Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

An Update on Search Engine Marketing (Pay Per Click)

July 22nd, 2019 by Heather Maloney

It’s been nearly a year since we blogged about pay-per-click advertising in the search engines (‘PPC’ e.g. Google Ads / Bing Ads). A lot has changed over that short time including a new name and a completely new user interface for Google Ads; this blog is intended as an update for business owners and marketing managers to help you keep abreast of what is possible, and the best way to approach search engine marketing.

search engine marketing changes in 2019

Most of the change is around the use of AI applied to the smart delivery of targeted ads, making the customisation of ads for mobile phones much easier to encourage more advertisers to display their ads on mobile, and additional control by Google to ensure positive customer experience.

Quality Scores
I’ve been involved in search engine optimisation (‘SEO’ – the art of achieving high ranks in the search engines for relevant, popular keyword searches) since the mid 1990s and organic traffic (people finding you through searchable content) has always been the #1 priority, and PPC ads the more costly way to get immediate website traffic while your SEO efforts grow your ranks over time. Naturally, the search engines, who only make money from paid ads, don’t see it that way.

Google changes the appearance of ads on a regular basis, and gives preference to the display of ads, all in the attempt to make money at the same time as delivering valid results for searchers. It is in Google’s best interest to ensure that not only are organic search results highly relevant to the searcher, but also the ads. Google want people to be just as willing to click on an ad as they are willing to click on a ‘normal’ search result. To that end, even if you want to pay over the odds to Google for your ad in relation to particular search terms, you may find that your ad isn’t being displayed. That’s because the destination of the ad – the landing page, or web page where the searcher ends up when they click – is now also assessed by Google in determining who to show your ad to. This is referred to as the ‘quality score’. If your ad is about treating back pain, and takes you to a web page that talks about exercise without reference to back pain for example, Google is likely to give your ad a low quality score and be less inclined to present the ad to searchers, and when your ad is presented the click cost will be higher (ouch).

What this means is that you must have high quality landing pages / ad destination pages which richly develop the intent of the ad, and the ads must include appropriate keywords that are reflecting in the landing pages, which brings us to dynamic ads.

Landing pages that are congruent with your ads have been important for a long time and has driven the trend of having your landing pages not only disconnected from your main website navigation, but also omitting your site navigation in order to focus the attention of the visitor only on the action you want them to take. This latest evolution is driving the use of 3rd party platforms which make it easier for digital marketers to setup dynamic landing pages, including sophisticated analytics around visitor behaviour.

Responsive Ads [and dynamic landing pages]
The latest overhaul of the Google Ad’s platform provides seriously sophisticated functionality for creating responsive ads – that is, ads whose content programmatically incorporates the search term entered by the searcher, from a set of search terms which you specify, and configures itself to the available space. A combination of 15 alternate headlines and 4 descriptions is possible. Using our back pain example, the responsive ad functionality allows you to create an ad which might have a headline of ‘Suffering from back pain’ or ‘Suffering from a sore back’ or ‘Suffering from a back injury’ all with the one ad i.e. you don’t need to create 3 ads to achieve this. Then, if the searcher types in ‘help with back pain’ your ad will appear as “Suffering from back pain”, or if they type in ‘recovering from a back injury’, your ad will appear as “Suffering from a back injury”. The descriptions in the content of the ads can similarly be filled on the fly to match the searcher’s intent as determined by AI.

To take this one step further, specialised landing pages can be configured to receive the search terms entered by the searcher, and then display those words in the appropriate place. Obviously you need to be careful when doing this to ensure that the dynamic content makes sense in all cases, particularly if you decide to add more keywords a few month’s later. But the end result is a much more relevant landing page, a higher quality score, and additional traffic to your site at a lower cost.

The ability to create responsive ads and content takes a bit of effort to setup, but means that you can create a lot more ads for less effort over the longer term, and achieve greater ad impressions, therefore more clicks, at a lower cost. It doesn’t however take away the need for greater copywriters, creative ideas and overall campaign strategy.

Ad Format
The available ad formats continue to evolve, and now includes:

  • Basic text-only ads.
  • Responsive ads – can insert text from a set of specified options matching the searcher’s search term, transform into text or image ads and automatically adjust size, appearance and format to fit space.
  • Image ads – static or interactive graphics, animated ads.
  • Image carousel ads.
  • Instream video ads – including vertical format ads specifically for people on mobile (you may need two versions), standalone video ads or inserted in streaming video content.
  • Product shopping ads – product photo, title, price, store name+ more details.
  • Showcase shopping ads – image and description that expands when clicked to show several related products and store information.
  • App Promotion Ads – drive app downloads and engagement with app promotion ads.

The ad formats available depends on your campaign type (search network, display network, search + display networks) and campaign sub-type (e.g. standard or all features).

Targeting
How we ensure ads are seen by the right people is continuing to evolve. In the Google Display Network (where websites show Google Ads, rather than ads as a result of customer searching) the placement of ads is much more a result of prior browsing activity and demographics (by users signed into Google) and less about their search terms.

Google’s “Exact Match” setting is no longer really exact … instead it works out intent using AI (read more about the dismantling of exact match over the years). This is a little annoying as taking that control away means that we are relying on the accuracy of the AI and ultimately Google wants you to spend more. It also means that the thorough use of negative keywords (preventing your ads from displaying when particular search terms are used) is even more important. We constantly review the search terms used to display ads, and extend the negative keywords list to prevent waste of our client’s ad budgets.

With Google’s significant improvement in targeting by audiences – whereby you load your known audience (customer database) up into Google and it then targets exactly those people with your ads, or builds matching audiences of similar people – due to it’s use of artificial intelligence, using this feature to target the right customers for your ads has become more useful. You can make the best use of this feature when you have a larger customer database, and when you know where each person or segment are in their buying journey, allowing you to present appropriate ads for each person. New demographics have been appearing in the audience settings including marital status, home ownership and the like, so we expect this area to continue to expand. Although the recent $5Bn fine against Facebook could slow things down in this area?

Many businesses use Google Ads primarily for top-of-funnel (prospects at the very start of a customer purchase journey) and then use other means to communicate with the new prospect such as email nurture programs. Not surprisingly, Google wants businesses to use Google ads all the way through the process. The use of Google re-marketing – presenting a similar ad to a person who has previously clicked on your ads and visited your website – is another cost-effective way to re-enforce your message with prospects, as these ads have significantly cheaper cost per click.

Bing have launched their own audience building feature this year, which is also AI powered across data collected from Bing searches, Skype, MSN and LinkedIn usage, and is not to be ignored for highly targeted campaigns.

Configuration
Setting up ad campaigns for mobile searches (more than half of all searches are carried out on a mobile phone) was previously cumbersome, requiring advertisers to create another set of ads just for mobiles. That’s changed with the new ad platform allowing the one ad, including ad extensions, to be customised within the one place for desktop and mobile.

Goal based campaigns allows the choice of the results you want to achieve – such as increased leads, greater brand awareness or higher conversions – and then Google will provide recommendations for campaign types that will perform best for you and your budget, and provides numerous automatic bid and placement optimisations. Again this is a result of their deepening use of artificial intelligence.

Whilst Google is giving us far more recommendations to use as we configure and optimise ads, sometimes these recommendations conflict; we don’t just follow these without careful consideration to ensure that they fit with your objectives.

Ad Extensions allow extra information to be shown as part of your ads. New ad extensions include Promotion Extension – the ability to include a price or special offer – thus enticing a visitor to click your ad instead of another.

Controls
Google is much more active in the assessment and banning of ads for all manner of legal and ethical reasons. We create ads with the best intentions in mind, include images, and then may need edit after Google has reviewed.

If you are using Click to Call style ads, the business name in your ads must now really be your business name, and mentioned in your IVR or by the person answering (sounds obvious, right … you would be surprised at how less-than-honest marketers have exploited this in the past). Interestingly, with the increase use of mobiles for search, Google removed the extra charge it originally levied on advertisers using click to call ads to provide metrics and reporting such as length of call (now a customisable setting to attribute as a conversion which previously not been tracked).

Summary
Due to the complexity of the ad platforms, increasing competition for organic search ranks, priority of the search companies to drive revenue through search, and the importance of the configuration on the cost of your pay-per-click ad campaigns, it is really important to keep a close eye on your pay-per-click ad campaigns. We work with our clients with pay-per-click campaigns in a variety of models, from strategic advice all the way through to full responsibility for creation and execution of ads. We can pick up your existing campaigns from where they currently are and improve them over time, or work with you to create your first ever pay-per-click ads.

