made about spammy accounts (I’ve talked about spammy social before), it turned out that people do like following company accounts and learning about offers and engaging with branded content.

Just a casual 6.7M people follow Nike

While Twitter has certainly had it’s struggles, it’s still a great organic and paid advertising tool. Like will other social channels 

3b. Content Marketing Institute – 150+ Content Marketing & Social Media Predictions for 2012: Google Plus is going to be huge.

Unfortunately for CMI the number 1 prediction of 2012 was this gem:

“Google+ will become a force in 2012. It seems many of our prognosticators think that the best is yet to come for Google’s social networking site.”

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve seen a digital marketing prediction be so wrong.

R.I.P. G+

Read More about Social Media Marketing:

10 Ways to Boost Facebook Engagement Without Ads

Is Facebook The Future of Video?

Was it Marketers That Ruined Social Media?

So we can’t predict anything?

Of course, the key word to these articles is prediction. I’m not at all trying to shame anyone for putting their neck on the line and making a well reasoned prediction in an industry that changes so frequently. Predictions shouldn’t be taken as gospel (and if there’s any year to learn that, it’s certainly 2016).

In fact, I was surprised to see a number of seriously accurate predictions in a most articles. This 2011 article from Moz predicted one of the biggest changes ever in SEO: The Penguin algorithm.

But looking back at predictions does highlight how quickly our industry has changed. A positive note is also how much it has improved. Just look at this horror show looking at SEO predictions in 2005.


The rate of change in our industry is fast so education is a key factor in keeping up to speed. So always check the date when you’re reading marketing articles. Also read articles from very reliable sites when updating your digital marketing know-how. (Afterall, 2016 is the year of post-truth and fake news).

Have you made or seen any other wayward predictions? Let me know!

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6 Distractions Which are Making your SEO Less Effective

To start off with a simple statement, SEO has gotten harder. Some will agree with me, others not – this will ultimately show when/how you got introduced to it and your own path within the industry.

Regardless of which direction you come at this, there is much to distract you from running an efficient & successful SEO campaign. You’ve got to be on your “A Game” & ensure that your time is well spent.

Below are some of the distractions which I’ve personally wrestled with the most over the years some all-important guiding thoughts to get you through it.

1. Hearsay & conjecture

I’ll start with the “fun” one here. I think no one would really have a problem if I said that I could spend at least 80% of my day-job reading about different theories & thoughts about SEO on blogs and forums.

Going out on more a limb is the assertion that over half of that time will be consuming conflicting information – and even less will provide any real help to my campaigns. This isn’t nearly as arrogant as it sounds! I don’t refuse read anything else that anyone has written on SEO (far from it), I’m just more than aware how much of a distraction this kind of content can be.

There are no shortage of case studies & experience which have shown interesting results and help change our perceptions of what works & what doesn’t. The main issue is how little of this kind of research is transferable onto other sites and projects. There may opportunity to learn from it, but don’t zig-zag between approaches because others have told you to.


What’s more, for those who agency experience, you’ll have no doubt come across the “friend who does SEO”. Their input could likely be just as valid as yours, but theirs is often a distraction that doesn’t fit into your campaign, your roadmap or wider strategy – just be careful where you let this kind of external hearsay & conjecture take you.

Be clear on what you know (possibly more clearer on what you don’t) and build a campaign which is straightforward and easy to understand.

Help clients & stakeholders to relate to what you’re doing and why, and you’ll find it much, much easier to state focused.

SEO, whilst complex to outsiders is still a simple process at a high-level. Help clients & stakeholders to relate to what you’re doing & why, and you’ll find it much, much easier to state focused and stop distractions getting in the way.

2. Poor web/development infrastructure

A robust SEO (or digital) strategy is often only as good as the platform(s) they’re built on and in my experience this can more often place larger companies at a disadvantage. Cantankerous, old & bloated websites can be the bane of any SEO’s campaign. What is often a larger issue is when the development support process is linked to this problem.


Put another way, a “legacy” CMS which is out of date means that the development team need to be fluent in “best practice” for a bad/old system – which compounds the problem dramatically. What’s more, when you enter a scenario like this it’s often symptomatic of a wider problem, why or how did things get this bad in the first place?

a “legacy” CMS which is out of date means that the development team need to be fluent in “best practice” for a bad/old system

When all is said and done issues like these are part of the campaign you have to deal with, the difference between a good SEO and a distracted one is how you’re able to work around the problem. Do you accept that the problem not fixable and get resentful at your current situation, or do you try to work around it? To pick one example, Google Tag Manager, when implemented correctly has been a real ally for frustrated SEOs who need to make changes when they’re not easily done.

3. Internal power struggles

The benefits of a well-managed SEO campaign aren’t beyond company politics, far from it. This is not a distraction related to SEO over any other kind of activity, however, I’ve seen large amounts of time & effort wasted on a project because it didn’t line up with a narrative somewhere in the organisation was creating.

What many don’t realise is that the problems that “just SEO” can solve are far-reaching and the strategic implications go beyond where many first imagine. If you are brought in to work your “magic” and then insist that the “web” strategy for the last 2 years is wrong – you’re going to cause some friction.

When you are brought in to work your “magic” and then insist that the “web” strategy for the last 2 years is wrong – you’re going to cause some friction.

Anyone working in-house for any period will feel this more acutely, but an SEO who can side-step this form of distraction has to be a better diplomat than a “guru’ if they want to see their recommendations put into place.

4. Prejudices Against SEO

I’ll keep this one short, because I’m well beyond arguing my corner here – good SEOs are worth a hell of a lot of money something that many are too quick to write-off based on bad previous experiences.

