How Think with Google Leverages Data for Effective Storytelling

Data has always been the core of Google’s operations. The company is known for its data-centered decision making in informing its strategies on innovation and operational practices. From testing color shades to optimise clickthroughs to changing industry standards with the initiatives started by its People Operations department, Google has stayed true to its data-driven approach.


When Think With Google was first launched in 2013 as Think Insights, its goal was to utilise Google’s huge bank of data to provide marketers with — you guessed it — relevant insights on consumer and cultural trends. For Google, the main challenge was to transform these figures into incisive information for not just tech staff, but marketers as well. Originally devised as a research-focused website, it has since evolved into a resource hub for many marketers and advertisers. 


Then in 2015, Think With Google introduced the Asia edition of its publishing platform (in English). With Erica Wong, its APAC Editor-in-Chief at the helm, they started putting together valuable insights from Google’s trove of data for marketers in the region. With the team overseeing 14 markets across the region, this proved to be as interesting as it was challenging.


“Gone are the days when we can depend on other regions to figure out what our next steps might be,” says Wong. “The tables have turned now — we lead the way.” Her team had to take its own unique approach where the strategies that had worked for other Think With Google teams didn’t fit the local context for APAC, and adapt to the demographic diversity of consumers in those markets. Advertisers in Indonesia, for example, were highly focused on mobile advertising, given the surge in smartphone penetration in the Indonesian market. At the same time, the demand for industry-based insights in Singapore, for example, opened up opportunities to target key sectors like finance and travel.


With Think With Google, marketers have access to rising consumer trends on Google’s platforms, hot search topics on Google, qualitative audience research data, audience feedback, and trending topics among industry insiders. This allows them to anticipate reactions to new content based on cultural and seasonal events that consumers care about. 


Wong’s approach to aligning Think With Google’s global objectives with the needs of local marketers is proof that editorial teams don’t need a wealth of data to reach out to regional consumers. Here’s an exclusive look at her strategy:


Key Learnings

Localising for APAC

With a diverse range of consumer behaviours in each geographic market, it’s difficult to cater your content for everyone. Many regional marketers have the same predicament, especially those operating in both mature and emerging markets across the Asia Pacific. Setting strict guidelines and weighing the resources you have against the impact you’ll be able to deliver to specific audience segments can help. Prioritise the segments where you’ll be able to deliver the most value.


Fusing data with human stories

When your goal is to deliver insights to readers, it’s tempting to let your audience binge on the data you provide — especially when you have lots of it. It takes discipline to work out the right narratives. Look at your objectives before applying data, which, in Google’s case, is used only when it helps to provide original insights. Think With Google uses a systematic process which helps them to stay aligned with stakeholders’ needs and serve readers across diverse markets with relevant stories.


Story first, format and medium after

When you’re focused on delivering information through a particular medium, it’s especially hard to ignore formats that work for other brands, especially when consumer attention on those mediums is surging, or when content delivered on those mediums show top-of-the-funnel traction. Pose the right questions to yourself and your team — how does the information you provide best solve problems for your customers? How can it be best communicated to them? Those answers can help you to prioritise the right formats and delivery.


In Detail

Localizing for APAC

To ensure that Think With Google would have a strong mix of content that would address everyone’s needs, Wong’s team had to look at the region from a macro level. Where was the region headed?


The biggest issue that Wong faced was the need to understand cultural nuances — especially since she isn’t a native speaker of half the languages in the 14 markets she oversees.

“Even the markets that share English as their main language can be cultural opposites — for example, India and Hong Kong, or Japan and Australia, ” she says. “Add to that different stages of technological adoption, different population sizes, varied government support for internet access and you have yourself a very complicated spreadsheet.”


This means that Wong has to be in close contact with the leads in each market. “They have their ears to the ground and fingers on the pulse of what their market needs,” she says. “They’re our guiding light for the types of content needed in their respective markets. Our job is then to take in all content requests, consolidate what we can, make sure that there are no unnecessary overlaps and then try to pre-empt what our readers will want to know months down the road. It’s definitely a balancing act.”


Workflow

Her Think With Google team works with a large group of stakeholders, including sales teams, regional marketers, local marketers, product developers, research teams, and sometimes customers, among others. Each piece of content involves a different set of stakeholders, depending on the product or vertical. The hard work of getting buy-in starts before any work begins. Erica says that her team pinpoints stakeholders from the get-go, and tries to make sure that everyone weighs in at the briefing stage. That way, the team has all the objectives, facts, and takeaways for the piece laid out before their writers get to work. She also adds that while changes are inevitable, the team makes a collective decision on later-stage changes as well. “Sometimes you’ll have someone request pretty radical changes towards the end of the process, and we make a judgement call on how critical it is to the piece as a team,” she says.



Content planning and strategy workflow at Think With Google


Working with global

For imported content that doesn’t need to be re-framed for APAC, they operate on a push and pull setup. This means that 1) the global team flags out content for them, and 2) they browse through sister Think With Google sites around the world to identify articles that might be interesting in their markets. They then import English content and flag them to the APAC sites in their local language — for example, Japanese, Korean, Chinese (for Taiwan) and Thai. The local language site leads then localise whatever is applicable to their market. 


For US content that needs to be repurposed for Asian markets, Wong’s team has to find equivalent research that has been conducted in Asia. “We can’t just take an article, reuse the skeleton and just plonk in our own data,” Wong says. “The piece would never turn out well.” 


Instead, they prefer to take the global approach and re-write the piece based on their own data and insights.


