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From Algorithms to Actions: Leveraging AI in Marketing

In Conversation with Ben Barnes

For this episode of E-Coffee with Experts, Ranmay Rath interviewed Ben Barnes, Managing Director of Neural Edge, a Marketing Agency located in Crewkerne, Somerset. Explore the dynamic evolution of digital marketing with Ben, as he delves into the transformative power of AI and data analytics. From decoding SEO algorithm updates to leveraging AI for content creation and campaign optimization, discover how businesses are reshaping strategies for the digital age. Join us on a journey through the past, present, and future of digital marketing!

It’s not about AI taking the jobs. It’s about how is AI helping people do their jobs better or enhancing the jobs.

Ben Barnes
Managing Director of Neural Edge

Hey, hi everyone. Welcome to your show, E-Coffee with Experts. This is Ranmay here. Today we have Ben, who is the Managing Director of Neural Edge, an award-winning agency specializing in AI data-led search marketing. Welcome, Ben.

Hi, Ranmay. Thanks for having me on. Excited to have this discussion with you.

Great. Ben, before we move forward, why don’t you talk us through your journey and what Neural Edge is all about? What do you guys offer? What niches do you cater to? And are you different from all the agencies out there?

Yeah, sure. I guess my journey in marketing started as far back as 2011, unofficially. Started running businesses as a side hustle, little T-shirt brands that I started with. That got me into building websites, writing copy, a bit of SEO, and a bit of social media. Then a few years down the line, after doing that as a part-time thing, I got a job in marketing, selling pest control products online. From there, I moved through the ranks of different businesses, marketing assistant, marketing executive. Then more recently, I worked at a company called The Teahouse, who sell loose tea in London. From there, I went on to work with ScrewSix, who’s the UK’s largest DIY retailer. I guess through that time, I’ve got a lot of experience of different aspects of marketing, so all the different channels, the way that data is used, how to build strategies. I guess that led up to the creation of the founding of the agency at the end of 2019. I think the reason we’d started it was we’d seen the appetite for people wanting to use data.

There was murmurs around AI at that time as well coming in. We really saw the opportunity to help businesses get to grips with their data and understand how they can use it to better inform their campaigns.

I think as well, in that time, it’s social media, phones, high-speed internet. It’s created a lot of data. It’s created a lot of different ways to reach people. Marketing became very fragmented across some different channels. I guess the way that we saw it with data was a way to bring that back together, have a holistic view of what’s happening to use the data to make those important decisions. That’s where Neural Edge was founded. Then over the last four years that we’ve been working on the Neural Edge project, started as a data-driven piece. Then about two and a half years ago, we started doing a lot of research into AI tools and very much brought that into our workflows. Since then, we’ve taken off in terms of companies being really interested in not only the data aspect, but the AI aspect. Then you had ChatGPT, all the hype around that in November last year, which, again, brought it all to everyone’s attention. I guess the difference with us is that we’ve been doing it for a long time in terms of data and AI stuff, and not just using ChatGPT to write blog posts.

We’re going deeper than that. That’s what really makes us stand out. We hear it a lot from the proposals that we put together. We do a lot of analysis beforehand for companies, and the feedback we get is that it always blows other agencies out of water. It gives us the confidence that we’re on to something good in terms of data and AI. As that continues to grow and influence the marketing industry, I think it puts us in a really good position not only to help businesses do more, but educate people on right and wrongs of AI and how we use it and how they can use data to achieve their overall objectives.

Great. You have been at the forefront of the digital marketing landscape for quite some time now, as you mentioned, right? Could you share with our listeners some key shifts and trends you have observed in the field of SEO and digital marketing since you started your career?