We look forward to having a conversation.

But Wait! There’s More
We haven’t touched on You Tube ads in this article (also owned by Google). With the viewing of You Tube video continuing to grow, presenting video ads within You Tube is an option more organisations need to utilise.

Google does not stand still – it tends to roll out a major update to its ad platform every 6 months. Google has already announced the many new features coming to their ad platform which will likely be rolled out during the rest of this year. Many of these relate to search on mobile phones. Here’s a short list:

  1. A new type of ad – Discovery Ads – to appear in the new Google Discovery Feed app that mobile users are likely using on their phones. Discovery Ads, because they are interrupting people in a similar way to ads inside your Facebook Feed, will have strict quality constraints around them e.g. the requirement for unique (not stock) high quality images.
  2. Images inside search ads, but only on mobile, and only in the first place – this will be called a Gallery Ad.
  3. AI will be used to create interesting 6 second videos from original, up to 90 seconds in length.
  4. Deep links from ads to inside apps.
  5. Advanced bid strategies will allow you to exclude data considered by artificial intelligence when determining when to place ads e.g. particular spikes due to out-of-the-ordinary activities.
  6. Location based ads will start appearing in Google Maps search suggestions and while a user is use getting directions.

We look forward to exploring the use of these changes and more in the Google ads platform.

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Why Write a Blog?

July 10th, 2019 by Dave O'Dwyer

Everyone says you have to blog … but why? No one reads them anyway, right?

Sorry, but that’s just totally wrong. For many of our clients, their blog posts are the best ranking, and most visited, content of their website. If you don’t have an active blog, it is likely to be a significant missed opportunity.

why write a blog post

Why blog?
Here are the reasons why blogging is very important:

  1. Signals new content to Google.
    Google values fresh content because it wants to provide the latest and greatest content to people searching for solutions. Google can tell that a blog post is part of a blog (as opposed to a landing page or other regular page of your website) and more often than not will give your blog content priority over other types of content, because blogs are intended to educate, engage in conversation with visitors, and address a very specific topic or news event.
  2. Builds authority.
    Blogs help to build both domain authority (Google ranking your website as a source of valuable information on a topic), as well as credibility in the mind of the visitor. Being willing to publish on a topic means that you know enough about it to put forward your views. Customers are much more likely to invest in your product or service if they believe you know what you are selling, very well.
  3. Backlinks.
    Informative articles will be linked to by other websites, again signalling to Google that your content is of good quality and worthy of ranking highly in the search engines.
  4. You Own the Content.
    While pay-per-click ads and social media posts, both drive traffic to your website, their impact either requires ongoing payment, or disappears after a short period of time. The blog posts you write if picked up by Google, will be found and therefore deliver traffic to your site for many years to come, and can help you to “own the space” for particular search terms.

The most important aspect of a blog post is that it gives you the freedom to publish super targeted content, addressing the concerns, desires or needs of a very specific segment of your potential audience. Your blog can easily incorporate what is referred to by digital marketers as long tail keywords – phrases that are frequently used people trying to solve a particular problem. For example, if you are the parent of a young child you might search on “how to help my child give up their dummy?” A blog post that addresses this question can easily incorporate this phrase, and related phrases within the content of the article.

Blog posts also allow you to focus in on the intent of the person reading the blog, and help them move forward down the decision path or buyer journey, by taking the time to explain the problem, empathise with the reader, educate, and give alternative solutions.

If you tried to achieve such a detailed response to a specific question through the main pages of your website – particularly if you have a wide variety of solutions to many customer needs – your website would very quickly become cluttered.

Some examples of blogs we have developed for our clients include:

  • Handyman: a blog post on how to change bathroom taps can include more keywords and information than a general handyman services page.
  • Graffiti removal service: removing graffiti from wood vs removing graffiti from glass target different keywords and searches compared to general ‘graffiti removal’.
  • Surf Shop: a blog about how to care for your board, providing value to potential customers, who then become aware of the brand.

How to approach writing a blog
When writing blogs for our clients in order to generate additional, targeted website traffic, we perform the following tasks:

  1. Identify search terms being used by potential customers to solve a particular, relevant problem.
  2. Consider the demographics and other characteristics of the potential customer.
  3. Clarify how our client’s product / service can solve the problem, especially how they differentiate from competitors.
  4. Write a blog post, rich in the phrase/s commonly used by the prospects, empathising and educating at the same time. We are also careful to use an appropriate style of writing and tone of voice to match our client’s brand, and which will engage the target market.
  5. Include at least one call to action within the blog content. The same call to action is likely to be linked to more than once, to ensure that the reader doesn’t miss it, and has it close by when they are ready to act. Depending on what you are promoting and the likely length of the buyer journey, the call to action could be requesting more information, subscribing to receive future updates, requesting a sample, buying immediately, following you in social media …
  6. Incorporate design elements (images, video, headlines etc) into the blog post to keep the reader’s interest and make it more memorable.
  7. Receive client feedback.
  8. Finalise and post the blog.
  9. Share the blog post in social media and through email newsletters.

It’s important not to forget the final step of promoting the new blog post in social media. Sharing the post in your social channels, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram, make it easy for others to share on your content, which in turn will achieve greater reach. Google My Business now also allows you to post articles, again extending the reach of your message.

Writing a teaser to your blog post, and including that in the regular emails to your clients, ensures that your existing clients don’t miss your valuable content. Blog content is easily shared by readers due to the social sharing links that are normally included within each blog post (see below … hint hint!).

Don’t have time?
SME businesses are often fully occupied running their business, and don’t have the resources on a regular basis to write their own blogs. In this situation, we are very happy to help. A good place to start is making a list of the problems that you regularly solve and questions you commonly hear from prospects and new customers, then provide us with bullet points of your solution – we can take it from there!

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Our move to the cloud for operational tools

June 2nd, 2019 by Heather Maloney

We have at last completed our move to cloud technologies to support our operations. It’s a no-brainer that if you were setting up a new business today you would start out with cloud based tools for your core functions: financials, employee management, sales and marketing, and operations. However, when your business has been running for more than a few years (13 years in our case), moving to the cloud can be a very time consuming exercise and cause lots of disruption. So in the first place you have to actually decide to move to the cloud, and then you need to choose which set of tools from the myriad available. Finally, a careful plan of each technology change will be vital to ensuring the least amount of negative impact.

It is important to remember that “cloud” is not the same as “located on the internet”. For more about this, check out our previous blog post: Cloud does not equal the Internet.

Whilst Contactpoint doesn’t provide migration services for moving to the cloud (there are service providers dedicated to this task across the various functions listed above), we like to do these things for ourselves, and we are often asked for recommendations on which tools to choose. So this blog post will describe our technology choices, the reasons for those, and the benefits we expect to achieve now that we have moved.

Financials
In the early days of Contactpoint, there was no such thing as a cloud based financial package. Initially we were using MYOB, but after finding that expensive to add anything useful to, we moved to Xero. At the time, Xero was the most obvious choice – it had been created from the ground up for the cloud. This definitely makes a difference; it means you never have to put up with a piece of functionality or a way to do things that has to cater for both offline users and online.

We’ve been on Xero for over 8 years, and I am very happy with it. There are some things we can’t do inside Xero, and we needed to change a couple of processes, but on the whole is suits us very well. Mostly they have brought functions that we needed to use an external plugin to achieve – like payroll – into the Xero platform over this period of time. The one exception that affects us is the recent removal of employee expenses management, which is a tad annoying and will hopefully be reversed.

Businesses which have a heavy reliance on purchasing (inbound goods) will usually have a separate commercial / purchasing function. Contactpoint doesn’t, so I can’t comment on whether the purchasing function of Xero is extensive enough.

We benefit from having financials in the cloud because:

  1. Our accountant can access it online, and provide advice without us needing to send a data file around (which is of course immediately out of date).
  2. Updates are provided on a regular basis to ensure our compliance is easy. For example the enforcement of single touch payroll by the ATO, which took all of about 1/2 an hour to introduce into our processes, because Xero had already done the hard work for us.
  3. Integration with 3rd party systems, such as banks for automatic loading of bank statements, is easy due to the APIs that are available.

Employee Management
As mentioned above, we use the Xero payroll for the financial and compliance. Over the years, we have experimented with online tools for managing the growth of our employees, but we now tend to do this using our back office tools instead.