… if you ask a neighbour to fix a leak and your kitchen ends up flooding, you don’t write-off plumbers altogether

Put another way, if you ask a neighbour to fix a leak and your kitchen ends up flooding, you don’t write-off plumbers altogether do you? If you encounter this mind-set in any campaign you’re running, invest the time in breaking down any prejudice – a constant air of suspicion on your activities or motives will only sap from and undermine the campaign in the long-term.

5. SEO Tools

I love SEO Tools, I really do. But over the last few years I’ve had to really ask a few tough questions about what they actually mean for my day job and more importantly, the campaigns that I manage.

SEO Tools

Like most SEOs I have a load of “go to” options here which really make the difference, but if I’m honest nearly half the tools I’ve used in the past have been a bit of a luxury. If I put my hand on my heart I would say that too many tools out there simply invoke the “Huh, that’s interesting” response, but give little ways of really improving what it is I do.

… many tools out there simply invoke the “Huh, that’s interesting” response

This isn’t to say my thoughts on this are applicable to everyone, I’m not so naive to believe that the reason why some tools don’t provide a lot of value is because I’m not in the position to use the data or put into practice what they’re giving me. Certain tools work for certain jobs, and that’s the point – use the right tool for the right job.

The cost of tool mis-management is far-beyond the “death by monthly payments” scenario, think of the time and money you’re wasting on tools which won’t provide an ounce of extra, actionable input.

6. On-Page Technical SEO

Given my background, this one might feel a touch controversial – why on earth would I open up a large part of my job to criticism by claiming that it’s a distraction? Well I look at on page technical SEO work in two ways:

  1. The work which makes the difference
  2. The work which wastes you time

Some people may argue that the benefit of hindsight is what shows you whether you’re wasting your time or not, but I think I’ve gotten enough experience to know what a time-wasting SEO recommendation looks like.


Getting a website “100% perfect” is a goal for many, particularly those who want to go for bragging rights. Being told a handful of title tags are a few characters too long, or maybe that there are some low-quality links in your backlink profile may make some people feel insecure, but you have to be real about what this means.

Technical SEO work which makes a real difference to how Google crawls & assesses your site is essential, the work which is done because of some false sense of “best practice”, could in-fact be damaging because of the distraction in causes.

… work which is done because of some false comfort in “best practice”, could be damaging

If your site is solid, the navigation is crawlable, your main target pages have quality content and you’re not throwing up a load of errors, you’re winning the on-page battle.

Are you tweaking meta descriptions when what you really need is some high quality external links? Maybe you’re heading in the wrong direction!

So what distracts you?

Knowing what a distraction is can be tricky, if only because one person’s distraction is another’s way of working. But what burdens have you eased of by doing things differently?

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Bots – the future of search?

We know search is changing. Almost every single day, something in our world shifts. Sometimes it’s a little shift and sometimes it’s Enhanced Campaigns, Expanded Text Ads, or Penguin. There’s a big change coming – possibly the biggest we’ve ever seen. And it’s already begun.

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend the Bing Ads Next event in Redmond, WA. It was the fourth such event that they’ve hosted, where influencers from across the globe can learn about the Microsoft business, strategy and more importantly, what’s coming next in the worlds of Search.

In the Search.Next session, Gurpreet Singh Pall talked about how different Bing is now compared to its inception in 2006. It’s a lot more than a search box on a webpage. Bing is now becoming a network, an intelligence that spans the whole Microsoft ecosystem, covering Windows 10, Cortana, Office, Xbox and more.

Search has already moved to mobile, social and we are currently seeing the rise of voice-based search and personal digital assistants, like Siri and Cortana. As the way machines understand and process natural language improves, we’ll find ourselves talking more naturally to our devices, rather than writing our search queries in such a way to try and ensure we get the right answers back. Alongside this, there’s talk of how predictive search could become a part of our lives, with the right answers being surfaced as we need them, without needing to actually search. We’ve already started this journey with tools like auto-suggest – it’s just a case of iterating further.

How else can we search without searching? Through conversations.


Over three billion people use chat apps every day, including Skype, Whatsapp, Slack, Facebook Messenger and WeChat. This gives us the perfect platform for the rise of the chatbot, or bot. But what is a bot? It’s a computer programme which mimics conversation with people using artificial intelligence.

In the near future, chances are development teams will be dedicating significant resources to building agents and bots. Why are bots awesome?

  1. You can interact with it in a natural way – just as you would a person
  2. You don’t need to leave your application – you can send the message from right where you are – allowing the bot to make use of the content surrounding your request
  3. More engaging than apps – Microsoft told us that people are engaging 3-5x more with conversational bots than with apps
  4. It’s already happening – it’s estimated that by 2020, customers will manage 85% of their relationships with enterprises without interacting with a human

How could this work in practice?

Our relationships fall into different groups – broadly speaking these can be listed as 3 categories:

  1. Strong ties – the closest relationships that you’d have with your family and friends
  2. Weak ties – people you may still deal with regularly, such as colleagues or mentors to whom you don’t have ties which are as close as the above category
  3. Temporary ties – just what the sound like – be it the barista who serves your morning coffee, the assistant who helps you in a store or a customer service representative online


While it’s unlikely that bots could ever replace the relationships you have with your nearest and dearest (although having seen “Her”, who knows?) but a number of the other, more transitory relationships in our lives could potentially be fulfilled by bots. I’ve been at events where Microsoft have shown the ordering of coffee via a bot within Skype, the booking of a hotel in Vegas, or the finding and purchase of a dress.

It’s also possible that rather than having to search to find what you want, or to visit a website to interact and purchase, you could do everything you wanted without ever leaving the chat app you’re in.  They may get so good, that in the end you might not think about whether or not they’re human.


What’s needed?

