Artificial Intelligence and Digital Marketing: The Dawn of a New Era

By 2020, 85% of a customer’s interaction with companies will not involve human interaction.

Sounds like some ominous portent of a Machine Age? Much as sci-fi would have you think so, that’s actually not what’s happening. We are, in fact, at the cusp of a new era where intelligent systems work with humans (and not instead of or against them), to build bigger and better spheres of influence. And it’s not just driverless cars and self-service machines. As advancements in machine learning, voice and image recognition, analytics and decision-making move into business, now more than ever is the best time for marketers to harness the power of digital and transform marketing into an unprecedented two-way customer experience. To understand exactly how this can happen, let’s take a closer look at what artificial intelligence is and how it is being used by businesses today.

What exactly is Artificial Intelligence?

While artificial intelligence (commonly referred to as AI) is one of the top buzzwords in today’s marketing handbook, there is little consensus on how to define it. One of the more popular definitions was put forth by Nils J Nilsson, one of the founding researchers in the field –

Artificial intelligence is that activity devoted to making machines intelligent, and intelligence is that quality that enable an entity to function appropriately and with foresight in its environment.

In essence, it involves building and teaching technology to “think” like humans. Machine learning is a subset of AI, and is exactly what it sounds like – a process whereby machines are able to figure out how to solve problems by referring to previous datasets, and hence “learning”.

How is AI being used today?

The basic questions of every digital marketer revolve around the messages they put out – what to send, to whom, when and through which channel. With the growth of big data, marketers now have far more information than ever before to get these answer from. However, big chunks of data often end up further complicating the problem, as managers simply don’t have the time or the ability to sift through the data and derive meaning from them.

This is where artificial intelligence comes in.

Because of its ability to filter and segment unstructured data and detect patterns in it, AI can identify opportunities and automatically act upon them. And the more an AI system does this, the faster and more accurate it becomes. Over time, the entire execution of an online campaign can be handed over to AI, while managers can focus on aspects of business where human intervention is required, such as innovation and brand growth.

And this isn’t just a futuristic vision. AI in digital marketing already exists and is making the lives of customers and marketers easier every day.

  • Search and filtering – In 2015, Google rolled out RankBrain, its new AI engine for processing search results. No longer would search algorithms work on rule-based, easily tweaked metrics. Machine learning can master the search algorithm on its own, guide results towards the most relevant options and give direct responses to direct, conversational queries such as “How old is Jennifer Lopez?”
  • Natural Language Processing (NLP) – Have Swiftkey enabled on your phone? Then you’ve already used NLP technology. This is a field that focuses on a computer’s ability to learn and be capable of processing the nuances of a human language to the level where it can infer meaning and offer responses. When a machine can understand sentiments and opinions rather than just keywords, brands can understand and work with customers at a broader level and tailor their responses to what the customer really wants.
  • Chatbots AI-powered chatbots are starting to take over traditional live chats, and for good reason. With 24×7 service, the ability to retain and track customer buying information, the ability to handle several requests simultaneously and an always-friendly attitude, AI chatbots can be a game-changer in terms of customer assistance and site engagement.
  • Predictive analytics – With the help of AI, marketers can extract information from huge datasets and use it to identify user behaviour patterns, predict buying trends and devise targeted marketing strategies. For instance, Google’s DoubleClick manager is a pivotal tool for AdWords professionals – it automatically recommends strategies based on the target audience and campaign goals. Again, the Adobe predictive analytics tool analyzes large volumes of data based on predefined business objectives, uses data mining to create and validate a model, and apply the results of the model into business decisions.

Where is it heading?

  • Content generation – Wordsmith, a Natural Language Generation (NLG) engine, was able to churn out 15 billion human-sounding articles in 2016. Acrolinx, another AI-powered tool, regularly creates content for brands like Facebook, Nestle and Caterpillar. In fact, Gartner predicts that machines will generate 20% of commercial content by 2018. And while AI is currently used mostly for data-rich content pieces like quarterly reports or market trends, it could very well evolve to the literary level of a Philip Roth or a Malcolm Gladwell someday.
  • VPAs – More than 20% of searches entered into Google are voice-based, and around 70% of the voice queries received are natural and conversational in tone, not keyword heavy. These are significant numbers, and digital marketers are now working on strategies to optimize voice search on webpages along with text-based search. This, combined with NLP technology, could lead to the creation of Virtual Personal Assistants (VPAs) to guide customers through each step of their site interaction. Think a Siri for every website.
  • Personalisation – while factors like location, demographics and past browsing activity already play a huge role in the kind of content a user sees on a webpage, AI can be used to further personalise the online experience. So far, advertisements have been fairly generic – now, they can be delivered instantly to users based on a profile shot of their entire browsing history. This precise targeting of ads means that websites can feature only those ads that are relevant to the user – this will improve the onsite experience, increase user engagement with the ads and thus bring in more revenue to firms through lower advertising costs and higher conversion rates. With AI, digital marketing is truly moving towards the “audience of one”.
  • Image recognition – One of Amazon’s latest creations, Amazon Rekognition, can recognize human faces, emotions involved and identify objects. This can be extremely useful for understanding consumer patterns, behaviours and needs. Given the huge bias towards visual content on social media (the world as a whole shared over 3.25 billion photos a day in 2016), marketers can use AI to draw conclusions from these images, including facial expressions, location, time of day, buyer demographics etc. 

Will it hurt our jobs?

Much as when computers started becoming a fixture in the office space, people today worry that AI will make human labour redundant. Far from it – the rise of AI will create the need for many new jobs.

Machines can’t yet look after themselves – there will be a demand for people at every stage of the AI journey, from development and testing to support and maintenance. As AI gains more foothold in the corporate space, new and specialised strategists will be required to decide how much AI can do, and even how AI and humans should work together. Apart from that, AI will help us do our existing jobs better – by taking over many of the routine tasks, it will leave marketers and other professionals free to work on more creative tasks. For example, on weekends – when most employees are at home – it can track engagement levels for various online campaigns and optimize content based on what people are searching for. Working hours would also become more flexible, as AI takes over much of the work we might otherwise have done outside work hours.

Bottom line?

Artificial intelligence is here to save marketers and businesses both time and money. Recurring jobs can be handed over to bots, and AI-powered analytics platforms can provide more accurate data to enable marketers to make better decisions. Whether it’s dynamic price optimization or automatic selection of ad copy based on the user demographics, AI can do it all – it is up to digital marketers now to assess where they stand, identify the problems their businesses and campaigns are facing, and determine how artificial intelligence can help them find solutions.

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Artificial Intelligence and Digital Marketing: The Dawn of a New Era

by Deya Bhattacharya