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Posted by on Jun 13, 2017 in Conference Recaps

Why Going Global is Essential to Your Business – My SMX London Session

In the last days of May 2017 at the SMX London conference, I had the pleasure of presenting a session about the importance of going global, and the key considerations to ensuring success.

Here is what I had to say:

The world is a very big place with about 7.5 billion humans. And half of those humans are connected to the internet in one way or another.

The distribution of internet users is surprising to many, as only 8% of total users are in the U.S. and 9% in Western Europe; both lower than Africa at 10%, South Asia at 16% and East Asia at 24%. These statistics were compiled in a We Are Social and Hootsuite 2017 study.

Even more impressive is that only 29% of the African population is online (internet penetration ratio), which means that when a larger part of the African population eventually goes online, it will represent an even greater share of the world’s internet population. The U.S. and Western Europe have an internet penetration ratio of about 90%, leaving a smaller growth opportunity.

Looking at eMarketer’s data on projected digital buyers’ growth by continent, it is clear where the growth will continue at a double-digit rate (Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa) and where it will plateau (Europe and North America):

eMarketer’s data on projected digital buyers’ growth by continent

(Image Source: eMarketer)

All of this leads to one clear conclusion: Every company, regardless of size, needs to globalize in markets that make sense.

So how does a company globalize? It all revolves around three core considerations:

  1. Linguistics
  2. Cultural
  3. Technical


A company needs to make sure its brand name doesn’t mean something strange or inappropriate in the target language, and that the correct version of the language is identified and used. Many languages spoken in multiple countries have variations. Even within a single country (e.g., China), languages can have varying dialects. Identifying the right one is key to ensuring success.

Once the language is identified, the tone (formal or informal) must be chosen. French, German and Spanish, for example, have formal ways of addressing people (a politer way, if you will), which can be preferable depending on the company’s industry. Also, the tone may vary by country depending the company’s products. This all must be researched before developing website language.

After the language, tone and format are decided upon, cultural considerations, such as references, preferences, perception, awareness and local competitors, need to be researched.


Cultural references vary from country to country. In the West, babies are brought by the stork, whereas in Japan, babies come from big peaches. In China, red is synonymous with warmth and success, but disliked in South Korea. Movies stars, singers, authors and the like are different throughout the world. Target-audience research ensures cultural references are relevant.

Along the same lines, it is essential to cater to preferences (e.g., payment methods, formats, aspect), local norms and public holidays to avoid any faux pas.

It is also important to confirm if the brand is known and, if so, how it is perceived. If the brand is unknown, it might require a full explanation. If the band is known but misunderstood, it may require a change to affect perception. Doing the research is crucial. It can also help to identify and understand successful local competitors.


Finally, I touched upon the technical elements that should be used to ensure that well-written in-language content makes its way to the right platform and is understood.

Google provides multiple tools, such as geo-targeting, adding “hreflang” tags to signal the availability multiple languages and identifying potential markets.

While Google, Facebook and Twitter are the norm in many countries, different platforms may be more widely used in others. For example, Baidu is the lead search engine in China, Line is the lead social media platform in Japan and Yandex is the lead search engine in Russia.

Ensuring optimization of in-language, culturally relevant content on the right platforms and sites ultimately leads to successful business globalization.

For even more details and visuals, view my deck here.

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Posted by on Jun 6, 2017 in Conference Recaps

Two Days at SMX London

The world-renowned SMX Conference had its annual edition in London on May 23 and 24.

As usual, the program was jam packed and featured great speakers who covered the latest on many subjects from social, to paid, to SEO, to attribution models.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and was fortunate enough to be both an attendee and a speaker this year. More to come in another post on MDS Decoded about my talk. But, as always, it was about global.

If I had to sum up the whole conference in three words, they would be:

  • AMP
  • Attribution

Most of the presentations revolved around these themes, as they are top of mind for digital marketers at the moment.

While HTTPS seems to be widely adopted (as high as 50% of domains according to Olga Andrienko, Head of Global Marketing at SEMrush), AMP is still in its ramping-up phase, with relatively low adoption as highlighted by many presenters.

Many reasons were invoked for the low adoption of AMP, which is hosted by Google. It’s not clear what they will do with the data collected this way – it’s too complicated to implement on large sites. But the general agreement is that it leaves a wide opportunity for marketers to be early adopters and get a head start on the competition.

Attribution modeling was debated at length across various sessions and panels. While no one seemed to have the perfect solution, all agreed that current attribution models are incorrect. First and last click provide only one side of the explanation, leaving much crucial information out of it.

