Young entrepreneur highlights need to focus on e-marketing in Sri Lanka

Thursday, 31 January 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Shabiya Ali Ahlam

Q: How did EMarketingEye start?

A: Back in 2001 I was working for a United Kingdom (UK) based e-commerce company that was set in the travel and tour trade. The company was more towards business development in general and was not online-marketing specific. I kept showing them opportunities for the company in online-marketing but I wasn’t heard so much. I was also travelling overseas for work at the time and having already recognised the opportunity the potential in such markets also confirmed. I thought ‘why not?’ and I went ahead with my instincts and the initiative was progressing.

Initially we were focusing on international markets as at the time Sri Lanka was not suitable for this kind of business and local companies were not looking to do anything with online-marketing. We started with four clients and a few staffers; today we have over 400 clients and 65 staff numbers. I must say that besides one company, the remaining three companies, which are Millennium and Copthorne Hotels, Raffles Hotels, Cosmopolitan Hotel Hong Kong, Compass Hospitality, which EMarketingEye started with, are still with us.


Q: Why did you decide to make an entry to the Sri Lankan markets?

A: Initially we were serving companies that were located in South Asia and the Middle East. After the war came to an end the tourism industry in Sri Lanka was looking for ways to flourish. Since the travel industry was seeking to promote their business online, we scooped the opportunity and entered the market in 2009.


Q: What are the key areas EMarketingEye focuses on?

A: Our business comes 90% from the travel and hotel trade and we specialise in those industries. However we have now opened up to other verticals such as insurance, telecommunication, finance and accounting, and IT as well. We strongly believe that to specialise and continue to deliver in one key area is the best way forward and this way it becomes easier to get more businesses as well. We are not a hard sales-driven company; in fact we don’t even have a specific sales force at EMarketingEye. We get our businesses mostly by networking. I must say that the businesses we get is primarily because of the good work we have done in the past.


Q: How did it feel starting your own company from scratch?

A: It’s actually quite overwhelming. I always wanted to run my very own venture for as long as I can remember. Now when I look back, I see that I was courageous to have taken such a step despite the obvious risks involved when standing on your own. I started EMarketingEye at my residence with only a laptop. I got few known people to work for it and the business turned out well. We managed a client, we got another, and the customer base was expanding. We grew confident as matters were going quite smooth.

What I learnt was that running one’s own business is not just about getting clients in and making money, it’s about responsibility. It’s about responsibility towards our multiple clients and managing it at that is the challenge. I recognise that being successful at the time of inception is not the difficulty but effectively managing it well at that crucial time is the difficulty.


Q: You won the ‘ICT Entrepreneur Award’ in 2011. Could you tell us about that?

A: It was great to be recognised and acknowledged by the industry and especially in Sri Lanka for the work we have done. Our work in the country is not so loud and because of that, besides the travel and tour industry, many do not know much about EMarketingEye. Such programs truly encourage entrepreneurship and young talent to come out, take risks, and do things.


Q: Trends are known to come and go in e-marketing; how often do online marketing trends change?

A: Well not only trends, in e-marketing what mostly changes are the techniques and the ways online-marketing gets done. Simply put, it changes every day. You talk about something today, and you wake up the next day only to find it has changed. Trends are ever-changing in this industry and that makes matters quite challenging. It’s mandatory for companies and employees to be constantly updated.

For example in online-marketing, Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is a key aspect one should do to engage in for online-marketing activities. Hard and fast rules there were applicable in SEO two years ago are the big ‘don’ts’ today. Rapid change takes place and if you are not up to date, it gets very difficult to cope.

Facebook introduced the ‘search’ couple of days ago; TripAdvisor has a program called Check Rates which they are now going to change completely after it being launched for only few weeks. As I say, to be competitive you have to be updated. With the change in trends you have to change your strategies, infrastructure, and ways of doing things and might even have to change the way you see e-marketing as a whole.


Q: How does EMarketingEye keep up to date with these ever-changing trends?

A: Well in EMarketingEye we have ongoing training and discussion which help us differentiate from the competition. If you look at big agencies where online marketing is just a function versus specific online marketing companies such as ourselves, success factors where online marketing is bread and butter is doing a lot of research before certain elements change.

To take the change smoothly and not as a blow on the head, we have set up clusters within the company which do research on various activities to make sure when anything new comes up, we pick it up before it comes big in the industry. I could say that being up to date is part of our agenda. Google has come up with panda updates where the criteria for listing and ranking websites have changed. Any changes, favourable or unfavourable, we prefer knowing them beforehand so we can reformulate our strategies and infrastructure to make sure we do our best.


Q: You spoke of the change in a global context; what is the scenario with change of e-marketing trends in Sri Lanka?

A: In Sri Lanka online marketing is new and certain changes we talk about might not have a greater influence or impact on the online marketing industry of the country for various reasons. Looking at social media for example; change in that arena will certainly have an impact here as most online marketing takes place using social media tools, whether it is right or wrong.

When we look at it globally, search marketing plays a colossal role. In the United States, companies would actually spend about 15% of their online advertising budget on search. In Sri Lanka however they would spend most of the budgets just on platforms like Facebook alone. Any change in the search platform will not have the same impact on the Sri Lankan online marketing trends as such since we are still new and our markets are not mature enough. At the same time most of the companies are not engaged in online marketing so the trend will not make any impact what so ever. Companies are still trying the basics. I must say though that there are about 10% of companies, concentrated in the travel and tour trade that are actively using e-marketing. What our local companies experiment are akin to new trends to the Sri Lankan online market.


Q: Could you tell us on few new online marketing themes that have just come up?