So what are the key elements of this brave new world? How do we start making conversations the platform? To begin with, you need three things:


  1. Humans
  2. Bots
  3. Personal Digital Assistants

The Personal Digital Assistant is really key in this case. Taking Cortana as an example, she acts as the meta-bot that can interface with all of the other bots on your behalf. Really, she’s just the next step up from Bing, who supply us with 10 blue links as the answers to our questions – we will ask her a question and she’ll answer. What she’s also doing is helping to connect our devices together and help us improve our productivity. In future she’ll be able to do even more, such as remind us of things we’ve committed to do, without us needing to create the reminder ourselves.

In addition to this, they’ll have access to all of the vital information to enable them to act as the bot-overseer, such as payment details, addresses, dress sizes, favourite drinks, regularly ordered/required items and so on.

Where’s this already happening?

There’s already some good examples of bots live in the marketplace which can show us the potential of this technology.


Skyscanner has launched not one, but two bots on different platforms. Covering both Facebook Messenger and Skype, you can use the bots to search for flights to a specific destination, or even to tell you where you can go from the departure point of your choice. The Skype bot has also been built in such a way that it can easily be integrated into group chats to help facilitate bookings for multiple people.

One thing I really like about the bot is the way that it can make suggestions if you’re not sure about where you’d like to go.


Alternatively, it can give me suggestions for weekend breaks:


Clicking on “Route Tips” gives me all sorts of information on what sorts of prices represent value for money, what day out is cheapest to fly and which month is cheapest – versus the months when most people choose to go. This is brilliant for people like me to choose to go away in the off/shoulder season to deliberately avoid people 🙂


Once I’ve decided where I want to go and when, the bot comes back with results and prices for me to choose from, with the ability to sort results if I wish and to set a price alert.


Skyscanner haven’t stopped there – they recently announced an integration with Amazon’s Alexa service, allowing you to have voice only conversations for booking flights. The service isn’t yet available, but Skycanner explain why this sort of integration is so important to them (and it’s not just because it drives bookings, although I’m sure that helps):

Conversational integration is appearing in everything from wearables to cars to mobile apps, reinforcing that conversation and messaging are fast becoming mainstream. We expect voice products to be a major driver for this mainstream adoption

From <>

Skyscanner is always looking to offer our users fresh, innovative and engaging new ways to search for their travel . Chat bots offer something truly revolutionary by bringing travel search within the very platforms users are already interacting with on a frequent basis

From <>


Before attending the event I have to admit that I hadn’t ever really heard of WeChat. I’m not sure how widely known it is in the UK and Europe. It turns out, it’s absolutely massive in China. It has over 846 million month active users (for reference that’s more than double the number of active users on Twitter) and is probably the dominant force in social media and messaging in China.

Putting aside for a moment the concerns around censorship and how open WeChat is with its users, where the platform becomes very interesting when you start to look at “Official Accounts”, in particular at the “Service Accounts” derivation.

Service Accounts have access to APIs and can build their own “apps” within the WeChat app. Most importantly, this includes access to payments via WeChat Wallet and is part of how WeChat and parent company Tencent are fuelling massive growth in revenues (they take a cut of every payment which goes through the platform).


Within WeChat, you can do all of the following things (and more), without leaving the app:

  • Buy plane tickets
  • Buy train tickets and check timetables
  • Donate to charity
  • Book a taxi
  • Make cashless payments inside retail locations
  • Transfer money to friends
  • Split the bill at a restaurant

In theory, you can run most elements of your life via WeChat, which goes some way to explain why users spend 70 minutes a day inside the platform.


While we’re not seeing the same level of conversational interaction as Skyscanner shown within WeChat, it’s fascinating to see the rise of the app-in-app culture and how much more it’s possible to do with an API. Facebook has over 30,000 bots but doesn’t yet monetise them in the same way. It’s not inconceivable that within a short period of time we could be managing most aspects of our lives from within Facebook.

How can I get involved?

Microsoft have a number of ways to start getting involved with bot development. For those more technically-savvy than me, you can visit Microsoft’s Bot Framework, which has a directory of existing bots, a bot builder SDK that you can download plus loads of tips and resources to get you started. (Top tip, start here!)

If you’re like me and you’re not quite that technologically gifted, you can still get involved and understand how bots would work with your business thanks to the Microsoft QnA Maker. This allows you to create a repository of questions and answers from a mix of sources, such as your FAQs page, or even items that you want to specify yourself. You can combine these together via the bot and it can act as a great starting point for human interaction.

For example I built one in a few minutes to see how it could work for us at I added in the link to our FAQ page and also populated it with some of the most common questions that our Live Chat team receive, which aren’t covered by the FAQ.


You can then test drive the bot you’ve created by asking it questions and seeing how it responds. This also gives you the opportunity to “re-train” the bot in how it should answer certain questions if it isn’t quite responding how you would like. You can also provide multiple ways of phrasing questions to ensure the bot has as much knowledge as possible.


Once you’re happy with the responses from your QnA bot, you can publish it, take the Service URL it gives you and then integrate it into the platform you’d like to use. While this might be chatbots at their most simplistic, there’s still lots of potential here that could work well for many businesses as a proof of concept.

What Now?

These are just a couple of examples showing the early stages of this technology and how it can be seamlessly integrated into our lives. I believe, as do a number of influencers in the wider industry that this is only the beginning and we have a lot more yet to see from bots and how they’ll play a part in the future. There’s a very high chance that bots could be the “next big thing” in marketing. We’ve seen revolutions in social, mobile, app and more. Year of the Bot, anyone?

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How to generate buzz for your outreach campaign

Over the past month, I’ve been working away on a blogger outreach campaign for 2017. In fact, one of the campaigns is now completely subscribed for the next year. As in, all the way to the end of December 2017.