Yeah, I think if we’re talking about it from an SEO perspective, you have to start with the algorithm updates, right? So for me, Canada, I guess, was one of the big ones back in 2011. And it makes me laugh in a way because that was all about filtering out bad content. And we’re back to that point now where it’s filtering out bad AI content. But 12 years ago, we were filtering out bad human content. That’s one shift that, I guess, started it. And then Penguin in 2012, those spammy links, the black hat, the gray hat stuff, keyword stuff in general, web spam that was being filtered out. Then above it, jumping forward, I guess, the other big, the way that Google then better understood content in more of a human-type way. How and phrases were linked together and the semantics of that. I guess MUM or MUM, again, 2021 came out 1,000 times more powerful. Again, it came less about targeting specific keywords and more about writing a piece as a whole rather than just a piece to rank. I think as well, in terms of other algorithm updates, the helpful content one is a big one.

I think August ’22, it started to come out, rewarding that helpful informative content rather than the stuff that just been written to rank. And then again, bringing it up to date, September 2023, that other big update. I guess to me, those are important trends and shifts in how Google is seeing content marketing content, ranking content. But people always get quite stressed out about it or nervous about it. But I’ve always had the philosophy that if you’re doing the right thing, you’re not going against it and doing these black hat things, it’s not really going to have a negative impact on you. I guess it’s only potentially going to have a positive impact as those sites that are going against the guidelines or trying to gain the system, come out of rankings or drop out of them. I guess in an SEO perspective, the shifts algorithm updates are really important. I guess that then leads on to the shift in the content quality and relevance. Google obviously continually trying to make sure that they’re serving up a really high quality content, relevant content to what people are searching for. And it really has moved away from the early days of keyword stuffing and just white text and trying to hide stuff and actually making sure that we’re providing stuff that is high quality and relevant.

And then I guess what drives into that, again, is this EAT that’s come out. So experience, expertise, authoritiveness, trustworthiness. For those that maybe aren’t familiar with that, it’s not Google don’t cite that as a direct ranking factor. It’s more a framework that’s used by their content raters to understand how useful or helpful content is. I think that, again, has helped to focus people’s minds when they’re writing content on, Oh, hang on, I’m writing this for people. I’m not writing this just for a search engine, where stuff comes in like experience, adding personal experiences, adding in opinions, and expertise. Is this an accredited professional that’s writing this? Is this someone that’s got genuine experience in the industry? Authority, I think WebMD is a good example, known within the medical space as being an authority in that area. And that gives you the confidence that what you’re reading is a really good piece of content. And then I guess trustworthiness as well comes down to things like being clear about who wrote that piece of content, factual accuracy, sighting trustworthy sources. So yeah, I think, again, the big shift in SEO in particular is writing for people, proving your knowledge, not just keyword stuffing and writing for search engines.

And then, I guess, following on from that, you got the content’s written, it’s on the page, then it becomes more about the experience of how people can interact with that. As I said in the intro, everyone’s got a smartphone now. Google started introducing mobile-first indexing in November 2016. And by December 2018, half of the sites on the Internet were mobile-first indexed. And pretty much if your site hasn’t been mobile indexed first now, it’s not going to happen. So it shows you that emphasis that Google was having on mobile usage and mobile optimization. And if you’re not putting that into your strategy, wherever people come from, whether they come in from PPC or social or SEO, it’s really important that you’ve prioritized that in your campaign focus. And then I guess we can’t talk about trends and shifts without talking about video, YouTube, more recently, TikTok. There’s a huge shift from text-based content, then it went to images, now it’s back at video. And it’s those metrics around engagement that are really important in terms of we’re not just creating video for the sake of creating video. We’re making sure it’s being engaged with, it’s delivering value.

And then from an SEO perspective, optimizing it, captions, and keywords as well. Again, I think that’s had a massive impact on marketing as well. People’s attention spans are a lot shorter. Even podcasts, maybe that’s something like Joe Rogan, where it’s three hours. People don’t sit there and consume it for three hours. It’s a 20-minute chunk, it’s a half-an-hour chunk. If you’re going through social media, it’s a 10-second video, not a two-minute video. So again, that’s another big trend or shift that’s come in as digital natives are coming through and seeing that stuff. And then, again, as I touched on in the beginning, I guess the final big shift or trend that I would pull out is this, focus on data-driven decision-making. So all of these channels and all of these algorithm updates and pieces of software that we use, they all produce data. And it’s now about, Okay, we’ve got data. How do we use that then to make the best decisions? The proliferation of new pieces of software. SaaS has opened up software markets, people being able to have a freemium model, use these pieces of software, try it out, find the best ones, and essentially refine strategies and get the best ROI.

