How A.I. Will Unshackle Marketers … and the Human Imagination.

Written by Chris Jambor

A standard practice amongst marketers, when planning a campaign, is to create a speculative profile that describes their ideal customer. These descriptions help in the process of determining the best strategies for reaching and connecting with consumers. These descriptions are often plucky and endearing, sort of like a generic profile on a dating app. “Our ideal consumer is Susan. Susan is 25 to 35 year of age, lives in an urban area and works in a professional setting. She is an avid museum goer, loves mixology cocktails and shops at Anthropologie. She is not interested in having children. These qualities combine to make her an ideal candidate for our company’s brand new coffee table made of nothing but sharp corners….” These profiles are culled from generalized and somewhat stereotypical ideas about behavior based on both assumption and fact. The level of detail that can be applied to these profiles is theoretically limitless, but the more specific the profile, the smaller the group of actual consumers that the profile will describe.

In the past decade, technology has advanced to a point that it allows for the collection and analyzation of insane amounts of information about those actual living, breathing consumers. So much information, in fact, that creating these profiles should no longer be a speculative exercise. Between mobile phones with unique identifiers, social networks and customer relationship management systems, it is entirely feasible that any organization that you interact with has a fairly detailed file about you and your habits. Your name may not be attached to this profile, but more than likely it is. This profile is then used to offer you a more personalized experience and increase the likelihood that you’ll continue the relationship.

For the most part, our culture has adopted this as the new normal, despite any misgivings we may have about invasions of privacy. Who doesn’t love to get a money-saving coupon at the exact moment they enter a store with the intention to make a purchase? As consumers, there have been many improvements to our ability to be a larger part of the conversation when it comes to how businesses run. For business, this clarity has improved efficiency and helped certain firms achieve competitive advantage.

This data collection, however, is happening in the background of our lives and not top of mind for most of us. Where we do begin to see the evidence is in the more nuanced ways that the world around us is interacting with us. Marketing efforts have a monumental impact on the consumer and the art and science of marketing has seen monumental changes with the influx of new technologies and increased levels of data. The shift from print to digital media, followed by the rise of social media, has utterly transformed the marketing landscape. New methodologies grew up out of the chaos, only to be rendered obsolete by software updates. This is the new normal and the transformation is ongoing.

Advancements in technology will continue to add depth to the scope of available knowledge and there will likely be disruptions as significant as the arrival of the iPhone. What does this mean for marketers looking to move with the changing tides instead of be drowned? As always, marketing is fundamentally about communicating value and connecting with people. This will not change, no matter what technology is developed. The tools and methods are evolve and finding synergy between advancing marketing technologies, automation, marketers and the humans that are the target of all of these efforts is key. I believe there is an era of marketing about to dawn that will be defined by incredible levels of personalization and customization in marketing communications, all designed by a newly emancipated human imagination, set free from mundane tasks by automation and artificial intelligence.

PART 1: RISE OF THE MACHINES

The latest feature in the advancement of technology is how computing power has combined with internet access to allow for the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence and machine learning. In the past few years, the world has witnessed artificial intelligence perform tasks once relegated to science-fiction: performing surgery, translating languages in real-time, and driving your car. With these advancements, of course, comes the dreaded concept of automation. The specter of automation always seems to be looming overhead, threatening to render humans obsolete.

How does this relate to marketing? We currently live in a world of automated ad-buying and AI predicting consumer behavior and buying habits, which have traditionally been marketing tasks. Artificial intelligence is capable of much more than this, however. AI is now being put to work in content creation. Paul Roetzer, Founder and CEO of marketing agency PR 20/20, has done extensive research into the capabilities of AI in terms of content creation. The capabilities are promising, but the real power of AI, says Roetzer, is the way it expands the human ability and augments what a person can do.

