The man with all the answers

Reliance on outdated search technology means brands are losing out to competitors in the critical digital space. Yext CMO Josh Grau is using storytelling to communicate the pressing need for companies to invest in modern search, and not rely solely on Google. His track record means CMOs would do well to sit up and listen


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Josh Grau has form for identifying burgeoning areas in digital. He joined YouTube in 2008, when it was attracting less than 800 million monthly active users. Today it attracts more than 2 billion. In 2010 he joined Twitter; the platform’s monthly active users had grown sixfold by the time Grau left in 2016. He also advised Strava between 2016 and 2019, in which time its user base expanded from 20 million to over 40 million.

Grau was drawn to YouTube and Twitter because they were new modes of communication, fuelled by passionate users who understood the potential and were helping to innovate the platform. “The real business challenge was scaling the user base and figuring out monetisation, while also preserving that core community that helped create that early momentum,” says Grau.

Two years ago, his attention was drawn to New York-based technology company Yext as it was transforming into a search company. He joined as interim head of brand and became CMO in the summer of 2020. He describes Yext as “the next big thing in search”, driven by the growing realisation that while consumer search has innovated considerably thanks to Google, enterprise search continues to lag a long way behind.

Not much has changed since 1999, with companies still using basic keyword search technology on their websites. Yet search is critical to a brand’s success. While companies invest huge amounts in slick, fast websites and conversion optimisation, they often overlook search functionality, hindering the user experience with slow or inaccurate responses.

Many CMOs unknowingly persist in powering their most precious asset with outdated technology, perhaps because they wrongly believe that Google is handling everything. It isn’t. Google does not extend to a business’ own website, or the wider search ecosystem.

Grau can see that many brands, while investing heavily in other critical areas of marketing, risk creating a poor experience by neglecting search. When Yext talks to prospects to assess if upgrading their search is important, it focuses on the customer experience. “If you have a question and go to a company’s website, type your query, and don’t get the answer you need, it’s frustrating,” says Grau. “The next natural step is to go to Google to seek out the same information, but when that happens the odds of a competitive ad taking over that customer’s journey is really high.”

He adds that this is akin to going into a store, asking a question and getting a blank stare back or receiving unhelpful information. “You’d be horrified if that’s how an employee treated a customer, yet poor search experiences do the same thing.”

Website search is an undoubted driver for business and Grau’s job is to find creative ways to communicate this message and spark urgency. As a lecturer in storytelling at both Northwestern and Stanford Universities, it is a challenge he relishes.

He launched Yext’s first brand campaign in 2019, which saw the creation of earnest know-it-all Todd Munion, billed as ‘the man without the answers’. A series of ads depicted Todd in various everyday settings where he interrupted people mid-conversation, spouting outlandish — but somehow plausible — facts. Just like third-party websites, his ‘Toddsplaining’ left people bemused. The campaign won several prestigious Shorty Awards last year.

Grau and his team used Todd’s character to convey humour and emotion, tapping into what happens beyond a brand’s website. “All too often people are led to these random third-party sites when searching and it looks like it might be from the brand or from a reliable source but really it is click bait. We used Todd to draw attention to the problem in an X-Files way - it’s lurking out there so the best thing you can do is protect your own home base.”

Search is the real secret weapon for driving an effective business website — modern AI search leads to more time on site, a lower bounce rate, more conversions and lower support costs

He is currently working on the company’s next brand campaign, which evolves Yext’s story to highlight the downsides of using old search technology. Search isn’t often at the forefront of a CMO’s mind, so the campaign will draw attention by throwing the spotlight on innovative technologies from the 1990s that have had their moment and since evolved, positioning outdated, keyword-based search as the industry villain that has failed to advance.

“CMOs need to understand that there are two kinds of searches they can have for their website – outdated keyword search from the last century or modern search built for today. From a storytelling perspective, it’s a classic ‘old versus new’. While music, movies and fashion from another decade always make their way back into the mainstream, old technology isn’t something anyone cares to revisit because it just doesn’t do the trick anymore.”

The campaign will draw parallels between keyword search and obsolescent items like clunky flip phones, dial-up modems and fax machines: “Items which are so absurdly out of date that no one would dream of using them to run their business.”

Grau adds that Yext tries to educate brands on search as the real secret weapon for driving an effective business website, demonstrating that modern AI search leads to more time on site, a lower bounce rate, more conversions and lower support costs.

One challenge lies in the fact that each business has different search needs, meaning there is rarely a sole decision maker. As Grau says, sometimes the CTO is trying to solve the whole search puzzle, from site search to support search to intranet search, meaning they consult other stakeholders, including the CMO. It demands a holistic approach from brands. “At Yext, we want to make sure we’re educating everyone on how outdated search can slow your business down, while modern search built for today acts as a business accelerator. No matter whether it’s a CMO or a CTO, that’s a message that gets attention.”

Grau is thoroughly enthused by his latest role, and his time at pioneers like YouTube and Twitter have stood him in good stead for ensuring that his message — namely that modern search can build customer trust and hit critical business objectives — is heard. “In 2007/2008, brands investing in video as a content strategy was a pretty foreign concept. At YouTube, we really had to convince marketers that video was going to change the content paradigm and it took a while to reach a critical mass. The same was true at Twitter — marketers struggled to see its potential as a major branding and customer service platform.”

His job now is to communicate why enterprise AI search has never been more important for businesses — and why old search has had its day. The story is a compelling one.

Is your business tech stuck in the past? Take Yext’s ‘Escape the ‘90s’ challenge and find out: yex.tt/CMO

Yext is on a mission to transform the enterprise with AI-search. For more information, please visit yext.co.uk/CMO


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