Volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous: turning challenges into opportunities

I recently took part at one of Google's Firestarters talks, which tackled how digital marketers can mitigate the risks of operating in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) landscape, and develop opportunities in times of uncertainty. One of the key areas I'm interested in and focused on as part of the discussion is how brands who are struggling in their home markets can take their business elsewhere geographically, thus opening up new markets to increase reach and revenue potential. In tandem with this, facing up to uncertainty is very much about how we can integrate our channels better to drive efficiencies, allowing us to do more with less, and becoming more audience-focused to improve conversion and efficiencies.

GOING INTERNATIONAL

Of course, I'm not naïve enough to believe all brands can just 'go international' - it's certainly easier for some verticals, and won't work for some brands. And there's a lot to think about when considering going international - different payment platforms, shipping viability, and internal infrastructure. That being said, advertising in international markets opens brands up to a whole new audience of relevant users, and allows us to diversify our efforts. When the economy is looking uncertain at home, and therefore the state of business is looking uncertain, internationalising your approach gives you back the control to take a proactive stance, rather than a reactive one. The UK market is also somewhat saturated, meaning advertisers may need to go international to get that business growth they're looking for at a reasonable investment.

EUROPEAN MARKET

Previously, when UK advertisers and agencies first began expanding into international markets, Europe seemed the easiest and most obvious choice. It's geographically close and trade agreements made it easier to buy and sell between markets. The free movement of people has also supported trade links up until now, as it's easy to physically go to the markets you're trying to sell to, allowing for partner meetings, new office set up, and so on.

However, with Brexit looming, we're still unclear as to the impact it'll have on trade links. Hopefully, we'll be able to maintain some trade deals within Europe but, either way, I suspect it won't be as simple moving forwards to just open up your business in European markets. However, this doesn't mean that we shouldn't consider taking an international approach or expanding to Europe as our first port of call; it simply means that all markets are on a relatively level playing field now, and we consider all markets first, rather than accepting Europe as the easiest place to start.

INTERNATIONAL MARKETS

Markets such as the US, Australia, and Canada are all English speaking, so if you can ship to those markets, are they an easy first step? Of course, when using the US as an example, we need to consider that it's the biggest market, one of the most advanced, and both price and brand sensitive. If you're not price competitive in the US, it's not going to be an easy market to crack. However, other markets might be easier. Some growth markets, such as Asia, use different platforms outside of Google, so you'll need to develop knowledge and partnerships with the likes of Baidu and WeChat. My point here is that, for better or worse, Brexit has changed the playing field, both at home and abroad - and we now need to assess those opportunities and understand how they tie into the wider business.

The good news, or the good news for me, is that search is a great channel to test new markets with. It's relatively simple to build and set up campaigns from offices in the UK and test what does and doesn't work. Once you've collected enough data and identified trends, you can focus your budget smartly into areas that are working well for you, increasing visibility and investment where you're seeing the greatest return.

CHANNEL STRATEGY ALIGNMENT

Of course, advertisers always want to do more with less, especially when operating in economically challenging times. For me, this means making sure that all digital channels are working together, and not against each other. This involves aligning your channel strategies so they're all working towards the same goal, and making sure paid search experts are talking to technical SEOs so they're not cannibalising one another, but make sure each channel is also capitalising on any holes in the other channel's performance. If conversions aren't up to expectations, invest in improving your onsite user experience and conversion rate optimisation, but align with the targets your performance channels are striving for. If you're doing video, repurpose that message across display and social channels to get the message to a wider, engaged audience - but make sure you tailor it to the platforms you're targeting.

Advertising is expensive, and is even more so in a new market; but whatever helps you in one channel should help you in another, as working together towards the same goal will enable you to achieve more with less, whether that's at home or further afield.

AUDIENCE TARGETING

When thinking about integrating channels, you also need to consider audiences. Google has made huge strides in recent years around remarketing lists for search ads (RLSA), Customer Match and similar audiences. It's second nature now to apply these audiences to search campaigns to maximise efficiencies in terms of bidding and tailoring audience messaging to target the right people, with the right message, at the right time. But it's important to think how we can take this audience targeting outside of pure search. There's the obvious channel integration options, such as taking the learnings from our search audiences to target people who have similar interests and behaviours through display and social campaigns. Or we can target people who have clicked on a search ad with a display ad using tailored messaging based on the original search campaigns.

What I think is more interesting, and will become more important moving forward, is the ability to personalise landing pages to those users based on why they came to site and their interests, which will maximise returns. It could be as simple as targeting a specific remarketing list with a specific landing page suited to those needs, or it could be a more complicated algorithm fuelled by machine learning to do so automatically, but either way, consumers are looking for websites to meet their needs in as few clicks as possible, and advertisers need to keep up with this expectation. Giants such as Amazon are already doing a great job in this area, but I think smaller advertisers could - and should - do more here.

So, to get more with less in challenging times, my advice is to consider your playing field carefully. Are you able to move to an international strategy? As markets are on more of an even keel now, how does that impact your brand? Whether at home or internationally, make sure you integrate your channels to drive towards the same goals. And, as a final point, use your audience targeting to tailor your messaging and website to your users' needs. While we're in times of uncertainty at home, it's certainly worth considering a global approach. In time, you'll find the growth you're looking for - effectively doing more, with less.

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