During the two-day event, consensus was reached: Agencies, in-house marketers and technology partners need to have serious discussions, put personal bias aside and find a solution together.

Google coincidentally announced the release of a new attribution tool. It was welcomed, but with a lot of skepticism from the search community.

As always, the world of search marketing is a busy, exciting and continually evolving one to watch.

Here are the key things I overheard at SMX London this year:

SMX Key Learnings

(Image Source: Fred Schaub)

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Posted by on May 16, 2017 in Digital Industry News

Amazon Enters the Calling and Texting Battlefield

On May 10th 2017, Amazon announced that they were rolling out a new feature for their digital personal assistant, Alexa – free calls and texts between users of Amazon Echo devices.

While it is not the first time that Amazon is trying to penetrate a new market, or create one, this is a complicated one to enter. They have tried to join the travel industry, but did not succeed. They have also been pioneers in drone delivery, and I would not be surprised to see it become the norm in a few years. Amazon was also part of the firsts to join the digital personal assistant race with their Alexa product, which they keep improving at a very fast pace.

What is Alexa?

Alexa is the name Amazon gave to its voice-commanded digital personal assistant, which people interact with through the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Tap or Echo view devices.

You may have read my post about Chatbots; Alexa is a very powerful and sophisticated Chatbot. While commands are still a little strict (not yet a fluid conversation), you can have fun: if you tell her “Alexa, see you later, alligator” she WILL reply, “in a while crocodile!”

Amazon Echo Dot

Amazon Echo Dot (Image Source: Amazon)

Alexa can do a wide variety of tasks, from setting up a timer, to playing your favorite song, reading the news, telling you a joke, turning on the lights, playing games or even ordering from your Amazon account the latest item you need. All of this by simply talking to the device.

Amazon allows developers to build Alexa capabilities in a similar way to how they would develop apps for iPhone or Android; allowing the world to create capabilities for their devices, providing scale instantly.

And now, they even allow you to call and text through Alexa!

So why does it matter that they offer calling + texting functionalities?

With approximately 65 million Amazon Prime users (paid subscription to get free deliveries, access to music and films plus more) and an overall estimated 300 million users in total, Amazon is a gigantic ecosystem of its own. When rolling out new features, Amazon instantly touchs hundreds of millions of people; similar to Facebook or Google rolling out a new feature.

The battlefield for calling and texting is crowded however, with very large players already heavily in it such as Facebook with both WhatsApp and Messenger, Apple with iMessage, Microsoft with Skype, the Japanese platform Line and many others.

With approximately 4.9 billion mobile users across the world (WeAreSocial + Hootsuite 2017 report) the opportunity to attract and retain users – and then monetize the relationship one way or another – is gigantic.

By offering this new service, Amazon is trying to take a piece of this pot, getting deeper in day-to-day lives, gathering more data and knowledge about their user’s habits which they can then aggregate into insights for the advertisers on their platform allowing for more personalized experiences and recommendations.

The more actions you can do in one ecosystem, the fewer things you have to get into another ecosystem to get done. When Amazon allows you to seamlessly make lists, order items online and listen to the news, that’s a wide array of other third party apps and systems they have now rendered useless.

By allowing users to call and text, they are – to some extent – replacing your need for a smartphone.

How is this applicable to the hotel industry?

Marriott International is a pioneer in the technology actually, always looking into creative ways to integrate technology in their hotel rooms. Currently Marriott is testing multiple variations in a few hotels, enabling guests to request services, manage their room (lights, tv, etc.), and learn about the local area through voice commands, talking with Alexa.

Wynn Hotels also jumped into it, and already offer it across all their rooms in Las Vegas.

Thinking about the future, I wouldn’t be surprised if brands and marketers start leveraging voice-command digital personal assistants more heavily to answer customer needs and enabling faster/more efficient service for all of a guest’s little requests. True luxury will always require a human touch in my mind, but where applicable, technology will take a larger part in the coming years.

As voice-commanded digital assistants become the norm in households, a guest’s expectation will be to experience this in his/her hotel room. Now whether it’s an Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Siri-enabled iPad or another player yet to come, only time will tell.

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Posted by on Jan 31, 2017 in All Matters SEO

The Rise of Chatbots: Will They Replace Humans?

Unless you have been avoiding social media or technology news these days, you will likely have heard of the current enthusiasm around Bots, in particular Chatbots.

While this is not new technology – the first ever Chatbot, Eliza, was created in 1966, Chatbots have been gaining momentum lately, especially in the travel industry. They are given names by their creators – Taylor, Lola, Alisson, Ana, Julie, or Sofia – but don’t be fooled, you are not talking to an actual human, you are talking to something powered by Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) that was only coded by a human.