I’d love to pretend that this was all down to my organisational skills, but it’s not. It’s largely because my team used a couple of tactics to create a bit of momentum ahead of the campaign which increased our chances of success.

I’m going to start with a disclaimer; the campaign we were working on was a decent one. There was a natural attraction for people to work with us.

Put it this way, we weren’t trying to flog a toilet brush for review, and we weren’t trying to get bloggers to post yet another infographic for the pure reward of “fresh, original and relevant content”.

We were offering a chance for influencers to collaborate with a well-known travel brand by doing something they already love: creating something special in the kitchen, or having a day out to explore food in their local area.

Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, there is still the story of the tactics that we used for the campaign to generate buzz. I want to share these with you in the hope that they may be helpful for your own campaigns in the future.

I’ve also included a few more ideas that could work for you outside of what I did for this specific campaign.

Pre-campaign tactics

The work for this campaign started before the project was even fully signed off by the client. Saying that, we had a good idea of what would be agreed, and it allowed us over a week to start getting people involved. This brings me to point one:

Set the scene and create an example

As I was working on another campaign at the time, I was fortunate enough to be able to share an exciting opportunity with relevant influencers on Twitter.

This had two benefits. Firstly, I could discover any targets that I’d missed for the campaign. However, this wasn’t overly important to me as my team had already been working hard on sourcing some great influencers and having conversations with them.

The real reward here was being able to attract the attention of people who were outside of my requirements. In this case, those people based in the UK rather than the US and Canada. With this, the bait was set and I got some bites when I posted it.

What was important was that the example of this big opportunity was still available to view when I took the next step…

Be mysterious

My next move was to drop a simple tweet to get people actively wanting to work with me and my team on the campaign, rather than us approaching our targets completely cold. Warm leads are nicer to work with, and it didn’t take a lot of effort to achieve this.


This had a secondary advantage; as momentum for responses picked up, there was clear social proof to other influencers that they should get involved too. And this was all without even knowing exactly what the campaign would be. All I said was “Exciting UK foodie & travel blogger projects over the next few weeks”, so this could have meant anything.

In the end, I received around 130 replies, a similar number of likes, and a few retweets. It got to the point where I had to close the request due to the sheer number of responses, telling people to stay in touch for future campaigns.

Start a countdown

In my conversations with influencers, I told them I’d get in touch within a couple of weeks, and in my tweet I made it clear that I had projects coming up over the next few weeks. This showed that I wasn’t desperate, but that I was merely seeking some suitable candidates to be considered at the right time.

I’ve seen outreach project timelines communicated even better than this by other brands, who actively promote that they’ll start their hunt for influencers on a certain day, and will count down to it publicly. With the right message and imagery, this can be a powerful way to get the right people on board.

Create a newsletter

If working with influencers is going to be a regular activity, it can make a lot of sense to get a solid group of people together who are happy to hear from you about possible campaigns in the future.

You can do this by having an email newsletter that is specifically created for influencers who want to be added to your lists or database. By making some of the bigger opportunities exclusive to those subscribe to receive your newsletter, you will likely increase the number of people who sign up. This means more bloggers who are open to hearing from you about your campaigns.

Check out this example from on Twitter:



Ask for nominations

When you begin looking for the connections between influencers, you soon realise that there are many established friendship groups, and new ones being created all the time. The good community spirit of many bloggers is ideal, as you can use it to your advantage.

Instead of just asking people to put themselves forward for an opportunity, you could ask people to recommend others who they think would be a perfect fit. This gives people the feel-good factor, but you’ll benefit from this too by having up to twice as many people referenced in conversation with you. That means you can grab the details of the person who was nominated, as well as the influencer who nominated them (if applicable).

In-campaign tactics

I have one final bonus tactic that can help to keep the momentum going, and that’s once the campaign is underway:

“We’re already close to being subscribed…”

As I referenced in my opening paragraph, the project that I’ve been working on over the last month has been somewhat of a whirlwind success. Yet the unusual thing about this campaign is that we were looking for people for the entirety of 2017.

Getting people on board for January through to March seemed like a logical place to start, and if I’m honest, we were going to recruit influencers for the rest of the year when we felt like it was closer to the time.

But once we’d filled the first few months, we figured we’d try our luck with a few more; after all, bloggers already knew we were working on a campaign and I said we’d be in touch. By the time August was filled, we started to get inbound enquiries asking if we had space left – the campaign concept was seemingly being spread directly through the community.

When I came to sending the last outbound emails for November and December, I could prove to influencers that this was an opportunity that was very much in demand by saying that we were almost out of spaces. It wasn’t even another 24 hours before I had confirmation that the year was fully subscribed.

What you can take from this is that sharing success can make the opportunity available seem a lot more appealing. This could be done by showing off a previous outreach campaign if you don’t have anything to show for your current one.

So that’s my story, but how have you boosted your outreach campaigns by increasing buzz amongst the blogger community? I’d love to hear your own examples, so leave me a comment below to get in touch.

Post from Hannah Butcher

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How Marketing Like Netflix Will Save Your Lead-Gen Strategy

Posted by chelseascholz

Webinars are an incredibly popular lead-gen tool in most marketers’ toolkits. However, times have changed (and viewer attention spans have changed with it). Rather than try and force your audience to show up on time for live events and stay for a full hour (ain’t nobody got time for that), it’s time to consider delivering content they can watch anytime they want (just like their Netflix experience). We’re talking on-demand video.

Now I know “on-demand” is an all-the-rage word as of late, but I really mean it. When is the last time you showed up for a live event or watched a television show on time? Can you even remember? I can’t. (Except for that time I bought expensive tickets to Wicked.) Now you can bet I’m showing up on time for that, because I paid for it. But if it’s free, my pulled-in-one-million-directions brain is going to forgo the things that aren’t urgent (or costly) – which means all those webinars I signed up for are lost conversions for the marketers who run them.