We benefit from payroll in the cloud because:

  • Employees have ready access to the details of their payslips, leave calendar, superannuation contributions, via a web browser.
  • Security around these systems is provided, as core to the platform.
  • Compliance functions, such as creating and sending our end of year payment summaries, and pay slips, take next to no time.

Sales and Marketing
Many of the technologies used by the sales and marketing functions of businesses are facilitated by the back-office operational systems. Cloud sales and marketing tools, which manage prospects, lead nurturing, and quoting, include tools such as Salesforce, Hubspot and Pipedrive.

Because of the use of our in-house built client management solution (see below) we currently use that to support our sales and marketing functions.

Of course, we also use many other tools for sales and marketing, including Enudge for email marketing, SEMrush for digital marketing analytics, and our marketing website.

Operations
For operations, from a technology point of view, it’s useful to separate that into back-office (documents, spreadsheets, email, calendar, communications – chat and phone for example) and core operations (whatever that is for your business whether manufacturing, distribution, or service delivery).

Because our back-office functions are closely tied into our core operations (managing digital projects for our clients), and our core operations have for the past 13 years been facilitated by an in-house built, online solution, this made our transition to the cloud more complex. I spent over a month analysing more than 50 available tools to replace our project management system, and needed to also weigh up the impact of each solution on our back-office solution. The outcome was a decision to keep our current project management solution because it contains far broader functionality than the tools appropriate to our business i.e. we could purchase a very expensive tool and get 95% of the features we currently have and perhaps a few additional useful features, but the costs are not justified. Importing our existing data from 13 years was also problematic, with most solutions saying whilst you *can* do this, it is not recommended.

Back-office
For back-office functions, we selected Microsoft Office 365. This was the final step in our move to the cloud, and which we have moved to over a period of 6 months. The choice of back-office solution was really a toss up between Office 365 and GSuite (Google’s alternative). In the end, Office 365 provided the most extensive set of features for all our needs, even though some areas aren’t quite as good as GSuite. The costs were very similar between the two solutions.

Our back-office functions were previously delivered by:
– iiNet for Hosted Exchange Email.
– local installs of Microsoft Office for Excel, Word, Powerpoint and Outlook.
– DropBox for cloud-based file storage. We moved away from having a physical internal file server about 2 years ago to give us greater storage capacity, flexibility and reduce risk.
– Slack for internal chat communications (a more recent addition which helped to reduce email volumes and increase collaboration).
– 3CX for VoIP function (cloud based telephone system) which also included a mobile app so that internal calls could be picked up remotely on mobile.

Office 365 replaces all of the above via the following components:
– Outlook Email
– Office 365 versions of Excel, Word, Powerpoint and Outlook – we also install these locally, and of course they are updated free of any additional charge.
– Microsoft Sharepoint provides cloud-based file storage. We were paying for ~1.2Tb of data storage through DropBox. After moving all our files (and a wee bit of cleanup on the way), our file storage is now around 250Mb. A significant part of that space reduction was due to the way that DropBox counts storage usage i.e. we never had anywhere near 1.2Tb of our own files.
– Microsoft Teams for chat.
– Microsoft Skype for Business for VoIP function (cloud based telephone system). Whilst this is more expensive than the 3CX system, the quality of the voice is better than the fully cloud 3CX system we had moved to when we moved office and went 100% wireless. Previously we had an internal PC for our VoIP system.

We benefit from back-office in the cloud because:

  • No cost to purchase upgrades to office software.
  • Cost reduction – DropBox alone was costing us >$300 per month, and was not providing the collaborative tools that are afforded by Office 365. iiNet was costing ~$100 per month to support all the email accounts required by our team. Add to that the cost of Slack and 3CX (annual maintenance + monthly costs), and the outcome was a ~20% net reduction of monthly costs.
  • Security around these systems is provided as core to the platform and managed through one tool. Reducing the number of environments makes it easier to control security.
  • Quicker to scale up as we grow employee numbers.
  • Better collaboration functionality. Whilst DropBox facilitates collaboration through DropBox Paper, this is separate to the file storage area, so it wasn’t really practical to use. Now multiple team members can work real time on editing documents, presentations and spreadsheets – way better than email these items around to the team and then one person collating the outcome. Using Skype for Business provides access to video calls with our clients without needing to invest in a separate tool.
  • Improved voice quality with our phone system.
  • Telephone System Management. Having the phone system integrated with our back-office system (Skype users are also Microsoft Teams users) makes management of communications that much easier.

Core Operations

As mentioned above, our core operational system remains our in-house built online client area. This facilitates a broad range of tasks across our organisation, including standard processes, project management, ad-hoc client requests (tickets), work prioritisation, prospect management and much more. Office 365 provides some of these tools through Microsoft Teams, so it could be tempting to move some functions into that environment, however having as many of the components of our current operational system in the one location is more important. Microsoft Teams is also a little immature with regard to its project team functionality, although it appears they are committed to enhancing it significantly in the short – medium term.

Our core operational system is regularly enhanced to meet our ongoing needs and to better support the services we provide our clients. Moving to Office 365 meant that we had to remove pre-existing integrations with Slack and DropBox, so we will be investigating re-introducing these functions through integrations with Office 365.

We also use numerous other cloud systems in the course of our operations including Figma – cloud based design tool, SEMrush and Google Analytics – cloud based digital marketing analytics tools, BitBucket – cloud based version control for software, TimeDoctor – cloud based time tracking solution, KeeperSecurity – another Microsoft solution for managing client credentials, and more. It is unlikely that all of the operational tools our business requires will ever be provided within the one system, so having a solution like ours which can be easily integrated with other online tools via APIs is very important.

Now that we have completed the move of our back-office systems to the cloud, we will be exploring additional integrations between the various cloud solutions mentioned above and Office 365. We expect these opportunities will also increase over time.

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Latest trends in website design, and why …

January 22nd, 2019 by Heather Maloney

We have just undertaken the huge task of re-designing and re-building the Contactpoint website. Until last week, our website design was over 5 years old, which is ancient in web timelines, particularly for a web design & development company. Our previous website design was aimed squarely at indicating that we were working with the Windows Metro Tiles in our mobile app designs and builds. The Metro Tiles design style was fairly new at the time, which confirms just how old our site design was!

When you have a large website, with lots of historical content created as a result of hundreds of hours of investment, and when your site covers many areas of endeavour and really matters to the way your organisation is viewed in the marketplace, then refreshing your website is a significant undertaking.

Do you have the impression that your website looks a little out of date, but aren’t sure why? Are you wondering whether it is worth the time and resources required to refresh your website? In this article I will address both of these questions, and of course, I’d be very happy to discuss this questions with you if you need a sounding board.

Current Design Trends

First, let’s have a look at the latest design trends that you will be seeing in the newest websites, and some reasons behind those trends.

1. Cartoon / Hand Drawn images:

Latest design trends - illustrations

It is currently very popular to use illustrations, rather than photos, particularly in software-as-a-service or start-up technology company websites. Illustrations are helpful to convey new ideas without the constraint of a photo, and explain a new concept in pictures rather than lots of words. Similarly, we are also seeing much more use of hand-drawn, unique icons to help direct the user to the right information, and to solidify a point being made. The quirky and hand-drawn style of illustrations and icons make websites more friendly and engaging. You can see this in the icons used on the Yelp website and Slack website for example.

2. Lots of white/empty space providing separation of sections of content, also with less information per section. Both of these visual devices make it very easy for the visitor to take in the content, and focus on the key point/s. The new Firefox website shown above is also an example of this trend. This also makes mobile responsiveness easier, as you have less content to deal with on the mobile, however, it needs to be balanced against the impact on search engine optimisation; Google works out where your site should be ranked primarily on the content you include in your site, so you need to have significant amounts of content.

3. Animation of icons, logos and form fields. We won’t be going back to the days of flaming logos, however, with new programming libraries being created that facilitate easier, sophisticated animations using Javascript, animation is being more freely employed to:

  • provide visual cues to the visitor to suggest interaction points
  • gain the attention of the visitor to more important parts of the site
  • provide a delightful user experience

For a beautiful example of an animated logo, check out: Fubiz (you need to wait first for the whole site to download, and the logo animation doesn’t run constantly so you might need to be patient). The Myer website currently employs an animated logo to emphasise the “My” in Myer matching their TV advertising slogan. The Ikea website uses an animated icon to highlight information about their parcel delivery service.

4. Use of video. Like animation, video grabs the attention of the visitor, and provides for deeper engagement with your audience. The use of drones to create unique footage is also continuing to drive the popularity of video, as seen in the home page element of the new Brighter Lines website.

