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How Google is chalking out digital strategies for India Inc to reach out to consumers and build brands. A few weeks ago, 30-year-old Rahul mimicked Bollywood actors supporting Mumbai Indians, shot a video of it, and uploaded it on YouTube. It wasn’t a regular video upload; he was participating in an Airtel contest to win tickets to the Champions League Twenty20 in South Africa. In the past five weeks, over 2,400 people shot videos chanting, dancing and cheering for their favourite team and uploaded them on the Airtel Real Fans contest channel on YouTube, a Google property. Ten videos with the highest views were declared winners. The Real Fans channel has had over 450,000 views. Engagement is the keyword here for Airtel marketers.
One of the country’s top airlines has been expanding its routes both domestically and internationally. It wanted to heighten its marketing activity to consumers relevant to it. A good number of people enter the airline’s online booking engine, search for routes and ticket prices, but only a handful go on to buy tickets. Can it convert more ticket seekers into buyers? A code placed on the booking engine now identifies and tags those who searched but didn’t complete the transaction. It follows them over the Internet with specific communication such as better offers on the routes being searched, combo deals with accommodation offers, help and support with call centre numbers so if there is a problem they can call and book the ticket — anything that can make them reconsider their decision. That’s relevant pinpointed marketing — call it remarketing — based on consumer behaviour.
The brain behind Airtel’s consumer engagement campaign and the airline’s remarketing programme? It’s Google India. The search giant is the new digital marketer today. And it is taking centrestage in chalking out digital strategies for India Inc. It is helping companies reach out to consumers and build brands. That’s a marked change for Google from a few years ago when it used to go to companies evangelising about the power of the Internet, educating them on how a search ad comes up when one types in a keyword, how to pick up keywords and so on.
There has been a dramatic shift in the mindset of corporations and businesses. Says Google India Managing Director Shailesh Rao: "From being an object of curiosity and experimentation, Google has now become a mission-critical part of businesses. The language today is no longer about clicks and impressions; it is about scaling and growing the business, acquiring customers, and up-selling new products and services. Companies now want us to tell them how to make the Internet more relevant to their business and use it the best to their advantage."
Consider the Airtel example. As the main sponsor of the Champions League Twenty20, Airtel approached Google looking for a consumer engagement opportunity around the event. Google almost immediately came up with the Real Fans plan, and the two together worked out the strategy forward. "What was interesting was the mechanics of the campaign Google came up with. Over 2,400 youngsters express themselves on video and put it online and get over 450,000 views. That’s high-level engagement with an audience highly relevant to us," says Bharti Airtel Director (brand & media) Mohit Beotra. "The Google team is very good at working on opportunities with us."
Six months ago, Google presented a bigger marketing opportunity to Airtel when it offered the telecom major to become the official partner to broadcast the Indian Premier League 3 matches live on YouTube — the first cricketing event to go live on the Internet. The partnership made an instant fit with Airtel’s broadband offering — it rolled out a unique free 2 MBPS upgrade for its 1.2 million broadband users to watch IPL live on YouTube. The live feed had close to 55 million viewers and the average viewer spent over 50 minutes watching the matches. The event was a runaway success for both Google and Airtel.
Rao says these are interesting times. A few years ago a lot of businesses didn’t find the audience on the Internet large enough to invest time or money. But today the number has grown close to a 100 million; add mobile Internet users to it and the numbers exceeds the aggregate English newspaper circulation in India. The Internet today reaches close to 10 per cent of the country’s population. Economically, demographically and age-wise (higher purchasing power, mostly urban and young) it is a segment that interests marketers the most. "Companies and marketers are finally saying the Internet has arrived in India," says Rao. Advertising agencies say on average companies are spending five to eight per cent of their media planning budget on digital, up from under one to three-four per cent a couple of years ago. For many, the spending is much higher. Airtel, for instance, spends 12 to 15 per cent on digital.