By thinking and delivering on-demand content like Netflix, the power is put in the hands of your audience to consume on their time – giving the audience edu-taining content to watch when they feel like it and giving us the ability to collect more leads and product sign ups than demanding live events.

Webinars vs. on-demand content

Now as a marketer at Unbounce, I also realize that webinars are a very powerful and well-used channel. Webinars were our bread and butter for a long time, as they are for many other marketing teams, but the shift in attention spans and the way marketers consume content (both professionally and personally) means that we tried to adapt our video content with it and saw great results when we launched The Landing Page Sessions in 2015.

We bounced around the idea of producing pre-recorded videos for our audience, which we saw as having a few benefits over webinars:

  • They give you more time to focus on high production value and fancy video editing
  • They allow the presenter to talk on-screen directly to the audience, as opposed to (less human) full-screen webinar slides
  • They relieve much of the stress caused by technical glitches associated with live webinars
  • They’re a great way to focus on showcasing your product with explainer videos and demos – showing spectators why they should buy your product
  • They have the potential to bring in leads and product signups for months without much active effort after the initial launch. No more breaking your back only to rely on the ROI of a very specific time slot

After all was said and done, this one series with 12 episodes has become an ongoing source of leads for us and brought in 87% more product signups than our webinars over the course of four months. Can I get a “heck yeah!”?!

The Landing Page Sessions was built with the goal of showcasing our product, Unbounce, in a way that was valuable to viewers and great for explaining the use of landing pages. During each episode of LPS, Unbounce co-founder Oli Gardner breaks down a full marketing campaign from start to finish and all the videos live on their own microsite where they can be accessed all day, every day.


This is a big change from traditional webinars which, as you probably know, include registering for a live event that largely entails 1–3 people chatting over a slide deck for about 30–45 minutes. Not exactly entertaining, but some companies pull them off really well. The problem for us was that while our webinars were well-produced, they had a declining registration rate and, subsequently, attendance rate. As you can imagine, this also lead to a declining amount of leads and product sign ups. The shift to on-demand content was intimidating, but we were pleasantly surprised. There is more work up front with pre-recorded content, but then it lives forever and you can drive as much or as little traffic to it as you want. Let’s break down some of the key benefits of using on-demand content over webinars.

3 benefits of on-demand content

1. Avoid technical snafus that go into running a live event.

A big win from switching over to on-demand content is that we avoid the technical snafus that can often happen in live content. With pre-recorded content you don’t have to worry about GoToWebinar going down, mics going amiss, ill-fitting slides, or power outages.

I used to run webinars at Unbounce when I first started, and I can’t tell you how many near-heart attacks I almost had because of the technical glitches with live events. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

We used pre-recorded video hosted with Wistia, and aside from avoiding live technical glitches, we were also able to optimize our video as we saw fit without the pressure of only getting one go at it. We would adjust our turnstiles and call-to-actions based on real-time stats, like average watch time and which of the episodes were most frequently clicked on.

2. Create more areas for conversion opportunities (turnstiles, overlays, and demo requests, oh my!).

And speaking of optimization, on-demand video also gives you the ability to create a ton of opportunity for conversions that’s otherwise pretty limited with live events (because you only capture when you collect registrations). There are sometimes opportunities post-webinar, but at Unbounce we’ve seen a pattern emerge: most people don’t convert after watching. They often sign up to get the recording but don’t end up watching that either, so whatever post-work you do can often be fruitless. Bummer.

With LPS we capture leads through many different avenues, including:

  • Wistia (lead-generating) turnstiles on each individual episode;
    Screen Shot 2016-12-05 at 10.20.42 AM.png
  • An exit overlay on the homepage of the show to remind people to sign up for new episode notifications;
    landing-page-sessions-exit-overlay (1).png
  • A landing page where we collected submissions (to be featured on the show) before, during and after the season went live;
  • and through a call-to-action to start a free trial of Unbounce at the end of every episode.
    landing-page-sessions-cta-free-trial (1).png

These were all things we couldn’t have done (or done very well) with live shows before, because there just wasn’t room. And if we were putting all this effort into running a show, why shouldn’t we see a good return on it?

Now, with all this space for opportunity to convert, you still have to be careful you’re not being a marketing jerk. It’s easy to overwhelm the viewer, and we experienced that first hand because we were a little “conversion-happy.” Remember that there are people on the other end trying to watch your awesome content, so try and place your calls-to-action strategically so they aren’t overwhelmed, and then subsequently bounce. So play it cool, folks, but take advantage of all the room for activities!

3. Create content with higher production value (even if the costs are relatively the same!) that people want to watch

And finally, your production value can be a lot higher (even with a budget that’s the same as what you were running webinars with).

felix_cha-7224a4b6f97ff4c8d4e4142e3d9251f0 (1).png

Here are a few takeaways about how to build your own high-quality, on-demand production without it feeling daunting:

The draw of webinars are not after they’ve happened, it’s during (as much as we’d like to believe our webinar recordings provide a ton of value, the fact of the matter is that they often don’t). Take what you know people like about those webinars and build that into your pre-recorded productions! If you’ve run a webinar, for example, where people really liked when a guest dissected email copy, create a short series around that topic.

Listen to your audience and ask them questions about what they’d like to see, then do it. Crowdsourcing is definitely underutilized, and sometimes as marketers we can over-complicate a situation. The easiest thing to do when deciding on new marketing channels is to ask the opinion of those who already love you. I learned this when I sent an email last year just asking “What do you need to get more out of landing pages?”, rather than assuming I knew what everyone’s issue or need was. And the result? I found myself a little surprised by some of the answers, and I was able to craft that into some stories for the show.