Video is increasing being used in more subtle applications – backgrounds that automatically play in order to add atmosphere to your website without requiring the user to focus on and listen to audio at the same time.

5. Design for mobile. This is not so much a new trend, but designing for a great experience on mobile devices has become even more important with Google’s recent change to “mobile first” for ranking of websites, whether you are searching via your mobile or not. Not only does your website need to look great on very small screens (and every other size) it must also be very fast to load on mobile.

6. Headings, Headlines and Buttons. Examples of the latest trends in headings, headlines and buttons are shown below. These trends are partly about fashion, but also strive to make text shorter, and calls to action, very clear and obvious. They are used to take the visitor down the desired path.

7. Typography. Choice of fonts has become more important with Google making it easier to incorporate a unique font into your website, without sacrificing load speed or readability. The font used in your website will be focused on ease of reading on screen which is why sans serif fonts dominate. Large fonts, and capitalised headings, are used widely, as shown in the examples above. The space between lines and paragraphs are carefully chosen for readability and aesthetics.

8. Cards, tiles and panels. Google’s Material Design was launched in 2014, incorporating flat design – predominantly solid, strong colours – bringing to digital design the concept of surfaces with edges that guide the user, but can extend based on interaction due to the digital nature of the surfaces. “Cards” and tiles with subtle drop shadows, becoming more pronounced on hover, help to focus the visitor’s attention as well as provide subtle interactivity with your website. Google also provide programming language around the elements of their design system to assist in their implementation. Cards and panels are usually implemented in a grid system, which aids mobile responsiveness. An example of cards implemented by CodePen.io is shown below.

Reddit and other news style sites use this design element extensively.

9. Asymmetrical Designs As a break away from the extensive use of grids and boxes, asymmetrical designs are becoming more frequent. The Cloco website is a great example of asymmetry. Our new Contactpoint home page – custom technology Melbourne with angled background sections are an example, leading the visitor’s eye to want to keep scrolling down to see what comes next.

10. Hardware driving design trends. For mobile app design, the iPhone X requires special treatment due to the “notch” cut out of the top of the display and the introduction of “Super Retina” display. The digital screens now surrounding stadiums such as the MCG and inside the Rod Laver Arena, also drive design changes as they extend the boundaries of what is possible, and increase expectations of viewers.

The above is not an exhaustive list of all the design trends you will be seeing on the web, but it will certainly help you to pinpoint why your site might be looking a little old compared to newer sites.

Why is it important to keep up with design trends?

If you are not in the fashion industry you might question why you need to try and keep up. Certainly, we are not planning to change our website design every time something new hits the web. However, the design of your website, and all your marketing material on and offline, is a powerful indicator of who you are, and who you serve.

The following are important reasons why you might consider a design refresh:

  1. Fashion. There are those who make up the numbers of the “standard deviation” (the outliers who like to start new trends, or go off grain) and then there is the majority; people behave in a tribal way, following the trends of the tribe or group of people with whom they want to identify. The concept of Tribal Marketing asserts that when the trends and look of the tribe that your organisation serves moves, you need to move with them so that you are still recognised as being part of the group and serving that group.
  2. Keeping up. The desire to keep up with the latest and greatest, or not miss out, is a strong drive. Looking outdated can be a signal that your products and services are also not up to date. Depending on your industry, falling behind can mean losing competitive advantage or missing out of value available to others.
  3. First Impression. Research has shown that website visitors make a judgement call about who you are in a fraction of a second. Having a good first impression via a strong website design is important to keep a prospect on your site long enough to find out more about your offer.
  4. Improvements in experience. Most of the design trends described above are not just about changing for the sake of fashion; the changes are part of constant improvement to help guide the people you serve, and want to serve, to action, and communicate your most important messages more clearly.
  5. Communication. Getting your message across – all of your message – can be delivered so much more effectively through design and visual elements, compared to all the words it would take to deliver the same message. The other side of this coin is that your design might be communicating messages to your visitor that you aren’t intending, especially if it has been the same for a long time.

We understand all the steps involved in designing a new look site that appropriately reflects your organisation and positions you correctly for your target audience, and then building your new site to achieve the greatest engagement of your visitors. Don’t hesitate to get in touch to discuss your website or web application design.

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The Fourth Industrial Revolution is Business as Usual

November 27th, 2018 by Heather Maloney

the fourth industrial revolution

I work in the industry that has been pronouncing or driving dramatic societal changes for the past 3 decades:

  1. The internet … I remember that catch phrase in the 90s of “if you aren’t on the internet within 12 months your business will be dead”.
  2. The year 2000 bug … stock your pantries, the world is about to end when equipment stops because of the general lack of support for a 4 digit year.
  3. Closely followed by the dot.com crash of the early 2000s caused by speculative, and outlandishly overvalued investments in technology companies.
  4. The internet of things was discussed around 2010 which predicted that within a short period of time all manner of things will be interconnected, utilising the internet, to provide a dramatically different way of living. That more “things” would be connected to the internet than people.

All of the above became kind of true (and the internet of things is still playing out / expanding), but not reaching the zenith proposed by the vendors of the theories; yes, vendors – many of the voices behind these ideas stand to gain by promoting the concepts.

So, it is no surprise that as we approach the end of this decade, my colleagues and others have started talking about the next big dramatic change – the 4th Industrial Revolution (‘4IR’). 4IR is fuelled by technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, cloud technologies, and 5G. Many of those discussing 4IR predict the destruction of humanity as robots take over, leading to mass unemployment.

“The fourth industrial revolution is growing out of the third [the digital revolution] but is considered a new era rather than a continuation because of the explosiveness of its development and the disruptiveness of its technologies. According to Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum and author of The Fourth Industrial Revolution, the new age is differentiated by the speed of technological breakthroughs, the pervasiveness of scope and the tremendous impact of new systems.”(1) Those talking about 4IR want us to embrace the new technologies and allow humanity to explore them to their fullest extent in order to achieve great improvements in the lives of everyone. Greater sharing of knowledge and resources than ever seen before is key, which in turn requires a new economic model to ensure that every person in the world has their needs met in a fair and equitable way. End environmental degradation, poverty, homelessness, hunger, and provide equitable access to education, nutritious food and significantly advanced medical care.

I listen to talk about 4IR with what I view is a healthy dose of skepticism. I agree that technology will continue to promote and support change at an exponential rate. But when it is all said and done, we are still humans, living our human lives. We naturally more easily understand, and therefore trust, people who are similar to ourselves – whether that’s the language we speak, where we went to school, where we have grown up, the details of our upbringing, our worldview. It is my expectation that moving to a new economic sharing model is the zenith that will never be anywhere near achieved, despite how attractive it may sound. We will not succumb to, or comply with, a small number of organisations controlling all the data and resources, and their distribution. Different groups of people will continue to evolve technologies to solve common problems, in different ways. We are already seeing push back – Google have recently been successfully fined a record 5 billion dollars in Europe for anti-trust. Also in Europe the GDPR legislation is pushing back against the will of corporations such as Google and Facebook to use data at their own discretion, just because they provided a free service when they were gathering that data.

It is my view that we will continue to explore the benefits of new technologies; some will make vast sums of money from new inventions and innovations, some will lose their jobs and need to retrain to do something else, but the vast majority of humans will keep living their lives with a few extra conveniences that modify what used to be the norm, and hopefully improved medical outcomes and a cleaner environment. On the whole we will become more knowledgeable; whether we become wiser remains to be seen.

I also believe that every type of industry will be affected by rapid technological developments. That includes technology companies! We are constantly under pressure to offshore, change technologies to the latest thing, provide services and solutions for very low cost or free. I am careful to not just jump onto the latest bandwagon for ourselves or our clients, but to make sober decisions which appropriately weigh up risks and benefits, and also reflect my personal values.

Change affecting business is nothing new. That’s part of running a business – recognising, adapting to, or taking advantage of the change going on around you is a fundamental skill of a business owner, those responsible for business strategies, and the corporate board.

(1) https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/fourth-industrial-revolution

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Cloud does not equal the Internet

November 13th, 2018 by Heather Maloney

Cloud does not equal the internet
People frequently use the term “cloud” or “in the cloud” to simply mean located on the internet or their private intranet. I’ve done it myself, for the sake of expedience. However, they aren’t the same thing, and it’s important to understand why so that you can wisely choose the internet services you are accessing for your business or in your personal life. For example, cloud hosting is not the same as shared web hosting, for the hosting of your organisation’s website.