A: In terms of search, Google is the leader in search engine marketing globally, where it controls 70% of the share. They introduce diverse new features where they enlighten the market with new platforms and creative ways of doing things. Their platform for the hotel industry is currently going through a lot of changes. They are hoping to introduce Hotel-Finder, where they would get hotels to show their ratings in the listing itself.

Looking at social media, the introduction of Graph API to Facebook allows one to search for their favourite restaurant and it comes out with a menu of comprehensive results where you can even find out your friends’ favourite restaurants. If Facebook search is unable to come up with anything, it gets linked to Bing, which is the competitor for Google. These are a few themes that are fresh to online marketing.


Q: Use of social media is on the rise in Sri Lanka; how can this be put to better use?

A: Not just in Sri Lanka but even globally there is a big hype on social media. Three years ago when you step into any online marketing conference, they would actively talk about search, but now they are talking so much on social media that search is sidelined. It’s not that social media brings revenues to company. It’s just funky and fun to be in and engage with. In markets like Sri Lanka, the first thing that anyone can do is to open a Facebook fan page and try to get to people to buy your product. This is good but there is more you can do than social media, there is a lot of other potential out there in online marketing.

In social media, people engage very well but one thing that should not be forgotten is the fact that Facebook is not yet a revenue generating channel, it is still an awareness generating tool. It is certainly a start that companies are at least testing online campaign with social media. This I feel could be attributed to them eventually moving towards using other e-marketing tools. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka should recognise and move towards the search aspect of e-marketing as it is the tool that generates revenue.


Q: SEO being the tool for awareness, and search being the tool for revenue, to get the best outcome is it possible to integrate the two?

A: Understanding the difference between the two from a customer’s point of view, when you go to search you are actively looking for the product, but in social media companies are trying to sell a product that you probably don’t want. In terms of conversions, someone who finds a product through social media versus search, search would probably convert to sales 100 times more. There is a link between the two as well.

Lately Yahoo, Google and Bing give higher rankings to website that are active on social media. So if you do well in social, there is an indirect benefit for you to get better visibility on search. If you are looking for an integrated online marketing campaign then you should do social media, search and email as well. Try not to use one tool in isolation, use a mix for the best outcome. My opinion on this will be to use search to get new customers and use social media to retain them.


Q: The youth nowadays are internet and tech savvy, in fact even the older population is using the internet more and more. In your view, how can e-marketing be used as a medium to take up and address social issues including youth development?

A: I’ll start with youth development. I think maybe say five years ago if you talk about e-learning or anything, online people are reluctant to accept it and engage with that. Now it’s not the case. I think we can introduce things like that to increase knowledge. The internet should not be just used to waste time on Facebook but to make use of it as medium to learn new things and access to more things.

In terms of youth and socioeconomic activities, online medium could be used to sort of change the attitude and get them engaged with new things. There is a lot happening already, whether it’s a blood donation or books for needy people, e-marketing can be used to change the attitudes of people especially the youth. Now going online is mostly for leisure activities more than adding value. It’s not bad to interact but I think we can go one step beyond.


Q: When it comes to online marketing, what are the prevailing challenges in local context?

A: The first is that decision making units and people who control the budgets are not aware of the importance and strengths of e-marketing. They may be aware but they do not recognise online marketing to bring revenue to the company. In most companies online marketing is handled by junior persons and when they ask for $ 5,000 to run one month campaign online, it’s a flat out ‘no’. We need to change this if want to make use of online marketing. We have to educate the decision making units and decision makers on why should they invest in this.

Anything you invest in online marketing you can track, be it search, social, whatever it may be. You can track the reach, how many people saw the advertisement, how many engaged with it, how many visited the website and how long they spent on the website. You can also track how many purchased a product, the actual revenue earned through it and from which geographic region it was purchased from. The actual Return on Investment (ROI) can be tracked.

While e-marketing can deliver so much, except for travel companies in Sri Lanka, it’s sad that many companies have no online marketing budget. As an industry we need to push this by making sure substantial budgets are allocated and e-marketing is executed with the right agency to gain confidence in the venture. Also it is important to have a person to coordinate the online marketing activities with the partners.

When we started working with Jetwing, they didn’t have an online marketing team, but now they have couple of people completely looking into online marketing. Jetwing is one of the organisations that I have seen improve a lot compared to where they were in 2009 when we just stepped in. Online marketing is not just a cost centre; it’s in fact a revenue generating channel.


Q: What are EMarketingEye’s plans for 2013?

A: In 2011/2012 we made $ 1 million revenue and for 2013 we are hoping to increase our revenue by about 30%-40%. Our financial year is actually April to March so we have like one quarter more to go for our last year. We plan to increase our revenue by going into new markets.

We are currently doing businesses in the Middle East and want to make sure we get the maximum out of that market. In South East Asia, we are not strong in Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines and we hope to establish there this financial year. In Singapore and Hong Kong we have a strong presence but we want to make sure that we develop them further.

We are also identifying areas internally to improve. Infrastructure is something we are seriously looking at. There are lot of things that take time in terms of analysis and reporting. We are in the middle of developing tools to automate certain effects to give the users and our customers a better experience. We already have a platform called ‘Performance Eye’ which was developed three years ago where our customers log in to see the campaign report, data and trends. The new version of this platform is set for launch in two weeks. There will be couple of more releases in the next few months where we are going to comprehensively deliver our report to our customers using innovative tools. I am proud to say that we are the only online marketing agency in Sri Lanka that has an online tool for customers to track their campaign progress and details.

In this kind of a business, human resource is the key that drives matters forward towards success. We are in the midst of recruiting more people and at the same time we want to make sure that the existing staffers are better trained so we are actively investing in them. 2013 is a mix of lot of things, internally and externally.

To extend our support to the industry, we hope to host an Online Marketing Forum in mid March 2013, an event we are trying to hold annually.