Create a production schedule and stick to it. Nothing is worse than putting more effort in than necessary for little to no return (this is the danger of on-demand content, and I get asked this a lot: “When are you done?”). Giving yourself a schedule allows you to build better productions without perfecting them until the end of time. For the landing page sessions, it took us about 3–4 months to build, promote, and release the season, for example.

And finally, a pro-tip: If you’ve got something to show off, do it! Showcase your product! Pre-recorded video is a great way to do that without having the pressure of a live demo.

A new era of content production

All this means that you can get more conversions with on-demand video because it puts the user first. On-demand video lets the consumer watch what they want and when they want – and that’s the whole point, folks. People who watch on their own time are more likely to convert because they’ve taken a vested interest in seeking out (or saving your content) to watch at a time that suits them best. This means they’re already in a position to find more value in what you’re serving up, and reduce friction to converting. So you can create a high-quality production that takes the stress out of those live events and serves up highly relevant calls-to-action for highly motivated watchers. A match made in marketing heaven!

Wanna know a little more about our results?

Crunch the numbers

Compared to Unbounce webinars that were run over the same four months that The Landing Page Sessions was running, the landing page sessions had 41 more product sign-ups than the approximate 4 webinars we ran at the same time (47 product sign ups vs. 88 product sign ups). The Landing Page Sessions also brought in close to 2500 leads in that four months as well (which blew what webinars would usually bring in out of the water). Initial effort was higher for LPS, so that needs to be taken into account, but webinars are not consistent in their results month-to-month, either.

This really highlighted a point that Wistia preaches – people like to watch a video before they buy a product. We showcased Unbounce and made it clear how landing pages can be valuable for anyone’s marketing campaigns by breaking them down and seeing how all the pieces drive to them for optimal conversions.


My learning: Running continual seasons of LPS (now that we’re off the ground) will be more valuable and less effort in the long run than running monthly webinars, based on the combined effort and return on investment.

Additionally, because this content is pre-recorded, we have a ton of ability to milk it for all it’s worth and give it life even months after it’s debuted.

Optimize, optimize, optimize!

On-demand content can live forever. This means you can continue to drive conversions much longer than a traditional live production recording. The conversion opportunities aren’t limited just to where you can add more, but the time period in which you find them!

Things we’ve tried to do with LPS that you can try too include:

  • Continuing to drive traffic to your page and build social hype – leads beget more leads!
  • Using some paid traffic (Outbrain/Taboola) if you have budget to attract fresh users (but be targeted about it). You want the new watchers to be just as interested as your current audience.
  • If you collect emails, create a nurture campaign to talk to those people based on their interests and needs. Continue serving them relevant content, like an ebook or bonus episodes if you’ve got more footage!
  • Using social share buttons throughout your video (or on the landing page that it’s hosted on) with relevant and unique hashtags. If people like what they’re watching, they’ll share and drive more traffic back to your site through their own social channels.
  • We keep our submissions page for the show live all the time to encourage people to submit pages for critique 24/7. And we still get submissions daily even though we haven’t finished our second season yet. This is great because it continues to list-build if you do a show where you can crowdsource content, and you can talk to them so they don’t go cold before the next show.

And don’t forget to keep an eye on it! If you notice that there are opportunities for improvement with what you’ve got right now, test them out. There’s an ease for testing with on-demand content because you aren’t pressured by a live time box. Things we’ve tried with LPS include gating specific high-traffic episodes, driving more traffic to a high-performing episode through specific paid channels that have done really well, and using The Landing Page Sessions as a nurture tactic for nurturing our subscribers into qualified leads.

So when’s the next episode?

LPSessions-Blog-CTA-WatchEP-v1-11 (1).png

We are going to be working on a season 2 this quarter and are experimenting with things like:

  • Releasing all the episodes at once instead of dripping week over week (this will reduce effort on production/promotion and satisfy the binge-watch culture of our consumers, while letting us sit back and relax)
  • Creating a version of LPS specifically for customers (ungated and used to create some evangelism in our community)
  • Optimize the request-a-demo portion of the site and ensure a smoother episode-to-Unbounce journey

So remember, don’t be afraid of trying out on-demand content in a webinar-soaked world. It can actually generate some long-lasting conversion channels with a higher production value and less effort. If you’re interested in doing some on-demand content, take a gander at what we put together at

Take a page out of Netflix’s playbook and provide your users with timely content they can consume at their leisure, and watch the relationship bloom between your audience and your product. Now is the time to binge watch everything from cat videos on Youtube to your favorite marketing Podcasts, so don’t wait for anybody to register to give them what they need.

giphy (9).gif

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Web Summit is… HUGE

I have recently been at Web Summit Conference in Lisbon (November 7 to 9) and the first word I could think of when I sat down to write this post was: “huge”.

Over 50,000 participants made it the largest web related event I have ever attended to (and one of the biggest I joined in all fields, if you exclude a couple of concerts & sporting events!).

But if you are thinking of it as a regular conference (like I did when I decided to attend) you would be mistaken. Given the numbers it was almost impossible to really follow any speaker and there were always at least 10 of them speaking simultaneously at all times somewhere in the 3 pavilions or central stage.

The topics did not help. They were so far from each other and from so different personalities (in politics, sports, startups, etc.) that the main question soon became: why should I follow this instead of this other?

Unfortunately I only had a day and I was literally overwhelmed by the amount of content on offer that I decided not to follow anything at all and just concentrate on the startups exposing in the pavilions.

That said, if you think that I regretted being there, you would be mistaken again.

There were, literally, thousands of small presentation desks in the 3 huge pavilions of the expo area with start-uppers in fin-tech sector (one of the most represented), health, SaaS (on line services), personal care, travel/tourism, etc.  It was like a tour to a temporary Silicon Valley transplanted in Europe.