“While the content marketing AI space is in its infancy, there are dozens of emerging AI-powered tools built to help marketers plan, create, optimize, personalize, promote, and measure content more effectively and efficiently.” — Paul Roetzer

This surge in data and insight, however, is accompanied by a rise in consumer privacy options. Technology has made it incredibly easy for consumers to opt-out of receiving advertising on their mobile phones and computers, while many streaming media services have no advertising or offer the option to avoid it for a fee. This development combined with the decline of print media means that advertisers are running out of ways to connect with consumers, while many services are not able to generate the revenue that advertising used to bring. Newspapers, flyers, and direct mail pieces, while still seemingly abundant and have response rates that hover at or far below 5%, have become even less effective in the era of mail-order subscription services and Amazon.com.

In this evolution of our habits, we’ve transferred our immediate attention from the page to the screen and, in turn, tech has been allowed to breach our personal space. Watches, eyeglasses, fitness trackers and athletic clothing all now collect and analyze data. Most of us have our tech on or near us almost constantly, which creates a highly desirable situation for companies to collect and interpret data. The applications reach far beyond mere commerce, but the opportunities that these new levels of personal interaction afford will be where the current capabilities of artificial intelligence will have to cede to a technology that, for the time being, is still far superior: the human imagination.

PART 2: THE HUMAN ELEMENT

The human imagination is a funny and perplexing thing. Artificial intelligence is the product of the human imagination’s desire to replicate itself. In replicating itself, however, the conundrum is that it also replaces itself, or at least its usefulness in our economic system.

Large scale marketing efforts will have to push beyond simple messages for the masses. Marketers will, more than ever, be required to understand their consumer, not just as subgroups of larger populations, but the psychology and motivations of individual consumers. The move away from one-size fits all marketing messages is already taking shape. Advertisers in the U.K. have begun using subscriber data to customize audio marketing to individual customers. This is a perfect example of how the use of consumer data is being used to do more than just provide an address to send bills. Subscribers will hear their own name integrated into ads.

“We’re incredibly excited to offer the market something completely ground-breaking. The most attention-grabbing word for anyone to hear is without doubt one’s own name, so to be able to offer advertisers the chance to speak directly to our millions of viewers is not just unique but an immensely powerful marketing tool.” -David Amodio, Channel 4 U.K. digital and creative leader.

There will always be risk in these situations, however. Personalized messages, while groundbreaking, will run into the same obstacle as any communication aimed at consumers: human interpretation. The true intention of a message is often lost due to the receiver’s mood, environment or prior experience. A fantastic recent example of this is the uproar that occurred after Pepsi aired an ad featuring millennial superstar Kendall Jenner. The ad featured Jenner deciding to ditch a modeling gig and instead join a protest movement and in the climactic moment, offering a police officer a Pepsi to assuage possible violence and confrontation. Objectively, this ad seems like it would be a major hit. It features a current star, a popular brand and a sentiment, that millennials are motivated more by purpose than profits, which is backed by a ton of research.

Pepsi probably believed that they had created an ad that hit all the right points to connect with the coveted millennial demographic. Unfortunately, in viewing the ad, the majority of people found the message opportunistic and wildly tone deaf. In the 2017 political climate, activist behavior is not a frivolous matter and the idea that a soft drink, even when used as a metaphorical olive branch of peace, could be equated with activism was a huge misstep by Pepsi’s ad department. I have no doubt that Pepsi’s marketing department had plenty of data to support the creation of this ad. The problem is that data requires interpretation, and whoever interpreted this data missed the mark.

While Pepsi had an epic fail, other companies are riding this wave of data interpretation and doing it very well. The 2016 US Presidential elections ushered in an era of stark political divides, with the debate over immigration and globalization reaching epic levels of controversy. In the midst of this, Nike released an ad that managed to brilliantly communicate the brand’s message AND make a political statement without turning off everyone.

Once again, Nike probably had excessive amounts of data to back up the creation of this particular ad. In this instance, luckily, the creative team was able to translate that data into a message and accompanying visuals that more than exceeded expectations while also respecting the reality of the human experience.

This is why artificial intelligence, for the time being, will not be able to replace human marketers. While it is true that programs exist to interpret the sentiment of real-time social media content, the level of interpretation is profoundly remedial. Concepts like sarcasm and humor are incredibly hard for sentiment analysis algorithms to account for, especially in their current iterations. This is where artificial intelligence is no match for the human mind.