The internet is the connection of computers around the globe using TCP/IP protocol to manage the connections, and participating in the sharing of information using the HTTP protocol (the worldwide web).

The term “Cloud” or “Cloud Computing” refers to technology services, usually delivered over the internet, which are characterised by:

  • Distribution of a system (program and its data) across many servers and locations, to provide for greater performance, but still providing up to date and correct data.
  • Automatic provisioning (addition of greater capacity via more CPUs, memory and disk space) to meet minute-by-minute requirements.

Applications embodying cloud computing are often further labelled as SaaS (software as a service), PaaS (platform as a service), IaaS (infrastructure as a service), and other ‘…aaS’ names. These labels draw attention to which part of the abstraction of the technology is controlled by the buyer compared to the service provider. However, not all applications given these labels actually provide the two main characteristics that I am asserting differentiates cloud computing ? distribution across many servers, and automatic provisioning. Instead, software delivered as a service via logging into a web application may in fact be stored on one server, in one location, with one database, and require the service provider to manually procure and set up new servers when usage demands the additional resources.

The characteristics of cloud technology provide advantages and disadvantages which I will discuss in a moment, but let’s first consider the technological challenge cloud technology is trying to solve.

As you can imagine, there’s an awful lot of information contained within Facebook. Millions of users each adding several posts, and making hundreds of comments, on a daily basis, adds up very, very quickly. Not only is there a lot of data being stored and accessed by users of Facebook, people are posting and reading comments from all around the globe; some on their phones while riding on a train, others are sitting at their desktop computer in the back of beyond, and everything in between. No one will use Facebook if it takes more than a few seconds for the content to appear on their screen, and Facebook is used by people all around the globe. Facebook is just one example of an application which handles vast amounts of data and serves vast numbers of people.

To make Facebook possible, as well as other applications like it, the underlying technology has to be distributed across multiple servers and locations – a distributed system. There are numerous technical models used to achieve a distributed system. Below are brief descriptions of just a few of the techniques to give you a feel for the complexities involved.

Techniques

Sharding. A term allowing a single database to be stored across multiple servers by allocating logical portions of the data onto different servers. A very rudimentary example would be determining which server to store the data based on a range of identifiers such as in the case of user accounts the decision could be made to store all data with a user ID between 1 and 100,000 on server 1, between 100,001 and 200,000 on server 2, and so on. The application retrieving the data would send the query to the application server, and then the database server would work out which server to get the data from based on the user ID, get that data and return it back to the user. There are many options for the way that a database may be divided; the right way for a particular application will need to consider the way current data is spread across it’s attributes as well as how future data may grow.

NOSQL. The example given above for sharding described separation of data contained within a relational database; the most common database architecture up until very recently, which as the name suggests relates tables of information to one another by linking IDs. A person’s record in a database may contain an ID to another table storing the details of the school they attend (name, address, phone number etc) – hence being called a relational database. NOSQL or Document Databases have become more popular recently as they can be spread more easily across multiple servers because all the data associated with the person in the sharding example would be stored in one document rather than spread amongst related tables. Document databases often come with functionality built into them to manage distributing documents in the collection across multiple servers.

Caching. Storing data located near to users, providing faster access particularly for commonly used information is referred to as caching. Facebook makes heavy use of memcache to store recently accessed Facebook information in memory, which is much faster to read than from the Facebook MySQL database which is housed on hundreds of thousands of servers. Content Delivery Networks (‘CDN’) are an example of caching of web content to ensure it is closer to your website visitor.

Other concepts such as virtualization, utility computing, and grid computing are also key in the implementation of cloud computing particularly with regard to auto-provisioning of additional computing resources.

Advantages

We have touched on some of the advantages of cloud computing in relation to the problems it is trying to solve. The advantages can be summarised as:

  • Security. A cloud solution must be focused on security in order to have success over the long term, and they usually have significant resources at the ready to keep security up to date, and respond quickly when a new threat arises. Look for:
    • End-to-end encryption which ensures the encryption of all data in-transit across the Internet and stored at-rest in the cloud, with the encryption keys held by you and used to encrypt the data before it leaves your computer.
    • Sophisticated access controls allowing you to set role-based authentication to control what exact data each user can and cannot view, edit or share.
  • Performance. Because there is likely a server nearby to the user, rather than the user’s request needing to travel half way around the world and back, you can expect the speed of cloud systems to be significantly better. Performance is a key factor for organisations with a workforce distributed around the globe.
  • Scale. The ability to distribute an application and/or its data across multiple servers and locations removes or significantly reduces the constraints on how large an application can grow or how many customers it can efficiently serve.
  • Cost. Another key benefit of cloud is that usually someone else is responsible for concerns such as installation of software and purchase of licenses, management of software patches, backups, hardware upgrades and repairs, anti-virus and protecting against malicious attacks, all handled by the provider of cloud computing rather than the organisation requiring the technology. When comparing the cost of cloud and non-cloud you must take into consideration the total cost of ownership of the alternatives. Auto-scaling (also referred to as elastic computing) is a factor in both cost and performance, as it allows systems to scale up (additional costs) when demand increases, and scale back (reduce costs) when demand is low, allowing the owner of the system to only pay for resources when they are required.

Disadvantages

It is important to also be aware of the potentially significant disadvantages of cloud computing:

  • Data ownership / sovereignty. Where is your data really? Who has access to it? Have you read the terms and conditions with respect to the ownership of the data? Can you remove your data permanently, or will it still be accessible by the cloud provider even after your account is closed? Often the owner of the data you place into a cloud computing solution is actually the cloud provider, not you. To help mitigate this issue, some cloud providers are implementing servers in additional countries including Australia, to help organisations to use cloud services without moving their data overseas, but you need to check where your data is stored; often such storage choice will increase the cost of the solution. NB: even if your data starts out being stored in Australia, if the data is owned by a US company, they may be forced to move the data back to the US for scrutiny by American law enforcement agencies – this has already happened in the case of Google in February 2017.
  • Privacy. Facebook has been criticised at the highest levels of American government, and by governments around the world, for the way in which the data it gathers (albeit via their free service) has been used and sold on to 3rd parties. The situation with Facebook and other cloud solutions has been a factor in leading to the new European privacy legislation (GDPR). When you utilise cloud platforms, are you comfortable with manner in which they use the data that you are storing within it (read their terms and conditions)? Can you trust the organisation to abide by their promises?
  • Control. Can you create the functionality you need to support your particular processes, or are you now constrained by the services provided by the cloud platform? Using a cloud service to remove the need to create that service constrains you to the functionality the service offers. The more you depend on a 3rd party service, the less likely you are to be able to innovate in that area of your business on application, which may well slow your organisation down and remove your opportunity to create competitive advantage.
  • Cost. Whilst being able to pay per second for your application using cloud technologies may sound like it is going to reduce your cost, if your application isn’t built to take advantage of cloud technologies, the opposite may occur and your costs can be significantly more than using simpler internet technologies. Cost can also be significantly greater if you use the wrong technology on the wrong cloud provider. For example, whilst the major suppliers of cloud technology usually allow you to run any type of application on their cloud servers, the cost of running those different types may be very different. Running a MS SQL database on Google Cloud is extremely expensive, for example, compared to running it in the Microsoft Azure platform. You need to choose your technology wisely.
  • Skills. Not everyone developing applications is experienced in working on large scale applications, and the implementation of applications using cloud technologies is relatively new, so finding personnel with the required skills can be very challenging.

Whilst I have primarily been discussing cloud computing from the point of view of building an application such as Facebook, cloud computing underpins solutions such as Office365, DropBox and GSuite. These applications allow users all over the world, sometimes the one person in different parts of the world in one day, to access their data – emails and files for example – and programs such as GSuite and Word Online, with great performance, and without the data being [noticeably] out of date, most of the time. Such applications are also increasingly providing users with the capability to collaborate on files e.g. contributing to an online document simultaneously, again while located in different cities and countries.

For such commodity type applications, where easy access from anywhere, across multiple devices, makes business much easier, the decision to sign up for cloud computing may feel like a no-brainer. But you still need to consider the disadvantages discussed above.

In summary, not all internet applications are using cloud computing technologies. Cloud computing is a complex area, utilising multiple strategies aimed at providing up to date information, to mass users all around the world, with great speed. It is important that you way up the advantages and disadvantages of cloud computing for both your commodity technology needs (email, file sharing, file storage, and other operational systems) as well as when developing your own applications.

