2021 saw a rise in reliance on search: Sapna Chadha

With Google releasing Year in Search report, Sapna Chadha, VP, Marketing-India, SE Asia & S Asia, Google Asia Pacific, spoke to e4m about relevance of search, India’s digital transformation & more

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Published: Feb 10, 2022 8:43 AM  | 9 min read
Sapna Chadha

An increasing number of consumers in India are now shopping online for products that they would earlier buy physically, and even brands that they may not have heard of before, says Sapna Chadha, Vice President, Marketing - India, Southeast Asia and South Asia, Google Asia Pacific. She was speaking in the context of Google releasing its ‘Year in Search 2021’ report.

Chadha spoke extensively to e4m about the relevance of search, astonishing new trends and a massive digital transformation that India has witnessed in the post-Covid era.

Edited excerpts:

Has the consumer search behaviour changed post-pandemic, and what changes have you observed in 2021 vs 2020?

Search is becoming more relevant across India’s consumer base and we’re seeing that with the questions they are asking the Indian consumer has really evolved. They have become more engaging and their decision-making process has really evolved more than ever. 

We're seeing 65% Indian consumers shopping online for products that they would earlier buy physically from the store. The likelihood of them buying brands that they may not have heard of before, because of what they're seeing, has also increased in 9 out of 10 cases. Offline buyers are using digital touchpoints to stay informed during their purchase journey. And because they're comfortable and adept, they're finding out more about products and doing more research on their own.

What kind of changes have you particularly observed about the Indian consumers’ journey? How are brands gaining from it?

As a marketer, I’m excited in what we’re seeing, in the questions people are asking, and the decisions they’re making. We’ve all been talking about the digital transformation for over a while, and, obviously, Covid has played a big role in that. Last year, the question I got around this time was - is digital here to stay or is it just a spike and now we can say that digital is truly here to stay. New users have come online from across India, the metros and the rural areas. We’re not seeing that this behaviour will change, and that is changing how the economy works. We’re seeing startups and brands evolving and this digital mainstreaming is forcing companies to evolve to build models that could have taken years and years, but new models such as D2C have taken a firm foothold and you can see that right in the numbers of users just like the number of smartphones that we've added in the last twelve months, which is almost at a rate of two and a half times what it was pre-pandemic. That's leading to a digital transformation.

Our report shows what's happening in sectors like e-tail, 77% of Indians are now using digital payments regularly. I've spent time in the US and we wouldn't see this level in developed markets. So, we're really excited about this transformation. We're seeing Indians using digital, especially during Covid because of necessity and now they're becoming adept. Gone are the days when while talking internally we thought we have to simplify things for our users and educate them, but now they've become so comfortable with it.

How have the search trends changed between 2021 and 2022?

People have become more adept. There are multiple options for getting information and multiple categories of channels. I would say there's definitely been a shift in the news sense because you have multiple news sources, and there's also a diversification in the customers. Also, we're seeing across the world, every day over this past year, 15% of the searches are questions that have never been asked before. We're seeing a dramatic increase in categories in digital. People are watching short videos. There's a 100% increase in short videos. There is growing interest in virtual try-ons. More and more people are looking for digital consultations with doctors, increasing it by 80%. There is a dramatic increase in group orderings. Digital loans have grown almost 90% year over year. What we're seeing is that people are asking for learning, they're asking hard questions about health, we're seeing their need to get information from trusted sources. We're seeing a tremendous growth in people's need for transparency and accountability.

Also, there are concerns about misinformation, because of the tsunami of misinformation. There's been a 35% increase in people looking for information on frauds and scams. So, people ask questions like, Is it true? We've seen an 80% growth in people asking to see a brand's official store because they don't want to just find information around the brand from anywhere. They're wanting to go to the official store. They're looking for words like trusted websites, which brand is good. And this is the implication that we see for marketers is that people are asking more deliberate questions in last few years.