Let’s have a (human) conversation about this new breed of personal assistants and travel agents.


(Image Source: Christos)

Chatbots? What are you even talking about!?

“Artificial intelligence platforms that use instant messaging as an application interface” …users can “add these bots to friends lists and send messages to bots just like they’d message one of their friends. But with bots, consumers are talking to a database or program and not actually communicating with a human.” -Skift

But Bots are not reserved for the most tech savvy customers; Bots are actually destined to be more user-friendly than any other system. Think of it: they allow you to have a conversation about your research, not to think about how to ask a search engine about what you are looking for.

Most major digital behemoths are investing in Bots. Personal assistants Alexa (Amazon), Siri (Apple), Google’s Allo or Cortana (Microsoft) are commonly known and vastly used nowadays. Instant messaging systems such as Microsoft’s Skype, Facebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp apps, and Kik are part of our day-to-day lives and the backbone of Chatbots’ development.

The latest Chatbots scrape the web for the information you are asking them, and return it to you in a chat-like interface. Most Bots use A.I. and databases to become smarter and evolve over time so that they can respond quicker (rather than searching each query for the first time each time), potentially anticipate your questions, and learn about your preferences. Earlier Bots were designed to answer only specific questions in a specific way, and if the user was not using the right command the Bot would not understand. But these days are (mostly) over as Bot technology has advanced.

Wait a second, actual brands and humans use bots? Get out of here!

 Yes, and many larger brands in the travel industry have jumped on the train:

  • Kayak: Has a Bot for Slack (a team communication tool which has gained major momentum with many companies and teams, including Digital Services)
  • Expedia, Skyscanner and CheapFlights: Each have a Bot for Facebook Messenger
  • Hipmunk: Launched Hello, available on both Slack and Facebook Messenger
  • United, KLM and TAP Airlines: Launched some form of Bot assistant for instant messaging

Other industries are also creating Bots to help you buy stuff, such as: Tacobot from Taco Bell, allowing you to order your favorite Taco from Slack, H&M’s Chatbot on Kik providing you complete outfit recommendations, or StubHub allowing you to discuss your dinner order with a machine. Before many others, in 2005, Ikea launched their Bot Anna to help you find that one piece of furniture you are missing. For the more galactic readers, check out SPOCK which allows you to converse with the Starship Enterprise.

Even globally? That must be a nightmare to localize!

You said it! When figuring out how to teach the Bot to answer “natural language” queries (typing in what you want, not a command) in English is already extremely complicated, imagine doing this for every language and variation of each.

Add this to the different ways of searching (tapping on a prompted option, using voice search, typing the query), some slang or variation of words, formal and informal ways of addressing people and you have a highly complex problem to solve.

It is not impossible though. KLM delivers information in various languages through their Facebook Messenger Chatbot (including flight details, boarding passes, and other straight forward or relatively easy queries). WeChat emerges as the platform to develop such things in Chinese, offering organizations similar options as Skype, Messenger and Kik, to develop Chatbots for their ecosystem. They most recently launched mini-programs – their version of apps which don’t require download on your smartphone, beating Google at the game of instant apps, and opening a world of possibilities for developers.

OK, now, are these things a good or a bad thing?

From a marketer and brand standpoint, Chatbots are a great tool to automate parts of customer service and customer acquisition. There are for now some limitations, such as the lack of empathy when consumers are experiencing issues or the true understanding of potential consumers’ needs. Chatbots allow you to talk to potential clients in apps they use anyway, rather than trying to take them somewhere else. With the current trend of downloading fewer apps, and spending less time in them, it is particularly important for brands to integrate seamlessly into the lives of their consumers.

On the downside, Chatbots owned by metasearch and OTA sites (or simply companies starting out as a Chatbot,) pose the risk of hospitality and travel brands losing a true connection with customers. This is worrisome for established travel brands, as we see an emergence of Chatbots in the travel industry The Bots also put a lot of strain on travel websites as they constantly  retailers sites to answer user queries (looking up for information on hundreds of sites at once and providing a digestible answer to the user of the Chatbot); some say traffic generated by bots scraping retailers websites can represent up to 30% of total traffic to a website. It is also worrisome to note that some bloggers and influencers confirm they would not interact with an app or a website in future, but use a bot (see article by John Brandon at VentureBeat ).

From a user perspective, Chatbots allow you to search faster (save time) for the best option (save money), and have a fun playing with them (at least I do.) While the response time of a Chatbot is slightly slower than a Google search (a few seconds vs. milliseconds), they save you the effort of clicking through many sites to compare options.