I guess to finish, more recently, the biggest trend, as we touched on is AI. So not only, I guess, the biggest use case people see is content writing, but gathering data, analyzing data, and forecasting how campaigns might perform. That is allowing marketers to do a lot with a lot less. And it means they’ve got more resources to spend on other things. I think as people get more familiar and confident with AI, it’s just going to continue to grow exponentially and make a huge impact even more than it is now.

Yeah, absolutely. For AI with ChatGPT or other tools out there, a lot of people feel that it was there to take up the jobs, but it only has to be proven otherwise, wherein people who got in the use of the tech and are using it to the optimum, have landed up at more high paying jobs than what they were earlier. It’s about adapting to the change which is there because AI is there to stay. It’s how you use it in your arm as a weapon versus getting scared of it, not using it, and delaying the availability as the same.

Yeah, I think that’s exactly it. It’s not about AI taking the jobs. It’s about how is AI helping people do their jobs better or enhancing the jobs or creating more interesting jobs So AI does the mundane stuff and people do the more creative and the fulfilling and the fun stuff. If you see it in that way as a positive and how it can be used as a positive, it’s a lot less scary thing than you think, It’s going to come and take my job. I don’t want to engage with it. I’m not going to look at it. That’s where you’re going to start falling behind and you will lose out to it. I think it’s really important to embrace it and be open to how it can enhance what you’re doing rather than replace what you’re doing.

Yeah, it only adds to your efficiency if used correctly. All the stuff that you regular, recurring stuff that used to do manually. It only saves time if you use AI and just do the editing, and a few verifying of facts here and there. It gives you a head start for sure. Rather than starting from scratch like we all used to before it happened. It only adds to your armory if you know how to use it. Great. Then talking about AI, Usually it is known for its expertise in AI data-laid search marketing. What is your perspective, Ben, how AI and data analytics are transforming the way businesses approach their marketing strategy?

Yeah, I think, generally speaking, data allows you to make more informed decision making. You can allocate budget and resources more effectively. You’re going to get better results. You’re going to get less wastage. You’re to get a higher ROI on your campaign spend. As we’ve just been saying now, I think AI speeds up that process. You can do more with less, maybe smaller teams, or analyze more data more quickly, and essentially be more agile in your decisions. You can make decisions more quickly, and you can react to the market more quickly. I think if I think about it as a process of going through a campaign, then I guess initially, data AI, transforming strategies, first place to look is at your own data. There are plenty of tools out there from an SEO perspective that you can analyze keywords that you’re ranked for, so Aref, and Semrush. Similarly, free tools like GA4, will show you how many people come to your website, and where they’re coming from. Once you’ve got this data, it can be used to inform which pages are working for us and which are performing, which aren’t working, and which we need to have a look at.

Just in that sense, it’s gone from not being a stab in the dark at, I think we need to do this. It’s more of a the data is telling us that this is performing well and we should do more of this. I think as well, like off-site and then looking internally at your customer stuff, there’s a really good tool called PKI, which helps you with customer segmentation optimization. So not only are you looking at how your website is performing, but you’re also looking at which customer segments should you be targeting. So which ones will give you the highest lifetime value? Which ones are most profitable for you. Essentially, once you know that information, again, you can allocate budget resources to developing the campaigns that will give you the best ROI to deliver the right message at the right time. And again, AI helps you to identify those more quickly and react more quickly. If you can react quicker than your competitors, then you’re going to gain that competitive advantage.

Absolutely.