So, is there a rise in awareness about misinformation on the internet?

I would say customers always worried about misinformation across different mediums. I think it's now that expectations on digital have changed. I think, as brands we've always needed to be trusted right? But now in the digital domain, again because of the tsunami of information. Now there is trustworthy information that is available and people are looking and being more deliberate around trends in information, and figuring out of all the sources and looking at which ones should I trust the most right and they're using search. That's why we're seeing a surge, because they are concerned about making the best decisions. There's been a re-evaluation of our lifestyles, and the choices that we're making. And what's emerged is that people have different priorities. So, you see that in the growth of searches for experiences and around quality time, wellbeing and aspects like these.

So given this tsunami of consumers doing search, you now have even more data with you. How are you processing it to help marketers?

So, with the magnitude of this shift online, marketers have been ready and marketers have known that is coming. I think it's now a complete shift from thinking of digital as complementary. What we're seeing is journeys are completely happening online. No more are the days where maybe some research is happening online and people are going out to get information, now that journey goes from end to end online. So digital is levelling the playing field for businesses, you have entrants that have come in startups, and traditional industry norms are just gone right. And so, retail latency will matter less and the offline stores will matter less. And what this means is that when marketers are thinking about their channel strategies, even if they're an offline business, they have to think about what their end to end customer journey looks like. We've always done lots of deep research as marketers, but I don't think we've gone into depth to understand at each touch point, what could be happening, am I gaining trust with somebody coming to my website? And what are the questions that they're asking? Does my webpage actually answer the questions that are on people's minds because they're making a decision at that point? It's not just 'let me show a picture of my product. It's become complex with nobody going to go in the same direction and therefore, enriching the omni channel experience has to be a top priority for marketers. They also have to think about this point we mentioned around trust and love and loyalty.  So where and how are brands delivering information at each and every touchpoint. Customers are overwhelmed. It's our job to help them make sense of it all.

The report claims that searches and interest in D2C businesses have increased by 533%. Can you mention a few categories that fall under this?

We've seen this in some really interesting categories. Like Samsung in the Electronics category. Samsung had previously been very dependent on e-commerce for sales but they have their own DSP products in the store. We worked with Samsung last year to increase their coverage and to link their infrastructure. That's the lesson that will enable their marketing so that they could drive more sales. I think they doubled their sales with 20% more return on ad spend because they made the infrastructure more seamless. Then Auto and finance for sure. And the key challenge that brands have is that they have this complex network of independent brand owners, trader operated stores, and so this is where this full type of transformation was happening. And they put budgets aside for this but then they're also going to have responsibilities to drive traffic to dealerships or to store owners who lack resources to potentially digitize their businesses. So, the likes of Bajaj Finance digitize from end to endpoint to basically create Omni channels at scale. So auto, finance, electronics, FMCG or home décor - anything that has multiple touchpoints, needs to think about their approach in this way.

So, if you had to sum up the report with a few key takeaways what would they be?

I think Indians are searching for where they navigate their digital life, and we're thrilled to see how helpful we can be. Because we realized this is what helps business. This was around helping people make sense of the messy world, but the world is becoming messier as we embrace hybrid living. And as a result of that, the reliance on search has gone up. Therefore, there's this shift to digital lives and it is important for us to get it right. At Google, we're investing in making sure that we can do everything possible whether it's improvement on language, because we're seeing this across the board right across India, across languages, we need to make sure that we are doing everything possible to get people the right information at the right time. But we also need to work with businesses and marketers, because this is an ecosystem, the whole world is an ecosystem. Everyone needs to get this right to make the customer experience better. And so therefore our services offer strategies today in this increasingly complex process of purchase decision making more than ever, and because of that, we also have gotten to see trends and consumer behaviours. That has been established in transparency, accountability, introspection, choices that people are making. I think that summarizes the report. As somebody that's been working at Search for years, the shift to digital and consumers moving from adapting to being adept is very profound.

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