Chatbots are not perfect though and the technology is not yet there to have truly perfect, human-like conversational exchanges. The personalization is still relatively limited and sometimes it is still just better to confirm with a human to make sure everything is in order.

I want in! I want in! What’s coming?

Customers are getting groomed to use Chatbots by the largest brands they use every day (Amazon, Google, Apple, and more.)

KLM has human-aided bots on Messenger as said above, so does, Uber and Lyft. These brands are all reportedly looking into developing Chatbots powered by A.I. I would not be surprised to see Snapchat figure out a way to allow for Chatbots to be developed specifically for their platform, or even on Line (Japan’s leading social platform with a heavy footprint in South East Asia.)

As related by VentureBeat, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that Chatbots will “fundamentally revolutionize how computing is experienced by everybody.” Nadella explained that for now, bots will augment apps, but in time, human language will be taught to all computers and become “the new interface.”

Based on my research, I believe that while Chatbots are not yet a make or break decision, given the right technological advancement they are highly likely to become the norm for researching and purchasing (travel or other) from mobile in the future.

That said, I strongly believe nothing can replace the human touch and related emotions. We see younger generations wanting to get back to local, genuine experiences and connecting with other humans in the world. The research and purchase phases might happen with the Bots, but ultimately humans will still take you through the experience.

I would like to leave you with this quote from an important person in this industry:

“In the long run bots won’t only answer questions they will anticipate them” – Erwin van Lun,’s CEO and founder (source)

Further Resources

  • Medium: Read the extensive review of the most important travel Bots. You’ll also find a recap of just over 20 Chatbots in this article.
  • Chatbot Magazine: Subscribe to’s newsletter. To get more technical on Bots, review their Complete Beginner’s Guide to Chatbots.
  • VentureBeat: To learn more about globalizing Bots, read about some of the biggest international hurdles in this research.
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Posted by on Oct 4, 2016 in All Matters SEO, Industry Interviews

All Things APAC: An Interview with Digital Expert, Trevor Higgins

Hi Trevor, thanks for accepting our invite to chat! Can you tell us about your background and how you arrived in Ho Chi Minh?

After a few years writing for newspapers in my home state of Tennessee, I moved to Chicago and jumped into digital marketing full time in the start-up scene. Five years ago I joined Performics, a digital marketing agency, and it was a great fit. I’ve worked for some great brands, like Patagonia and Bose, doing content strategy, SEO and conversion/experience testing.

Then, right as we had our first child and bought a house, my wife was offered her dream job with the US State Department. Her first assignment was in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Fortunately, Performics is a true global company with an office within walking distance from my new home. Now, I lead digital marketing campaigns for clients working in multiple markets across Asia.

Trevor Higgins

Trevor Higgins

What a great career so far! Now, let us grill you on Asia Pacific’s market particularities! With many countries in APAC having multiple official languages (even up to 750 dialects in India) what is your recommendation for a Western company trying to enter the market? Translate from English in all languages or select a few and create natively?

First, I would ask: What language does your target audience speak? Are you targeting expatriates? Locals? Visitors? Understanding your audience segments should make the decision of which languages to include easier. Also, I think you should always have an English version of your content available, as that is the default means of communication when people from different backgrounds come together.

For localization, I prefer an approach we call “trans-creation:” it’s a step beyond rote translation that takes into account colloquialisms and the real ways people talk. Then, work with someone you trust who knows the language and the culture. I see so much bad translation work, even for large brands! It’s everywhere, it’s embarrassing and it’s easy to fix.

How do you recommend companies go about selecting the right languages for their product?

As I mentioned, know your customer and know what is at risk if you don’t communicate with someone in their native language. Tap into your CRM data. Understand the market for your products and services, which might vary widely depending on the country.

Also, be aware of the risks of partial translation. If you translate your homepage but not your shopping cart or check-out forms, are you really servicing your customer? I’ve encountered dead-ends where a company only partially translated their web site and left critical gaps.

Are there any APAC mobile trends that you were surprised by that aren’t as prevalent in the West?

Marketers in the US might be sick of hearing “mobile” tossed around as a trend, but I cannot overstate its importance here in APAC.

First, you have to understand the explosive growth in Internet access in APAC. In the last five years, Internet access is up 250% in India, 101% in Indonesia, 72% in Vietnam, 76% in Thailand, 47% in China. This is all driven by growing access to mobile devices.

So mobile isn’t just another digital gateway, it’s sometimes the only gateway. Your customers may never see your desktop site.