If you would like to read more:
https://enterprisersproject.com/article/2017/1/three-things-companies-must-know-about-data-sovereignty-when-moving-cloud
Use of Memcache by Facebook: https://www.usenix.org/system/files/conference/nsdi13/nsdi13-final170_update.pdf

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Digital marketing … for those who started business more than 5 years ago

September 29th, 2018 by Heather Maloney

If you started your business more than 5 years ago, you could be forgiven to believing that online marketing was something to try out if you had a bit of spare marketing budget. Times have changed. Over the last few years, the reality of digital marketing for small business has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have for most businesses. Consumers are more connected than ever before, and their default behaviour when looking for anything ? products, services or information ? is to grab their mobile phone and search online. Even word of mouth has gone digital; recommendations happen across social media, and online reviews can have a significant impact on your business.

Bottom line: digital marketing is more important now for small business than ever before.

We have many clients for whom we have carried out digital marketing across a wide range of platforms and strategies, many of which achieved significant increases in new business enquiries or sales. Some of our clients now receive the majority of all their incoming work through digital marketing channels.

That’s not to say that word of mouth is unimportant; it’s simply that digital marketing provides you with immediate results and a wider reach at a lower cost.

However, it is very possible to implement digital marketing poorly, and therefore not achieve the results you are seeking. That’s often why we are engaged by our clients to design, write, execute and manage digital marketing for them.

Digital marketing can have a bit of a bad reputation. Unfortunately, there are many less scrupulous service providers who use digital marketing tactics to grow their own business and then fail to deliver tangible results for their clients. Even worse, they use tactics to “game” online platforms like Google for short term gains but ultimately end up with the client being penalised.

At Contactpoint, we take an end-to-end approach to digital solutions for our clients, and digital marketing is just one part of it. It’s our holistic approach that helps us deliver real results for clients, as we take the time to discuss our client’s business needs and only then recommend an approach for digital marketing that can deliver results. We never recommend the latest digital marketing technology just because it’s flavour of the month, nor will we cheat the system to get the quick results.

Just one example of our success in delivering digital marketing results for our clients is Nortan; providers of air conditioning and heating service and installation. Via a range of activities including a great mobile responsive website, pay per click advertising and SEO, Nortan are kept very busy all year round with new incoming leads, and have grown their business significantly over the time we have been providing digital marketing services. In fact, from time-to-time Nortan ask us to pause their digital marketing campaigns, because they are too busy with new work! What a good problem to have!

Nortan heating and cooling services

We work very closely with our clients to ensure that the level of business digital marketing campaigns produce are manageable.

If you would like to revisit your use of digital marketing to grow your business, please feel free to call Heather Maloney for a chat.

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The What and Why of Inbound Marketing

June 26th, 2018 by Heather Maloney

Inbound marketing (aka ‘permission marketing’) refers to the strategy of attracting leads for your business via company-created digital content. That content addresses the needs which your products or services fulfil or problems which they solve, resulting in the right people (those trying to solve that problem or fulfil the identified desire) approaching your organization, and working their way through your material in order to self-select or qualify themselves as a potential customer.

So, inbound marketing is a strategy. You need to assess whether it is a strategy that is suitable for your particular business and marketplace.

Inbound Marketing Strategy

Why Inbound Marketing?

Because everyone hates being sold to … it’s that simple!

When was the last time you were on the end of a cold call, and you thought “oh yes, why not spend the next 15 minutes listening to this offer about why I should switch electricity companies?” And even if you have engaged in such a phone call lately – perhaps to the person from a very worthy charity, rather than the electricity provider – did you end up buying / donating or just wishing them a nice day?

If you are in sales, and you only have to talk to people who are already in the market for your products / services, your job is so much easier.

Inbound marketing the focus is on providing help or value, rather than making a sale. The sale will come as a natural result of providing value and solutions.

Inbound marketing also addresses the new buyer behaviour that we have seen evolve over the last decade; customers carrying out personal research and practically making the decision with regard to what they want to buy, before they ever talk to a vendor. Also, with the proliferation of paid TV, many more free to air channels, internet radio, and free video content, ensuring that a more traditional advertisement is seen or heard is a lot more difficult. This article provides many statistics showing how effective inbound marketing can be compared to outbound marketing.

Please note, I am not saying that traditional marketing no longer works … I heard a presentation from a career telemarketer just last week, explaining the benefits of lead generation via cold sales calls. You need to ensure that your choice of marketing strategy is right for your market and your ideal customers.

Fleshing out your Inbound Marketing Strategy

If you decide that an inbound marketing strategy is right for your organisation, then you need to:

  1. Plan the content you are going to create in order to solve your prospects questions and engage them in their journey of discovery, building trust in your organisation, and desire for your products and services.
  2. Determine which tools or platforms you will use to make your content accessible to prospects.
  3. Create the content!
  4. Disseminate the content and make it easy for people to find, and/or pay for traffic.
  5. Measure and analyse the results, improving the content over time.

Clearly implementing an inbound marketing strategy requires effort and co-ordination of a variety of activities. Utilising a team of resources will help you implement more quickly. Tools such as a content calendar will help you to plan out the creation and distribution of your content in a logical manner.

Which Tools should I use?

Inbound marketing = making your marketing material extremely accessible so that your prospects can easily find the answers to their questions or solve their problems (i.e. find your products or services), when they are actively looking. Your content must add value, and guide prospects for whom your products and services are a good fit, towards the point of purchase. Some people will be in a hurry and will purchase immediately that they find a solution, so being able to buy from any piece of your digital content is important. Other prospects will take their time, evaluate multiple options, test you out, and then finally purchase days, weeks or months down the track. For such buyers, your content needs to educate and build trust.

The following tools are useful in implementing an inbound marketing strategy:

  • Search engine optimisation (‘SEO’) – this activity is very important for ensuring that your digital content ranks above other organisations competing in the same space. Over time you want to “own the topic”, that is, be on the first page of results for every search on relevant words or phrases. SEO obviously needs content in order for search engines to point somewhere. The following types of content will deliver high ranks in the search engines the mostly quickly:
    • Blogs – either a blog on your own website, or blogs published on other popular websites, pointing back to your website.
    • Videos – most commonly distributed via YouTube, giving you access to people searching through this video search engine.
    • Reviews – usually in 3rd party platforms such as Google Reviews. However, they can also take the form of testimonials in your own website, including video reviews.
    • Website content – including online courses, guides, survey results, reports and research, white papers, diagnostic tools.
    • Press releases – often distributed via dedicated PR sites.
  • Pay-per-click advertisements (‘PPC’) – whilst this might sound like traditional outbound marketing, because you can configure your ads to only appear in response to searches for specific keywords or phrases by people located in a particular region, PPC ads can be very useful for bringing visitors to your website who are trying to solve a particular problem. PPC is very useful for bringing in immediate readers of your content while you are waiting for your organic ranks (SEO) to improve. Google Adwords and Bing are the main two platforms for PPC ads, because they are the most used tools for searching for answers to problems. PPC ads must be supported by dedicated content on your website, also called ‘landing pages’. People who click on your ad will arrive on your landing page. To get the best return on your investment in that click (you are paying per click), it is important that the content delivers on the ad, and then takes the visitor along their journey of [hopefully] deciding to buy from you.
  • Social media – people talk about topics on social media, as well as talking about their lives. Find where topics related to your products and services are being discussed, and then get involved in the conversation. Posting your own content in your social media accounts will also help people to find your content when they search for it in the social media platforms ? most social media platforms use hashtags (#) for helping people find content on a particular topic.
  • Social media advertisements – this is PPC within social media platforms. The difference is that for some of the social media platforms, you can configure your ads to only show for people who match very specific demographics.
  • Email and SMS marketing – once people have identified themselves as actively seeking to solve a problem or fulfil a desire, hopefully for your product, they may subscribe to receive future email and SMS messages from you. To inspire visitor opt-in for email / SMS there must be compelling value contained in your digital content. Often your blog content and other website content will be pushed to subscribers in a logical manner.
  • Marketing automation – tools which automatically send a choreographed series of content to subscribe to learn more about your products and services. The more sophisticated of these automation tools will start and stop the delivery of your content, based on the manner in which your prospect is interacting with your content.

One of the great advantages of digital marketing tools is that they enable you to measure the interactions of people with your content, and identify where visitors are dropping off. This can help you to improve your content and marketing process over time, and therefore increase the rate of conversion of visitors to paying customers.

