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Management in Practice

How does Google keep innovating?

In its early days Google didn’t have a marketing team. Now with many brands to support, the company has brought its data-driven approach to its relationship with users and advertisers. Qn magazine spoke with Claire Hughes Johnson, VP of new products, media, and platforms, about the role of marketing in launching new products.

Q: Who is Google's customer? Is it the user? The advertiser?

When we talk internally, it's all about the users. What we want to do is make Google's products and the web more accessible, useful, and engaging. When that's happening for users, that's where advertisers like to reach them.

The concept behind Google search includes the fact that advertising is a form of information. Often the advertising results can be the best answer for the user. The advertiser only pays us when the user clicks on that result, when they affirm, "This is the best answer for me."

Q: Could you explain what your team does?

My team is the part of our sales organization that works with product teams on their go-to-market. We translate the commercial strategies out to the broader sales organization. We also incubate and test new product offerings for our business customers and offer a really fast feedback loop to a product team. A good example is our TrueView ad format that we have for YouTube.

YouTube now has over 60 hours of video uploaded every minute, and 4 billion videos viewed every day. Last year it was 48 hours of video uploaded every minute, so it is increasing significantly, year over year. That's an amazing amount of video content available, and based on those views and our metrics, we have terrific engagement from users.

The way my team would work with a product team is to say okay, we have a huge opportunity here, a lot of video inventory, and we'd like to figure out a way to be user friendly, and also bring advertisers the opportunity to reach those users. How can we come up with a format that's attractive to both of them?

We have an ability to deliver advertising in-stream with the video. But rather than just going with an industry standard pre-roll or post-roll ads, we came up with a format that includes skippable ads where unless the user has watched either 30 seconds of the ad or the entire unit, advertisers won't be charged.

The user is only going to experience the ad if they choose to engage with it, and that means the ad content has to be very engaging. The advertiser is only going to pay for it if the user engages with it. It's a win-win.

But when we come up with those ideas, we say, okay, let's test that out. Let's visit a couple of advertisers and see if this is an interesting format to them. Let's make sure that the technology on the advertiser's side is available to get their ad units to us in a way that they would like to, so we can run them against the most relevant content.

Q: How do you know the ads are relevant to the video content?

If you look under the hood of the Google search page or YouTube, it's some of the most sophisticated computing you're ever going to see. The underlying algorithms for search and content are the most sophisticated engineering we have. The search team has advanced to the point where they're refreshing that underlying relevance calculation on a constant basis, in real time. YouTube strives to do a similar thing with content that we run advertising against.

Hosting that amount of content, parsing through it, and knowing when we have relevant ads to pair with it is not an insignificant task. Knowing that we can deliver those relevant units and also let the advertiser target audiences, that's what's appealing to them. So we test it. We do alphas and betas and include advertisers in an early trial. We look at the results.

In the case of TrueView, we saw it was working for users. It was working for advertisers. We went to a global rollout as fast as we could deliver it.

Q: What's the time scale for these projects?

This process can run as fast as three months, and as long as a year—sometimes two years. One of the goals that I have for my team is that we get from test to scale—and scale has some data behind it—two times faster than we've done in the past. When something is really catching on, we will push it out faster, whereas if there's something we're still working through, it's going to take longer to emerge from the beta stage.

Q: Users have so many different experiences with the various Google brands, and at times don't realize they're using a Google product. How do you think about that? Does it matter?

Innovative is a word that's often associated with the Google brand, if you do focus groups. What we care about is that YouTube, as a brand, and Android and Chrome all have the word innovative associated with them, because that's a core value of the company. In terms of caring that the user associates Google with every interaction with our products, it's really more about whether they getting what they want out of the product in that moment.

Q: How is marketing at Google different from more traditional companies?

There is an element of our products that isn't really about marketing in the traditional sense, because our hope is for discovery and a viral recommendation. If you think of the early days of Google, there really wasn't a marketing team. Now we have a number of brands that we support, and just like any brand marketer, we want to make sure that we're helping you just be aware of the propositions of those brands and what they can represent.

Q: Google innovates, in part, by anticipating what people would want if they knew what was possible. How does that work?

It's a combination of knowing what we know about what's technically possible, and then marrying that to create something that feels like magic to a user. I think that can manifest in a lot of different ways. I think that there's a part of the web that is becoming important that is about recommending content that would be interesting to you.

I travel a great deal for work, and I rely heavily on my Android device to get around, to find restaurants, to find my hotel. But there's also an element of, can your device be a partner to you and help recommend things? Now, is Google going to help shape that? I think that Google is going to understand that that's possible and begin to deliver that.

How consumers behave on the web is changing every second. I'm not an engineer, but being in technology is incredibly exciting, because it is unpredictable. What you thought wasn't possible a few years ago is suddenly there. The adoption of smartphones in the U.S. in the last couple of years really changed what's possible. So it's user driven, and it's technology driven. It's about how we can bring those things together.

Q: Talk to me a bit about Google as a worldwide company. How does the company manage differences across countries, cultures, and wealth levels?

A marketer needs and wants the same things, wherever they are in the world. The market they are in may be less or more developed. E-commerce may be more of a factor or not. How much we charge for a YouTube home page differs because it's pegged to economic variables in that market, but, fundamentally, the core products we're offering to users and to marketers are the same across the world.

The internet is a democratization of information. The availability of technology is a critical lever to change, especially if we can get more of the developing world on smartphones. But, in emerging economies, there's already a ton of commerce and banking being done by SMS. I'm consistently impressed and surprised that people find technology. There is a global shift in how we access and exchange information that's happening everywhere.

Q: Do you have a sense of where marketing is going in the next few years? How is this very fast transformation in technology and in relationships with companies impacting marketing?

We have gone through a seismic change in the availability of, one, mechanisms to reach a consumer; two, expectations the consumer has of their interaction and the information quality they receive; and three, measurability.

It requires a different kind of marketer to take advantage of all of those changes. They have more tools, but they're working in a more complicated world. I think marketing becomes more and more scientific, and that makes it an interesting discipline to me, personally, because marrying the creative and the analytical is not something you find very easily.

Then, the consumer has a lot more choice in how they engage with you. Brands, in a way, often have to become more like personalities. They have to be recommended. They have to be engaging. The expectations of consumers for the kind of information they can access has changed and will continue to change business models.

I think you're going to see a lot of brands working to be more accessible, more engaging, and more authentic. There are some people who are more comfortable with putting the brand in the hands of the consumer than others. When we partner with an advertiser, we want to help them experiment and take risks, and we love the fact that we can measure the results. The feedback loop you can get from consumers and from data generated by our underlying platforms is powerful. The brands that survive are the ones that are listening to feedback and are able to adjust.