Lead from the front
Google, of course, wants to be on the forefront of digital marketing. Google sites (Google Search, Gmail, YouTube, Orkut, Blogger, Google Maps etc) are the most-visited Internet property in India reaching 94 per cent of online users (source: comScore). Tapping the online marketing business of corporations — who are increasing their digital ad budgets every year — for these sites can increase Google’s India revenues substantially. Rao admits that Google India’s share in Google’s global revenue is insignificant at the moment, but he is hopeful of making India one of the top contributors to Google’s revenue (other than the US and UK) in the next three to four years. He says, for the past three-and-a-half years, Google India has been building a strong foundation and a solid team, which can leverage the opportunities as businesses mature to the potential of the Internet.
Rao is ready with his plans and priorities. First up has been the task to make companies understand why digital advertising makes sense to their business, and how Google can help them maximise their return on investment (RoI). Rao says unlike TV or print where the advertiser carpet bombs his advertising on the audience, hoping that somewhere it will hit the right target, through digital he can converge his communications to a desired and highly relevant audience. The audience can be filtered through a combination of parameters such as demographics, age, interests and so on. Moreover, the communication here is not passive; if the audience clicks on it, or at a later stage makes an online purchase, the advertiser comes to know. RoIs from digital are thus much higher and accurate compared to TV or print where the returns are mere guesswork.
Consider some results. A leading bank in the country which predominantly relied on offline channels to source business leads did a pilot with Google to create an online business channel for home loans. Through a strong online brand and product advertisement campaign, it was able to get close to 5,500 leads in less than 30 days. A general insurance company used the Google platform as a direct customer acquisition channel. With the help of a strong feedback and tracking system, it quadrupled its monthly online customer acquisitions in less than nine months. At the same time, its average cost per click dropped 10 per cent. Similarly, an online trading company which did a promotion with Google generated 25,000 leads in four months. Again, using the Google Search and Display Network, a life insurer was able to generate over 130 million views for its online campaign and over 200,000 visits to its website in 50 days.
Rao’s plans to grow Google’s business in India are well laid out. Thus, Google will continue to focus on search (search advertising), its core business. It has identified some key high-growth areas: Display advertising, content (YouTube) and mobile. Display, the company says, will be one of its core growth areas. Sector-wise, the focus will be on auto and FMCG which, the company thinks, are now ready to exploit the potential of the medium. Besides, it hopes to increase its reach to the 30 million small and medium businesses across the country. Given their small budgets, the digital media, Rao is convinced, is just the right platform for them to advertise.
Search, and search-based advertising, has been Google’s core business. Analysts estimate that over 90 per cent of Google’s revenue comes from search. Google is the most-visited property on the web both globally and in India. While search remains a high growth business for Google in the West, the growth has somewhat slowed down. Google says the growth rates are healthy and there’s still a lot of room to grow — a lot of big businesses, globally and in the US, have started to participate in search in a big way, which wasn’t the case a few years ago. Rao says India is a different story: "It’s a very high-growth market. India is still in the early part of the growth trajectory with respect to the Internet. As a result, everything is growing — search, display and mobile."
Early on, Google’s search business was focused primarily on online companies such as matrimonial services, job classifieds and online travel sites. These were the companies that advertised most on search — they sold online, so they advertised online. In the past two-and-a-half years there has been a significant take-up of search marketing by the telecom — both service operators and handset makers — and financial services sectors. That’s because searches related to brands, products and services in both the sectors have been the highest. Nokia (phones), for instance, was the most searched brand in 2009-10, followed by SBI (online banking). Samsung phones were the third-most searched; again, online mobile recharge has been one of the highest searched terms.
The financial sector saw a 73 per cent growth in searches. The travel & tourism sector comes next.
Google’s strategy naturally has been to aggressively work with these sectors to maximise business, but it has identified two sectors which it considers as the future growth engines for search — auto and FMCG. Rao says: "These are the two sectors where we are putting in new energy and investment. In the past they have been less engaged with the online medium, but now they see the potential and are ready to invest more deeply." In the past month or so, he has met almost every auto major in the country explaining why the medium is important for their business. He says there have been 600 million auto-related searches on Google in India, out of which 130 million were focused on auto or car brands. "People have actually been looking at car options. In some way you can argue that Google is the largest auto showroom in the country. So how do you want to communicate with the audience that is coming and looking for cars? You want to be there or not?"