It was really interesting (and sometimes funny) looking at the variegated, picturesque and colored ways all these aspiring entrepreneurs presented their projects. Here you can find a selection of the more representative ones:

I noticed a consumer market oriented trend. Very few projects were targeted to other companies & professionals. I suppose this is quite normal in so a big event (and the larger the target is, the easier to find a venture funding).

I joined a couple of startup competitions with my own tool to monitor AdWords campaigns. This was a sample output (click on the image to view the video in Facebook):

The interest for the event was so high among web professionals that, as you can see, this very basic video had more than 1.000 impressions and around 100 reactions and several friends and colleagues of mine realized I was starting-up something for the first time.

If you have a startup, or thinking of it or even think you could one day have one, you simply have to be there. You will understand and will have a glance on the growing European venture funding sector (more than 1,000 venture capital operators from all over the world were registered at the event

Everything was excellently organized to have startups to meet their potential investors. From spaces layout to the classification of startups, or the different event’s badges quoting the kind of subscription in different colors (alpha/beta start-uppers, investors, media, etc.) and the event’s APP enabling you to communicate to every other participant. I was even able to collect a couple of interested potential backers contacting them directly via the APP.

Moreover Lisbon is a perfect location for it. Beautiful, cheap, safe, relaxed and well equipped to receive so a big invasion of crazy “web people”, even during night parties.

So, chapeau to the organizers.  It was definitely an experience worth it and I would suggest to everyone playing in the startup field to join it, at least once, if not done yet.

Post from Gianpaolo Lorusso

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What Link Building Success Really Looks Like

Posted by mark-johnstone

A few weeks ago, a post was published entitled The SEO Myth of Going Viral. It referenced 8 pieces of content across 4 different sites that went viral and, most importantly for SEO, gained hundreds of linking root domains. I was the creative director on a lot of those campaigns while working as the VP of Creative at Distilled. Today, I’d like to add some important context and detail to the original post.

I actually agree with much of what it said. However, it’s based on the assumption that one big viral piece of content would result in a visible jump in rankings across the domain within about 3 months of the content being released. There are a few challenges with this as a basis for measuring success.

I wouldn’t advise setting your hopes on one big viral hit boosting your rankings across the domain. Not by itself. However, if that viral hit is part of ongoing link building efforts in which you build lots of links to lots of pieces of content, you can begin to see an upwards trend.

“Trend” is the important word here. If you’re looking for a dramatic step or jump as a direct result of one piece of viral content, this could cause you to overlook a positive trend in the right direction, and even tempt you to conclude that this form of content-based link building doesn’t work.

With regards to this type of link building and its impact on domain-wide rankings, I’d like to focus on the follow 4 points:

  1. How success really looks
  2. Why success looks like it does
  3. Other factors you need to consider
  4. How we can improve our approach

What successful link building really looks like

Simply Business was held up in the SEO myth post as an example of this kind of link building not working. I would argue the opposite, holding it up as an example of it working. So how can this be?

I believe it stems from a misunderstanding of what success looks like.

The post highlighted three of the most successful pieces of content Distilled created for Simply Business. However, focusing on those three pieces of content doesn’t provide the full picture. We didn’t make just three pieces of content; we made twenty-one. Here are the results of those pieces:

Note: Data missing for the first two pieces of content

That’s links from 1466 domains built to 19 pieces of content over a period of 3 years.

The myth in question is as follows:

Building lots of links to one piece of content will result in a jump in domain-wide rankings within a reasonable timeframe, e.g. 3 months.

Though this wasn’t the hypothesis explicitly stated at the start of the post, it was later clarified in a comment. However, that’s not necessarily how this works.

An accurate description of what works would be:

Building lots of links to lots of pieces of content sustainably, while taking other important factors into consideration, can result in an increase in domain-wide rankings over time.

To hold up, the myth required a directly attributable jump in rankings and organic traffic within approximately 3 months of the release of each piece of content. So where was the bump? The anticipated reward for all those links?

No. The movement we’re looking for is here:

Not a jump, but a general trend. Up and to the right.

Below is a SEMRush graph from the original post, showing estimated organic traffic to the Simply Business site:

At first glance, the graph between 2012 and 2014 might look unremarkable, but that’s because the four large spikes on the right-hand side push the rest of the chart down, creating a flattening effect. There’s actually a 170% rise in traffic from June 2012 to June 2014. To see that more clearly, here’s the same data (up to June 2014) on a different scale:

Paints quite a different picture, don’t you think?

Okay, but what did this do for the company? Did they see an increase in rankings for valuable terms, or just terms related to the content itself?

Over the duration of these link building campaigns, Simply Business saw their most important keywords (“professional indemnity insurance” and “public liability insurance”) move from positions 3 to 1 and 3 to 2, respectively. While writing this post, I contacted Jasper Martens, former Head of Marketing and Communications at Simply Business, now VP of Marketing at PensionBee. Jasper told me:

“A position change from 3 to 1 on our top keyword meant a 15% increase in sales.”

That translates to money. A serious amount of it!

Simply Business also saw ranking improvements for other commercial terms, too. Here’s a small sample:

Note: This data was taken from a third-party tool, Sistrix. Data from third-party tools, as used both in this post and the original post, should be taken with a grain of salt. They don’t provide a totally accurate picture, but they can give you some indication of the direction of movement.

I notice Simply Business still ranks #1 today for some of their top commercial keywords, such as “professional indemnity insurance.” That’s pretty incredible in a market filled with some seriously big players, household UK names with familiar TV ads and much bigger budgets.

Why success looks like it does

I remember the first time I was responsible for a piece of content going viral. The social shares, traffic, and links were rolling in. This was it! Link building nirvana! I was sitting back waiting for the rankings, organic traffic, and revenue to follow.