As part of our digital marketing services we would be delighted to help you determine whether an inbound marketing strategy is right for your organization, define and plan your strategy, create the required content, implement, and analyse the results.

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How can Business (big and small) Harness Artificial Intelligence?

April 30th, 2018 by Heather Maloney

Futuristic city with delivery person sending off drones with packages from skyscraper
A recent Contactpoint blog post described the way in which artificial intelligence and machine learning are impacting our world at large and how it works. This blog attempts to answer the question “How can business, both small and large, utilise AI to make significant advancements?” AI is certainly not a technology only available for large corporations.

I assert that there are 3 main ways that your business can benefit from artificial intelligence (‘AI’):

  1. By integrating your website / app with software that has been improved by the use of AI. Such integration will significantly improve the value provided by your solution.
  2. By using software that has been improved by AI for running your business, thus significantly improving the manner in which you run your business, on an ongoing basis.
  3. By running your own deep learning exercises to determine the answer to a difficult question, which either improves your business performance or your understanding of your clients.

I expect that you already, perhaps unknowingly, use the outcome of AI or machine learning every day. Understanding it will help you harness it even more, so let’s explore just a few examples of each of these opportunities.

Integration
The Google search engine is underpinned by the use of AI – the more web pages it crawls, the better and better it gets at providing people with valid and useful search results. That’s part of the benefit of AI; traditional programming requires modification over time in response to the way people use it, with AI driven solutions, they learn and improve on their own.

Baidu, the so-called Chinese version of Google, allows you to upload an image, and request “similar images”. The search for similar images is not based on text around the images on a web page but solely uses the content of the images (2). Images, in technology terms, are made up of pixels of colour, which individually tell you very little. It is the manner in which the colours are combined, and the hard and soft edges around groups of pixels, which determine what is actually represented. AI underpins Baidu’s ability to find similar images – a very complex problem, and probably not something you could program a computer to perform. Traditionally the ability for a programmer to tell a computer how to achieve a goal was a prerequisite to solving that goal programmatically. With the use of AI, instead of telling the computer how to solve the problem, the program is allowed to train itself to solve the problem, getting better and better at achieving a task the more times it is performed.

We all use text search to find the things we need in Google or other search engines. It’s been possible to integrate the Google Search Engine into your website or app for many years, including restricting the search results to a particular domain or set of domains, thus providing excellent search results to your visitors without needing to write a search engine algorithm yourself. The ability to also search by images may be the differentiator that your website or app needs to deepen the value for your customers.

Other AI enriched applications that may enhance your application include:

  • Voice recognition – for speech to text and voice control of your app.
  • Language translation.
  • Image recognition e.g. Facebook suggesting name tags for people in photos you upload.
  • Route planning e.g. navigating from one place to another, taking traffic and other factors into consideration.

Clickup.com, a project management software, provides another example of integration. They announced this month that Clickup is now integrated with Alexa and Google Talk, allowing users to quickly interact with the online software by voice (3).
Google and Microsoft allow you to play with some of their AI enhanced functions via websites (4).

Operations
There are many functions that all businesses carry out. These functions are attracting the application of AI in order to make the tools used to complete these tasks, exponentially better than they have been before, and thereby attract new business.

Keeping up with the last news in your industry during your morning commute is now so much easier thanks to tools such as Voice Aloud which enables your smart phone to read an article to you while you drive (carefully of course). Your smart phone will also allow you to search using voice commands, using Google Voice Assistant or the iPhone Siri, allowing you to search hands free.
I recently asked my Android phone “Okay Google, what do I have on today?” expecting to have a list of my appointments read to me – it did that and, then started playing me 2 – 3 minute snippets of daily news recorded by various news agencies around Australia. It was a fantastic way to keep up-to-date and it “learned” that behaviour all on its own.

Google Search enables you to find relevant information, and this search is very accurate, powered by AI. It’s very important for Google’s revenue from online advertisements that Google Adwords provides relevant ads to searchers, because it is the relevance that inspires people to click on an ad, thus earning Google revenue. Similarly ads which appear in amongst Facebook news feeds are very reliable for showing your ad to the right audience, and once you have achieved excellent click through the result of Facebook’s AI research ensures that it will promote your ad to “look-a-like” audiences, based on what it knows about the people who already clicked. You can now much more confidently spend money on pay-per-click, because you can tailor your ads to specifically targeted audiences.

In a recent Contactpoint blog we talked about chatbots – the best of these are underpinned by AI, improving their results the more they are used so that they can help answer an inbound question before the human gets involved.

A number of online customer service and customer relationship management tools are now underpinned by AI. In these functions AI is bringing valuable insights as you use the tools, such as:
– Which clients are at the greatest risk of leaving you? (5)
– Which phrases and styles of interacting with customers produce the greatest sales results?
– What are the most important additional products or services to provide to your customers?

The better banking and financial management tools are now underpinned by AI to help you identify fraud (6). Similarly computer networks are being better secured from intrusion, viruses and malware now by solutions that use AI to detect unusual behaviour (7).

If your operations involve designing products and engineering, AI is making great inroads into design tools to help speed up the process (12).

Actionable Insights / Solving Problems
So far we have considered AI lead improvements to more general problems. Your business will be operating in a particular domain in which you are an expert, and in which there are very specific problems that have not yet been solved, or can’t be solved quickly & reliably for a large number of customers. This is where the power of AI may be the most potent, because machine learning / deep learning can be used to arrive at breakthroughs in your particular domain. Whilst it helps if you have lots of data in order to feed the deep learning process, for smaller businesses, you may be able to access public data to achieve the same goal, or use pre-existing neural networks to solve your similar problem.

Tools such as Chorus.ai are ready to take your organisation’s live data, in order to provide you with valuable insights in a specific operational area (8). In the case of Chorus.ai it analyses your meetings, particularly sales meetings, to help you get the best performance out of future meetings.

AI is being used to great effect by large corporations such as Walmart to quickly respond when high turnover products look like running out of stock, recently reporting a year-on-year 63% increase in sales (10).

Smaller organisations are also using AI to gain actionable insights, including a Zoo which now has a much better accuracy in predicting high attendance, and therefore staffing requirements, based on using AI to determine all the factors (not just weather) that increase visitor rates (10).

Domo is a tool created to help businesses, small and large, collate data from a wide range of sources (social media, ecommerce, chat bots etc), and help an organisation spot trends in real time (11).
In the area of product design and engineering, a concept called Generative Design underpinned by AI, is enabling faster design and many more possible designs to choose from by allowing all the constraints of the product to be entered, and then allowing the program to generate a large number of possible solutions (13).

However, for a problem more specific to your industry or expertise, you may need to perform a highly customised deep learning experiment. Once you have determined the question you need to answer for your specific area of expertise and industry, there are 7 steps in performing your own AI or deep learning experiment:

  • Gathering data
  • Preparing the data
  • Choosing an AI model to suit your question / domain
  • Training the model with data which contains the results / answers
  • Evaluation of the performance of the model
  • Tuning of the factors determined by the model
  • Applying the model to fresh data in order to gain insights or greater performance. (1)

As a business owner or leader you should be considering the way in which artificial intelligence or machine learning can change the way in which you operate and solve your customer’s problems. Don’t hesitate to get in contact if you would like to discuss how AI can be put to work for your organisation.

Read this article to understand more about how machine learning works, and how artificial intelligence is impacting our world.

If you would like to discuss how AI might benefit your organisation, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Heather Maloney.

References:
(1) https://towardsdatascience.com/the-7-steps-of-machine-learning-2877d7e5548e
(2) https://www.wired.com/2013/06/baidu-virtual-search/
(3) https://clickup.com/blog/alexa-google-assistant-project-management/
(4) https://aidemos.microsoft.com/ & https://experiments.withgoogle.com/ai
(5) http://www.bizdata.com.au/customer-smartdetect?gclid=CjwKCAjwlIvXBRBjEiwATWAQIseaubDdIaMGue_bjuC9BZU3WLErB1Qj9u12XKmkZGZPz-UGO4balhoCaxgQAvD_BwE
(6) https://www.techemergence.com/machine-learning-fraud-detection-modern-applications-risks/
(7) https://www.techemergence.com/network-intrusion-detection-using-machine-learning/
(8) https://www.chorus.ai/product/
(9) https://www.morganmckinley.com.au/article/how-ai-helping-small-business-today
(10) https://www.clickz.com/5-businesses-using-ai-to-predict-the-future-and-profit/112336/
(11) https://www.techemergence.com/ai-in-business-intelligence-applications/
(12) https://www.engineersrule.com/solidworks-puts-artificial-intelligence-work/
(13) https://www.autodesk.com/solutions/generative-design

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How the pursuit of Artificial Intelligence is changing our world.