Then I guess if you’re looking outside of your organization, then you can think about how it’s impacting competitor and market analysis. A tool that we use that’s 100% say just so much time in terms of analysis is Surfrest, that’s going out. It’s looking at the surfs. It’s gone from a manual case of me sitting here, going through each of the top 10 search results. How many headings have they got? How many words are in that piece of text? How many images have they got? How many links? Surf is going away and giving me that information in 10 seconds. It’s visualizing it. I’ve then got an instant snapshot. I’m like, Okay, I’m trying to rank for this. I can now see exactly in 10 seconds what length that needs to be, and how many headings I should put in there. I guess it doesn’t completely provide a manual check. That’s the way it’s got to be done. But it gives you that instant view of what’s happening. Again, this saves you time and more time to be spent on content ideation or content creation. And then another tool that we like to use with our clients is called Gapscout.

To get us a really useful tool for competitor and market analysis. Gapscout analyzes online reviews from you and your competitors, scripts the web, and compiles that into a qualitative feedback document. And what that allows you to do is then basically look at where the gaps are in the market, where your competitor is not serving their customers as well as they could be. For example, they’re getting a load of bad reviews around customer service. That could then be somewhere that you allocate more of your resource to and to making sure that yours is the best in the market. Again, rather than sitting and going through loads of manual reviews, you’re using AI to go and gather that data. You can then use that data to inform product development, service development, even campaigns, and strategies and channels that you might use as well. And then I suppose going on from that, you’re looking at the planning of campaigns and strategy. Got that data, analyze what you’re doing, what your competitors are doing. So again, a tool like Arefs, where you can find how many people are searching for these and how hard are they to rank for.

Is it going to be realistic for me to try to rank this term? How many links am I going to need? Again, all data that’s useful in terms of informing your strategy rather than just being, I think we should target this. No idea if we’re going to rank well for it or not. No idea how authoritative the sites are in top 10, but we’ll try and do it anyway. It’s now come into, Okay, maybe that’s one for 12 months once you’ve built topical authority or done a link-building campaign. Again, I can come in terms of using it for keyword clustering. So around topic clusters is a really big thing in SEO, building up that topical authority. Got a list of 10,000 keywords. You can use a tool like Keyword Insights that uses AI to cluster those together, identify the search intent. And again, you’re building out this strategy relatively quickly versus doing that over a manual process. Then towards forecasting, I guess you’ve got tools like SEO Monitor, which is a personal favorite of mine. So you put in all the keywords that you are going to be targeting in your campaign.

You can set different parameters around what your conversion rate is, what your domain authority is, and that thing. Again, we use AI predictive analysis to say, Okay, you’re going to target these. This is what we think you’re going to get traffic-wise. This is what we think you’re going to transactions, and this is what we think sales are going to be. Again, it’s that combination of data and AI to validate that campaign that you’re putting together so that you almost know what’s going to happen rather than it being a stab in the dark. Then I guess the last couple of bits that come to mind in terms of data and AI influencing strategy is the actual implementation of campaigns. Again, we touched at the beginning on the use of AI for content writing. That’s probably one of the best-known uses within digital marketing and SEO. It was like Jasper that we’ve been using from when it was called Jarvis and like head back when they originally started. Immense time-saving in terms of creating content. That’s not to say that there’s not a process of going through manually checking that and check a fact checking and make sure it’s actually giving you the right information.

But again, as you say, you’re not starting from a blank page anymore. You’ve got something that’s there, that’s been written, and you’re ready to just go out straight away. Chatgpt, again, is another great one, implementing campaigns. So writing long blog posts of something, great for summarizing data, putting data into tables, that thing, or even just creating a brief for a content writer or an AI tool to follow. Again, it’s just saving time and giving you a really good output without you to do too much to it. And then again, on the AI side, whether you’re running social ads or you’re using images in blog posts, Midjourney, and StableDiffusion, both of those are probably the best-known tools in terms of image generation protection, text image generation through AI. So again, it’s taking out, briefing a graphic designer, or paying for something like Photoshop or Illustrator. You can play around with it and nail down the styles that you want out of them. And once you’ve done that, you’ve almost got instant access to an image bank that’s pretty unique and that you can use within those campaigns. And then, yeah, I guess my final piece on this would just be around the ongoing monitoring and data insights.