That day didn’t come.

I was gutted. I felt robbed!

I’ve come to terms with it now. But at the time, it was a blow.

I assume most SEOs know it doesn’t work that way. But maybe they don’t. Maybe there’s an assumption that one big burst in links will result in a jump in rankings, as discussed in the original post. That’s the myth it was seeking to dispel. I get it. I’ve been there, too.

It doesn’t necessarily work that way. And, actually, it makes sense that it doesn’t.

  • In two of the examples, the sites in question had one big viral hit, gaining hundreds of linking root domains, but this on its own didn’t result in a boost in domain-wide rankings. That’s true.
  • Google would have pretty volatile search results if every time someone had a viral hit, they jumped up in the rankings for all their head terms.
  • But if a site continues to build lots of links regularly over time, like Simply Business did, Google might want that site to be weighted more favorably and worthy of ranking higher.

The Google algorithm is an incredibly complex equation. It’s tempting to think that you put links in and you get rankings out, and a big jump in one will correspond to a big jump in the other. But the math involved is far more complicated than that. It’s not that linear.

Other factors to consider

Link building alone won’t improve your rankings.

There are a number of other influential factors at play. At a high level, these include:

  1. A variety of on-site (and technical) SEO factors
  2. Algorithmic updates and penalties
  3. Changes to the SERPs, like the knowledge box and position of paid results
  4. Competitor activity

I’m not going to go into great detail here, but I wanted to mention that you need to consider these factors and more when reviewing the impact of link building on a site’s rankings.

Below is the graph from SearchMetrics for Concert Hotels, also via the original post. This is another site to which Distilled built a high volume of links.

As you can possibly tell from the large drop before Distilled started working with Concert Hotels, the site was suffering from an algorithmic penalty. We proceeded under the hypothesis that building high-quality links, alongside other on-site activity, would be important in the site’s recovery.

However, after three or four large link building successes without any corresponding uplift, we recommended to the client that we stop building links and shift all resources to focus on other activities.

As you’ll see at the end of the chart, there appears to be some positive movement happening. If and when the site fully recovers, we’ll never be able to tell exactly what contribution, if any, link building made to the site’s eventual rankings.

You can’t take the above as proof that link building doesn’t work. You have to consider the other factors that might be affecting a site’s performance.

How can we improve our approach?

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I actually agree with a lot of the points raised in the original post. In particular, there were some strong points made about the topical relevance of the content you create and the way in which the content sits within the site architecture.

Ideally, the content you create to gain links would be:

  • Topically relevant to what you do
  • Integrated into the site architecture to distribute link equity
  • Valuable in its own right (even if it weren’t for links and SEO)

This can be a challenge, though, especially in certain industries, and you might not hit the sweet spot every time.

But let’s look at them in turn.

Topical relevance

If you can create a piece of content that gains links and is closely relevant to your product and what you do for customers, that’s great. That’s the ideal.

To give you an example of this, Distilled created a career aptitude test for Rasmussen, a career-focused college in America. This page earned links from 156 linking root domains (according to the Majestic Historic Index), and the site continues to rank well and drive relevant search traffic to the site.

Another example would be Moz’s own Search Engine Ranking Factors. Building lots of links to that page will certainly drive relevant and valuable traffic to the Moz site, as well as contributing to the overall strength of the domain.

However, your content doesn’t have to be about your product, as long as it’s relevant to your audience. In the case of Simply Business, the core audience (small business owners) doesn’t care about insurance as much as it cares about growing its businesses. That’s why we created several guides to small business marketing, which also gained lots of links.

As Jasper Martens explains:

“Before I left Simply Business, the guides we created attracted 15,000 unique visits a month with a healthy CTR to sign-up and sales. It was very effective to move prospects down the funnel and make them sales-ready. It also attracted a lot of small business owners not looking for insurance right now.”

Integrating the content into the site architecture

Distilled often places content outside the main architecture of the site. I’ll accept this isn’t optimal, but just for context, let me explain the reasons behind it:

  1. It creates a more immersive and compelling experience. Consider how impactful New York Times’ Snowfall would have been if it had to sit inside the normal page layout.
  2. It prevents conflicts between the site’s code and the interactive content’s code. This can be particularly useful for organizations that have restrictive development cycles, making live edits on the site difficult to negotiate. It also helps reduce the time, cost, and frustration on both the client-side and agency-side.
  3. It looks less branded. If a page looks too commercial, it can deter publishers from linking.

While it worked for Simply Business, it would make sense, where you can, to pull these things into the normal site architecture to help distribute link equity further.

Content that’s valuable in its own right (even if it weren’t for links and SEO)

Google is always changing. What’s working now and what’s worked in the past won’t necessarily continue to be the case. The most future-proof way you can build links to your site is via activity that’s valuable in its own right — activities like PR, branding, and growing your audience online.

So where do we go from here?

Link building via content marketing campaigns can still make a positive impact to domain-wide rankings. However, it’s important to enter any link building campaign with realistic expectations. The results might not be as direct and immediate as you might hope.

You need to be in it for the long haul, and build links to a number of pieces of content over time before you’ll really see results. When looking for results, focus on overall trends, not month-to-month movements.

Remember that link building alone won’t solve your SEO. You need to make sure you take other on-site, technical, and algorithmic factors into consideration.

It’s always worth refining the way you’re building links. The closer the topics are aligned with your product or core audience’s interests, the more the content is integrated into your site’s architecture, and the more the content you’re creating is valuable for reasons beyond SEO, the better.

It’s not easy to manage that every time, but if you can, you’ll be in a good position to sustainably build links and improve your site’s rankings over time.

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Mike Deets - Living




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