The marketing department of the future will be highly disrupted by many things. First, the introduction of artificial intelligence into the workflow will mean that more time is freed up for human creativity. Additionally, in the aftermath of debacles like the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, marketing departments will have to inject their teams with more appropriate (read: YOUNG and/or culturally tuned in) talent to make sure that their messaging is on point. These disruptions, however, will be positive in almost every way. In the age of digital marketing, a lion’s share of the work seems to be adjusting settings in digital ad software, such as those provided by Facebook and Google. This, however, is not where a human marketer thrives. Calculating the most effective combination of settings to reach the most viable consumers is a perfect application of artificial intelligence, whereas creating compelling and authentic advertising communications is what most human marketers dream of doing. This is why artificial intelligence, in particular the abilities afforded by automation, will usher in an era of truly incredible marketing. Much like it must have been when ad agencies first had the ability to create ads for television when it was a new medium, the marketers and advertisers of today have the opportunity to craft messaging that will, with almost absolute surety, be delivered directly to their target consumers. These messages will be delivered in real-time, and marketers will be able to, for the first time ever, measure the reaction to these ads in real-time and adjust accordingly.

PART 3: WHEN MEASUREMENT BECOMES TRUE UNDERSTANDING

The concept of analytical measurement is deceptively tricky. The current thinking surrounding the power of data analytics has tinges of fanaticism, with the biggest proponents painting a picture that involves algorithms collecting and interpreting data at a level that renders humans basically useless. There is something romantic about the idea that humans will create such a powerful tool that they can step aside and let it run the show. But one thing humans haven’t been able to gain mastery over is the ability to control for our tendency toward irrationality.

The inescapable truth of human irrationality makes measurement that leads to accurate predictions in the long-term the holy grail of not only artificial intelligence, but most technological advancement. It is true that the era of big data has allowed for the continued removal of layers of uncertainty from hosts of business decisions. Our tendency toward irrational behavior, however, means that the targets will always be moving. The simple fact that many people are motivated by contrarianism will make it exceedingly hard for any predictive model to succeed in the long-term.

This doesn’t mean, however, that measurement is meaningless. In fact, the recent evolution of measurement has led to some of the greatest improvements to technology and customer service ever. It’s actually the short-term applications of measurement that will continue to be the most profound when it comes to marketing.

Real-time data analysis is what will give us self-driving cars, drone deliveries and 100% personalized shopping experiences. On a deeper level, however, as real-time measurement and interpretation becomes ubiquitous, largely due to the integration of artificial intelligence, it is the insights into human motivation and behavior that will be the most valuable dividends, in both the short-term and long-term. Whereas a conversion, for instance a sale, is the current gold standard of key performance indicators (KPIs), the future will usher in an era where the sale is merely the beginning. Instead, a true understanding of consumer sentiment and the intricacies of brand loyalty will be the treasure that our advanced measurement techniques will be able to uncover.

Right now, it’s comparatively hard to understand what motivates a consumer to become loyal to, or develop a favorable sentiment for, a brand. Product reviews or customer testimonials help us to hone in on these elusive concepts, but when we can collect usage data from the second a purchase is made, it will be possible to begin to understand what parts of a software update were the most favored by current users, or what iteration of a design overhaul led a consumer to move from a casual user to a loyal one. In turn, this will help organizations move beyond educated guessing and toward true anticipatory innovations. For years, Amazon and Apple have been two companies that seemed to understand how to anticipate how consumers would behave in relation to their technology in the future, often by creating brand new features that were untested by the market, and therefore, had no previous demand to use as evidence. This is, of course, the definition of disruptive innovation, but imagine a time when every organization, from your local health clinic to the neighborhood food co-op, will have the ability to innovate at this level.

In many ways, this vision of the future could mean that marketers will have less wiggle room, needing to be increasingly accurate in the ways that communication strategies aim to connect to target consumers. There is an old saying, however, that necessity is the mother of invention. In fact, by creating these boundaries there will be more opportunities to push beyond traditional ways of communicating value and into a reality where our expectations of authenticity will pair with a truly genuine understanding of human behavior provided by intelligent technologies to create a new golden era of marketing.