Similarly, in the FMCG space, Rao says people are searching for all kinds of products: detergents, beverages, snack items and so on. "The Indian consumer today is faced with choices like never before, and the choices are getting complex by the day. He is searching them on the Internet, researching on the best fit for him. So if you have a product that matches his expectations and you’ve targeted an ad next to such a search, you can cut through the noise."
Display advertising is the next focus area which Google considers is emerging as a key growth and revenue driver. Here’s why. Consider what constitutes a typical marketing funnel — awareness, consideration, interest, desire and then purchase. Search works well for those who have shown interest in a product or brand — for instance, a dual-SIM phone, one searches it and gets the choices. One can try converting this into a purchase through search advertising. But how does one move further up in the marketing funnel to the level of awareness — say, letting people know of a product launch and what the product is all about? Google says display advertising helps businesses build awareness and consideration. Display creatives combine audio-visual richness, allow people to engage with the creatives, and can be targeted to a highly relevant audience. The platforms that Google offers for display are YouTube, Orkut, display ads on the Google Display network, mobile display ads and so on, which reach over 80 per cent online users in India.
To target the creatives effectively, Google uses a capability called ‘remarketing’ which allows the advertiser to find the target audience anywhere on the Internet and target a creative meant precisely for him. "If someone goes to a website looking for, say, hand gloves, we can note that down, we can remember his preferences, say, colour or style, and target a creative wherever he goes, be it YouTube or the thousands of partner sites on the Google Display Network," explains Rao. Remarketing tags the web page a person is visiting with a cookie — a file that contains information about a user’s activity on the Internet and is tracked as the user surfs the web. A cookie is a property of the Internet and it doesn’t violate user privacy as it keeps the user’s identity anonymous.
"What advertisers have always wanted to do is to buy and target audiences, but they have never been able to do it, so they look at brand associations, which is the best they can hope for. Remarketing marks a shift where the advertiser is able to buy the audience it wants to target. I think it is a powerful tool for advertisers who are trying to build brands; they can finally associate the brand with the intended audience," says Rao. The other key property of display advertising is engagement — one can interact with the creatives, say, to learn more about a brand, or simply play with it.
The segment that holds significant potential for Google in the next two to five years is mobile. Even before the launch of 3G, India has become the fastest-growing market for mobile search in the world. In absolute numbers, India is today among Google’s top three countries for mobile search. Four years ago, search on mobile was merely 5 per cent, today it’s grown to 20 per cent. "We didn’t expect so much search happening on mobile before the launch of 3G," says Rao. Google’s strategy to grow in the segment is to work with operators and handset manufacturers to promote mobile devices as an instrument to access information. "Next year and the year after the mobile is going to morph into a device that people will use to access information, and not just voice."
Besides Google has its own mobile operating system, Android, which it distributes free. Google claims that this brings the cost of a mobile phone down by 20 per cent. This it says would help in keeping the cost of a proper voice and data device well within the reach of the mass consumer.
A critical piece in Google’s strategy across all these initiatives has been to build strong partnerships with advertising agencies. It survives and thrives on advertising, and a sound relationship with agencies helps it penetrate businesses deeper. Agencies, on their part, acknowledge Google’s leadership and believe a stronger partnership can help them stay ahead on the technology curve. "Google has opened up the online advertising space like nothing else before. But it is important for it to understand the challenges agencies have. Without fixing the base challenge, the delivery of desired results would be a difficult," says Dentsu Digital Chief Experience Officer Krishna Prasad. "Google is making the online advertising space far more engaging not only for the consumer but also for us. I can go to a client with a Google tool and say this can make you money. It understands how agencies and brands can leverage the space to make money," says Max Hegerman, president, Tribal DDB India, who has worked closely with Google on several online initiatives.
At a recent event, Rao had stunned listeners when he said the viewership of YouTube is higher than many Hindi general entertainment channels. Brand uplift improved by 80 per cent in Germany and 60 per cent in Japan when YouTube was included in the communication campaign. And analysis of the viewership of trailers of Hollywood films on YouTube can predict with accuracy their initial box office collections. His sale pitch is ready.