Also, mobile networks in some countries may not be as fast as in the West. I currently only get 3G access here in Vietnam. This means your mobile site speed, load times and experience have to be outstanding. You can’t afford slow load times or unnecessary clicks.

One other related note: I was surprised to learn that in many APAC countries consumers use, on average, nearly 10 social media accounts each, which is well above the rates in USA and UK. Of course, all that usage is happening on mobile.

What amenities or hotel features are APAC guests traveling West expecting to find in the hotel or on the website?

At many hotels in APAC the free breakfasts are really incredible. There’s a mix of dim sum, traditional English breakfast, fresh fruit, local favorites, made-to-order eggs, etc. So if there’s a good breakfast, show it off!

I’ve also been impressed by the service throughout Asia at properties in all ranges. If you have travelers from Asia staying at your property in the West, they will be accustomed to top-notch service and will expect the same from your staff.

When creating campaigns, collateral, etc. were there any striking differences between the East and West? (For example – while green may be the color synonymous with “good” in the west, red is considered to be the color of good fortune in Chinese culture)

China is a great example. Design and experience expectations are very different for Chinese customers compared to what traditionally works in the West. This Smashing Magazine article explains it much more eloquently than I can:

Bottom line: I don’t think you just assume that your great English ad copy and user-experience design will automatically perform at the same level in APAC.

I do think you need a strong cultural understanding of your marketplace and audience when building campaigns. Seasonality and holidays are different here, as well as accepted social norms. This is especially true when using imagery. Be mindful of your audience, what they aspire to and what they might feel is off-putting. Many cultures, even in the rapidly-growing urban centers here, can still be very traditional and conservative socially.

In a few words, can you describe the WeChat Platform and how it differs from the prevalent platforms in the West such as Facebook, WhatsApp or Twitter?

WeChat is a massively popular platform in China. It has somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 million active monthly users!

In simple terms, it’s a messaging service, not dissimilar from WhatsApp, with lots and lots of features and abilities added on top. Users can do traditional chat functions like sharing videos and photos. Then, WeChat has apps within the app, and this is where it gets important for businesses. Apps allow users to play games, but they can also do business: send money, shop, use and pay for services, order food.

It’s a massive platform owned by TenCent, one of China’s biggest companies, who also owns a large stake in up-and-coming search engine Sogou, microblogging platform Weibo and instant message service QQ. If you’re marketing to consumers in China, you should plan for engaging on WeChat, building a brand presence.

With different cultures, can you provide your top 3 things to do and 3 things to avoid when starting a relationship with partners or clients in the region?


  1. Make an effort to learn the culture. Read books. Watch movies. Eat the food. Spend time with locals. Learn to say a few things in a new and difficult language.
  2. Test and learn. There are many country-specific platforms here in APAC. Try them out, find what works for you.
  3. Be humble. I thought I had a good resume of digital marketing success, but working here has been a humbling experience. There is a lot to learn about how the digital ecosystem works in APAC. Be prepared to do the homework and learn.

Do Not:

  1. Assume the same approach you use in the West will be equally effective. This extends beyond just how you manage your marketing campaigns, but includes how you build relationships with people
  2. Be rigid. China in particular is a unique market, and you’ll need to be adaptable to be successful.
  3. Lose patience. Hold your teams to a high standard of performance, but don’t lose patience when a campaign misses the mark. Learn from it, and keep moving forward.  

Which APAC-based non-travel companies standout in your mind as doing an outstanding job at digital marketing right now?

I think this spot from Nike targeted at young women in India is one of the best campaigns worldwide. Nike did some similar spots in Korea that reflected the place of sports in that culture. While you may not have big-budget creative, the approach – emotional, local – it reflects can be implemented by any team.

Also, while it pains me to write this as a Liverpool supporter, Chevrolet’s global partnership with Manchester United, tied to this site has all of their digital cookies on me. I regularly see their regionally-targeted paid social, display and out-of-home ads. Their content looks to engage first and sell second, and I know I’m in their target audience.

If our readers come visit Ho Chi Minh, can you share with us your favorite food and/or thing to do so far?

Food is a top attraction here in Saigon, and for good reason. You’ll see fresh ingredients used in one-of-a-kind ways all over town, typically served up in no-frills food stalls with plastic chairs. Personally, I love bun thit nuong and was just introduced to my new love: Chanh muoi, a drink made with pickled limes.

Ho Chi Minh Food

But if you really want to experience and understand Saigon you have to get on a motorbike. Once you’re on two wheels everything else in this big, crazy city makes more sense.

And, if you have time, take a quick trip to the island of Phu Quoc for spectacular beaches. JW Marriott has a new property opening up there in December, which is a great excuse to visit. 


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