Fusing data with human stories

When the global site was launched, the Think With Google team spoke with its customers to see how they could help them stay informed. The consistent feedback loop (looking at the data and listening to their audience) informs their content strategy, including the topics covered, the formats they use, how their content is crafted and how it is promoted.


They also look at proprietary and public tools such as Google Trends and Google Consumer Surveys and third-party sources like research reports, news articles, client case studies, and interviews with consumers and experts to support their findings. Through their collected data, they gauge if the trends bear out. If they don’t, they choose not to write about it.


Today, the APAC team looks at the big picture alongside the usual baseline metrics — pageviews, visitors, sessions per user, and duration on site — both of which define how well they do as a digital publisher.


Wong states that as a B2B platform, their ultimate goal is to have marketers and agency professionals walk away armed with insights that will make their jobs easier or inspire innovative campaigns.


“If our readers gain confidence in their digital savviness and in Google as their partner to success, then that’s even better.”


Google’s biggest advantage is its data bank. The constant influx of new data means that the insights provided for agencies, marketers and advertisers are fresh and entirely original. For example, Think With Google provides case studies (like this piece on data & storytelling) on how Google utilises its own tools to cater their ads to the right audience.  


Delivering these insights requires creativity and a lot of thought into what the audience needs. To avoid overloading the site with data, it is necessary to provide the information a marketer needs only when they need it. While data is important, the human stories that form the crux of the narrative are what makes content interesting for readers. “People tend to think that by stuffing many numbers into a piece, we’re providing great information — but the secret sauce lies in connecting the dots to find out what these figures are telling us about people’s behaviours and what makes them tick,” she says.


Story first, format and medium after

When it comes to choosing content formats, Wong lives by the data. She and her team kick-starts creation by understanding the context of the data and asking the right questions.


These questions are framed specifically for each piece of content her team creates. “Is it data rich and conducive with easy to understand illustrations and icons? If so, that might be suited to an infographic,” she says. “Does the content owner have a great set of data from a piece of research? We could make that into a trends-and-insights article.” By catering content to suit the data, the piece is served in a wide variety of formats targeted at marketers in specific industries.


Highlights from Think With Google

Highlights from Think With Google


Newsletters

Think With Google offers 2 main types of newsletters:


Think With Google

• Content Alerts

• Covers articles, case studies, reports, tools and interviews

• Weekly Thought Starters

• Think at a Glance (twice-monthly)


Youtube Re:view

• Provides insights behind the top trending Youtube videos in the region


Case studies

Wong stresses the fact that not all case studies are made equal. When asked about Think With Google’s case studies, Wong says: “We love success stories that entail creative approaches to solving a marketing problem or innovative applications of our products and tools. In either of these cases, sales teams are as excited to pitch to us, create content and shout about them as we are.” 


They then decide which stakeholders need to be involved in the creation process. “Once published, we have KPIs per piece that we try to hit. It’s imperative that all internal and external teams are aligned on the message we want to convey and, most importantly, that we all agree that the case is inspiring to other brands.”



Thought leadership

Wong embraces the use of thought leadership for Think With Google, especially through articles written by external and internal industry leaders. They leverage on the experiences of opinion leaders such as Google’s APAC CMO, Simon Kahn and several digital leaders of the Fortune 500. 


To her, the hallmark of a good thought leadership piece is when it presents a new approach or way of thinking — which in turn provokes conversation within the industry.


When deciphering a thought leadership piece, Wong’s team measures if each piece arms marketers with new concepts to help them to do their jobs better. A new series, titled Perspectives, is slated for release this year, and hopes to address that issue.


Dealing with complexity

Wong understands the complexity that comes with working with more and more tools and more and more data. As it is easy to get lost in the data, her team prides itself on going back to basics — really understanding the challenges that her team wants to solve and selecting only the relevant metrics. 


Wong raised the example of the Michelin Guides — which is her favourite example of content marketing done right. “Back in the day, all they had to do was count how many copies were printed and sold per year. Now, marketers have to look at page views, users, returning users, sessions per user, duration per page, duration per visit, and more. It’s easy to go down the wrong path and execute well on the wrong metrics.”


Upping the ante on relevance

Consumers driven mainly by mobile have raised expectations for relevance and helpfulness. “While we used to see ads based on age or gender, brands today serve ads indeterminate of demographic,” she says. For example, brands may serve you ads for World Cup tickets if you’re interested in sports or travel, even if you’re a woman in your fifties. That would not be the case a mere 20-30 years ago. 


Content marketing will become more and more relevant to the reader’s interests, whether it’s in the form of a YouTube video on lipstick or an article about smartphones. Brands can’t afford to waste ad dollars serving a content piece on strollers to a consumer looking for motorcycles. 


Mobile advertising

Because APAC has seen extraordinary growth in mobile penetration, mobile viewership has become Wong’s main priority for Think With Google’s APAC service. “As more and more touchpoints happen on or are spurred by mobile - and in some markets constitutes the bulk of interactions - we need to offer content that’s not only conducive to but built for the small screen. It’s a totally different experience and that needs to be taken seriously,” she says. “A long-form article that has a heavy downloadable deck will likely result in visitors leaving the page well before they’re through, even if the content is good.”


Wong’s top picks

Harvard Business Review

”They do a good job of delivering articles that have something for everyone without being too generalist.”


The New York Times

“a frequent go-to, especially since they launched their 2020 Vision. Watching them bring that to life has been interesting.”


First Round Review

“A colleague clued me up on First Round a few months back and I find myself turning to them quite frequently.”



Data
Content Marketing
Data Storytelling
Data Visualisation
Google