The Crucial Insights Academia Can Teach Us About Online Marketing
For most of us who work in the frenetic world of online marketing, the work of academic researchers, presented in dry, often stilted papers with tons of citations and scholarly musings is about as interesting as a deep dive into the chemical ingredients of a sleeping pill. But it’s important to remember that some of our most important marketing channels are the direct outgrowth of academic research that’s been applied to real-world problems and needs (Google’s PageRank algorithm being the most well-known example).
So as a marketer, it behooves you to occasionally seek out research that can provide serious insights into understanding customer needs and taking novel approaches to satisfying those needs that may not have occurred to your competitors.
The Proceedings Of The WWW 2012 Conference is a great place to start. Not familiar with it?
The World Wide Web Conference is a yearly international conference on the topic of the future direction of the World Wide Web. It began in 1994 at CERN (the birthplace of the web) and has run every year since, hopping from country to country. In fact, it was at the 1998 WWW conference that two guys presented a paper called The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine describing the PageRank algorithm mentioned above, that many consider the “launch event” for Google.
The 2012 WWW Conference is happening this week, in Lyon, France. More than ever before, I’m struck by how many of the papers and plenary sessions are focusing on the real-world: How people search, how people respond to online ads, the mechanics of spam networks, how social media is changing our brains… these are just a few of the topics covered.
At the conference itself, presentations are often delivered with standard power-point bullets. But each presentation is backed up with a scholarly paper that has been peer-reviewed and accepted by some of the foremost experts in the world. Even better, these papers are online, free to read, consider, and totally available for you to apply lessons learned to your own marketing campaigns. Of the more than 90 papers, I’d say that well over two-thirds are of interest and valuable to marketers, if you’re willing to slog through sometimes dense academese (translation: tortured phrases written to impress peers or evaluation committees rather than just explaining things in straightforward English). Trust me on this one: with this conference, the “slogging effort” is usually worth it.
WWW Conference Highlights For Marketers
Note: these are direct links to chapters in the gigantic 1076 page PDF of the proceedings, though most papers load relatively quickly.
From researchers at Microsoft and Nankai University, a new way of looking at searcher intent via “task trails,” defined as an “atomic user information need” that attempts to understand what people are looking for at a more granular level than what most analytics packages deliver at the session or query level. Some good nuggets here for those wanting to take keyword research to the next level.
Researchers from Stanford and Yahoo question the effectiveness of ad targeting, the currently highly-touted though controversial method of delivering ads based on previous search queries or web activity. Conclusion: an overestimation of the lift from targeting on brand-related searches by almost 1,000%. Ouch—leads to the question, if you’re doing targeting or retargeting, are you wasting money?
From Google and the University of Chicago, a look at how internet users try to game the system by “opinion spamming” and how models based on the relationships among groups, individual reviewers, and products they reviewed can be created to detect fake reviewer groups. So: If user-generated content is one of your key online marketing efforts, are you being an effective cheerleader—or contributing to what’s likely to be one of the next “signals” search engines will be looking at in their ongoing efforts to combat spam and penalize miscreants?
From UC Santa Barbara and Yahoo Labs India, “novel algorithms for recommending connections that boost content propagation in a social network without compromising on the relevance of the recommendations. Through experiments on real-world social graphs such as Flickr and Twitter, we show that our approximation algorithms achieve content spreads that are as much as 90 times higher compared to existing heuristics for recommending connections.” Caveat: this is very hypothetical work, but the lessons drawn can be very useful to marketers who have the chops to take advantage of APIs offered by social networks and weave together human and machine based relationships.
From Cornell University and Yahoo, a scathing evisceration of the fundamental premises underlying Google’s PageRank algorithm, calling out the extent to which the Markovian assumption [on which PageRank is based] is invalid. Laced with dense math and logic, it’s still fascinating to read such a carefully reasoned attack on the most fundamental search concept that SEOs swear by—at least for now. Ironically (or perhaps serendipitously), one of the authors, Prabhakar Raghavan is now a Vice President of Engineering at Google.
Do you really want to get into your customers’ heads? This could be considered a rather radical update of the traditional consideration and purchase funnel, from Carnegie Mellon University and Microsoft Research. “When information is abundant, it becomes increasingly difficult to fit nuggets of knowledge into a single coherent picture. Complex stories spaghetti into branches, side stories, and intertwining narratives. In order to explore these stories, one needs a map to navigate unfamiliar territory. We propose a methodology for creating structured summaries of information, which we call metro maps.”
As said, these are just a few highlights from the more than 90 papers available from this week’s Proceedings Of The WWW 2012 Conference. If you like this kind of stuff and find it useful, you should peruse other papers that have been published in conjunction with these conferences on the WWW conference history page.
These aren’t the kind of tactical tips you’ll find in most search marketing forums, but for those who get inspired by academics trying to do systematic research on how people act and respond to online marketing, the research papers published in this collection can lead to some truly valuable outside of the box insights.