So data collection is allowing you to not only see how your campaign might perform, but then obviously it’s showing you how your campaign is performing. I always say start with free tools, Google Search Console, and GA4. Plenty of data in there that will tell you how your campaigns are performing, and what tweets you might need to make. Then there are probably more tools, more proactive tools that will scan your site regularly. The site checker is a good one. If that’s going to scan your site, link into search console, it’s going to give you real-time SEO suggestions based on your performance. Dib is another good one for smaller businesses that are maybe doing it yourself or only have a really small marketing team. And then, yeah, other useful tools. Heat maps, again, are another really useful one in terms of putting it on landing pages, where people click, how far they’re scrolling down. So all of these data-driven tools are informing not only the strategy that we’re putting together but the nurturing and optimization of that strategy as we go through it.

Absolutely. Lovely, Ben. It was fantastic. But yeah, before we let you go, what advice do you want to give since you have been there for quite some time now? What is that one piece of advice that you’d want to give to all those budding entrepreneurs who want to make a mark in the digital marketing space? Let’s say they want to open their agency or young digital marketers who want to grow, let’s say in a job or whatever they want to do in this particular space.

I think I would probably just say find a niche and stick to it and become an expert in that area. So Digital marketing covers a massive range of areas. You can be a social expert, you can go as an SEO, and you can see so many different areas that you can focus on. If you try and be good at all of them, you’re not going to be that good at any of them. And the model that I really like is being called a a T-shaped marketer. So you have awareness of all of these channels and how they work together, but you specialize in one. So for me, we specialize in SEO, and we do PPC as well. We don’t do any work on social media email marketing or affiliate marketing. And what that means is it means that when people want SEO, they come to us because they know we’re good at SEO and we’re not trying to spin loads of plates and be good at everything. We’re good at SEO. So for me, really find that thing that really lights that far inside you. Go and focus on that.

Become a really good expert in that. Don’t discount other channels, understand how they interact will impact your area of expertise. Then once you’ve done that, make sure you’re telling people about it. You have the confidence. I think everyone has a bit of imposter syndrome when they start out, either in a new job or start a new agency. But get over that. Be confident that you’re the expert in that area. Make sure that you’re delivering value to your employers your clients or your employees too. That’s the best way to get started and the path to follow, I would say.

Lovely. Lovely, Ben. But yeah, now that you’ve shared all the insights, I would like to play a quick rapid fire with you. I hope you’re game for it.

Do it.

All right, let’s start with an easy one. Your last Google search.

I think it was for a dog walker, my dog.

Okay, all right. What did you do with your first paycheck, Ben? First paycheck of your life.

Yeah, I bought a laptop with my first paycheck. I remember it very vividly. Got it from eBay. Waited a few days for it to be delivered to Amazon Prime back then. Yeah, and that was probably back when I was starting that first clothing company.

All right, lovely. Your favorite sport?

Favorite sport? Probably football, or soccer.

Okay. Which club do you follow?

I follow Manchester United. Followed them since I was young. That’s probably the answer that most people give. I quite like watching the international, as well. England has started to get pretty good at football now, so it makes it easier watch.

Man United, I’m a fan of Man United, so tough times for sure, but we’ll sail through.

Yeah, it’s not like the ’99 era, is it?

Yeah. Early 2000s were also good, but yeah, we’ll get through it, hopefully, and hopefully soon.

Hopefully soon.

Yeah. Moving on, let’s say, Ben, if we were to make a movie on you, what genre would it be?

Probably comedy. I quite like comedy. I deal with things by looking at it in a comedic way. Yeah, they’re probably comedy.

Lovely. Great. I’ll not grill you any further, Ben. Thank you so much for taking out time and doing this with us. Appreciate it, man.

Yeah. No, likewise. Thank you very much for having me on. It’s been really great to connect with you.

Great. Thank you.

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