April 25th, 2018 by Heather Maloney

The goal of achieving artificial intelligence – a computer that can learn and respond like a human – began in the 1950s(1). However it is only in the last few years that we have seen great leaps forward towards this goal. The reason for the sudden improvements is attributed to break through in an area of technology called neural networks – programming that attempts to mimic the way the brain works, and a feature of the area of machine learning.

Up until the use of neural networks and machine learning, the act of programming a computer to perform a particular task – think displaying words on a screen, adding up columns of numbers, changing an image from colour to black and white – has required that a programmer can describe in exact detail the process of achieving that task. The human brain performs many tasks, seemingly effortlessly, that are virtually impossible for anyone to describe how they are done, beyond some vague concepts and pointers in the right direction. That’s not sufficient to be able to program a machine to do the task. Consider the task of identifying one human face from another – can you describe how your loved one looks, sufficient that another person who has never met them could pick them out in a crowd with any certainty? Very difficult! This is just one example of how amazing the human brain is when it comes to rapidly processing large amounts of information. We perform many such complex tasks almost simultaneously, without even realising.

A neural network is a programmatic attempt to replicate the manner in which it is believed the brain performs complex tasks. The diagram below is a typical representation of a neural network used to carry out a particular task. As an example, consider an input being an image of a face of a person who just passed the camera, and the task to be performed by the neural network being determining whether the image is “Joe Citizen”. The first round of analysis processes the input (camera image of a face) and then passes information about that image in the form of weightings down to the next level of processing. The second level receives that analysis, performs further analysis, and then passes another set of weightings down to the next level, and so on until the end result, which is the most likely answer to the question posed at the outset (where the attributes of Joe Citizen is already known by the program)? The “hidden layers” may comprise many different layers to allow deeper and deeper analysis and greater refinement aimed towards arriving at the correct answer.

Neural network diagram

Machine learning involves allowing a computer program to learn by working through a large amount of data, which also contains the answer to a particular question e.g. data on the observations of humans who both did and did not contract a particular disease in the future. The machine learning program will build a neural network of weightings required to answer the question being posed. Then that neural network is put to work against fresh data to further refine the learning, including humans providing feedback on the program’s accuracy. Finally, armed with all that learning stored in a neural network, the program can then be applied to new, live data in order to interpret that data … it turns out, with great speed and accuracy, surpassing that of humans (1).

The above is a very simplistic description of the way neural networks operate; computer scientists involved in the use of neural networks are constantly improving their performance. Neural networks are still in relatively early days of development, and already there are many different neural network models to choose from, some better at particular problem types compared to others.

An important distinguisher in neural networks compared to “regular” programming is that the neural network can be relatively easily tuned to perform better over time, as well as “learning” from more and more data. A “regular” computer program needs to be manually reprogrammed as requirements change, again requiring someone to describe exactly what is required, and understand all the implications of that change throughout the system.

Machine learning has been applied in the last few years, with great affect, in the following areas:

  • Image / Facial recognition – ever thought about how the image search feature of Google Images, or the speedy face tag suggestions by Facebook upon upload of a photo, have become so good? A person wanted for an alleged crime in China was picked up by security cameras in about 10 minutes of the wanted person entering a concert earlier this month (3).

    City Deep Learning
  • Navigation & self-driving cars – being able to respond to incoming information, such as what other road users are doing around you, is essential for solving the problem of self-driving cars. The amount of technology involved in an autonomous car is awesome – and it needs to be given the life and death involved. “Even if it will take some time for fully autonomous vehicles to hit the market, AI is already transforming the inside of a car.” It is predicted that AI will first bring to our cars a host of so called “guardian-angel” type features to reduce the likelihood of accidents (11).
  • Speech recognition – in the last few years speech recognition (at least for native English speakers) has become very accurate, requiring very little training for a particular person. I now control my mobile phone using voice on a regular basis, because talking to my phone is much faster than typing – apparently 3 times faster according to a study by Standford University (4). Google’s latest speech-to-text system, called Tacotron 2, will add inflection to words based on punctuation to further improve understanding (5) and making it even more human-like when it is reading text to you, or responding with an answer to a question. Speech recognition in devices such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa are making simple tasks much easier. The article entitled “Amazon Echo has transformed the way I live in my apartment – here are my 19 favourite features” shows how speech recognition is being used for hands-free computer assistance in a simple home context (9). Applications of this technology are vast and life-changing for those who don’t have free hands (e.g. a surgeon at work) or are not able to type.
  • Prediction – more quickly and accurately diagnosing a current situation or predicting that a current set of information is an indicator of a future state e.g. in diagnosing disease, predicting financial market movements, identifying criminal behaviour such as insurance or banking fraud (13). The ability of a neural network to process vast amounts of data quickly, and build its own conclusions with regard to the impact of one factor on another (learn) is already helping doctors to more accurately diagnose conditions such as heart disease (12). Reducing the acceptable level of inaccuracy in medical diagnosis will lead to much better patient outcomes and reduce the cost of healthcare to our ageing population.
  • Playing games – a lot of AI research uses games to work out how to train a computer to learn. (8) From time to time I play an online version of the Settlers of Catan board game; when players leave the game (ostensibly because they have lost internet connection … usually it’s when they are losing!), you get the option to continue to game and have AI finish it on their behalf. It amuses me that I find myself, and others, immediately ganging up on the AI player. I mean, they won’t care if you make their game difficult – they’re a robot after all! It was actually the success of a computer to beat the best human players of the hardest game we play that heralded the success of artificial intelligence, and made the world take notice of its capabilities (14). “In the course of winning, [the robot] somehow taught the world completely new knowledge about perhaps the most studied and contemplated game in history.”

But, will the rise of artificial intelligence take away our jobs? Some say yes, others say no (6), but they all say that the new jobs created due to artificial intelligence will be different to current roles, and require different skills (7).

Worse than job loss, will AI cause a computer vs human war or lead to our extinction? Elon Musk is well known for his warnings against AI. It could be viewed that the pressure he has applied to the technology industry helped to lead to an agreement that the technology giants will only use AI for good (10).

I don’t believe that AI will ever result in a computer takeover of the world, because there is more that makes humans different from other animals … not just our ability to think. Reproducing just our ability to think, learn and make decisions, even in a super-human way, does not make a computer human. The capacity for machine learning / deep learning to significantly improve our lives, particularly in the areas of health and solving some of our most challenging problems, is exciting. However, I believe that it is right to be cautious; to move ahead with the knowledge that machine learning could also be used for harmful purposes. Computers can also “learn” the negative elements of humanity (15).

Business owners, innovators and leaders should consider how machine learning might be harnessed for your organisation in order to provide better value, predict more accurately, respond more quickly, or make break-throughs in knowledge in your problem domain. Let’s harness artificial intelligence for good! Read more about “How Business (big and small) can Harness Artificial Intelligence“.

References:
(1) https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2016/12/08/what-is-the-difference-between-deep-learning-machine-learning-and-ai/#4cc961d726cf
(2) https://hbr.org/cover-story/2017/07/the-business-of-artificial-intelligence
(3) http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-17/chinese-man-caught-by-facial-recognition-arrested-at-concert/9668608
(4) http://hci.stanford.edu/research/speech/index.html
(5) https://qz.com/1165775/googles-voice-generating-ai-is-now-indistinguishable-from-humans/
(6) http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-09/artificial-intelligence-automation-jobs-of-the-future/8786962
(7) http://www.digitalistmag.com/iot/2017/11/29/artificial-intelligence-future-of-jobs-05585290
(8) https://www.businessinsider.com.au/qbert-artificial-intelligence-machine-learning-2018-2
(9) https://www.businessinsider.com.au/amazon-echo-features-tips-tricks-2018-2
(10) https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/03/elon-musk-billion-dollar-crusade-to-stop-ai-space-x
(11) http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/ai-tipping-scales-development-self-driving-cars/
(12) https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/01/03/artificial-intelligence-diagnose-heart-disease/
(13) http://bigdata-madesimple.com/artificial-intelligence-influencing-financial-markets/
(14) https://deepmind.com/research/alphago/
(15) https://www.theverge.com/2016/3/24/11297050/tay-microsoft-chatbot-racist

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