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How much do you know about Artificial Intelligence (AI)? Is your exposure to AI limited to Westworld’s suddenly sentient, menacing robots or that weirdly prescient love story, Her? If your frame of context doesn’t stretch beyond the confines of fiction, you’re in for a bit of a surprise.

Artificial intelligence is no mere flight of fancy these days. In fact, it isn’t just gaining a toehold in the real world; it’s downright entrenched in it. You probably haven’t even noticed it creeping in, but it’s there. If you’ve taken an Uber ride, gotten a playlist recommendation from Netflix or Spotify, or snapped a selfie with your smartphone, congratulations – you’ve just had an encounter of the AI kind. The technology is thoroughly enmeshed in our everyday lives.

AI and Marketing: Synergies Aligned

When you hear the term “AI”, I’m guessing it conjures up a picture of an automated, slightly dystopian world in the not terribly distant future. As I’ve illustrated above however, the technology is part of the here and now. And despite pop culture portrayals of ominously self-aware machines ready to overthrow their makers (paging Isaac Asimov!), AI contains untold potential for uplifting our world, rather than tearing it down. Nowhere else is this more true than in marketing, as AI is a perfect complement to what we as marketers are already doing on a daily basis. But, if you remain unconvinced that it’s marketing’s Next Big Thing, let me disabuse you of that notion.

A joint WP Engine, University of London, and Vanson Bourne study exploring the present and future of AI-driven human digital experiences found that 44.5 percent of brands saw increased sales, and 93.5 percent realized positive ROI. And in Gartner’s most recent Marketing Technology Survey, marketers rated AI as their top pick among emerging technologies that will have the greatest positive impact during the next five years. Is it any wonder that some 90 percent of enterprises report they’re planning to up their AI usage in the coming year?

What makes AI a good fit for marketing? Consider this: what do we as marketers thrive on? Data. Marketing’s appetite for data is insatiable because without it, we’re flying blind. Without data to collect, analyze, and interpret, how can we possibly recognize what’s effective and what’s not? Data is the fuel that feeds the target marketing machine. Much like marketers do, AI and machine learning (ML) rely on data for learning, adaptation, and pattern recognition. By harnessing the powerful, complementary abilities that AI and ML can deliver in marketing, we can begin to make decisions that are better informed, as well as more cost-efficient and effective.

Plugging AI and ML Into Marketing

While I’ve called out AI as a coming thing, the truth is that these technologies are already terraforming the marketing landscape. The idea of introducing AI into marketing operations is to enable us to work smarter, faster, and more effectively, facilitating richer and more positive interactions with customers. Most – if not all – aspects of marketing are fair game for AI. From market research, to audience acquisition, to customer retention, it’s fast becoming an indispensable tool in the savvy marketer’s toolbox.

In its December 2019 Artificial Intelligence in Marketing Report, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) found that AI analysis of customer behavior can be used for fine-tuning engagement efforts on a granular level. That’s pretty powerful, don’t you think? But, customer engagement and retention isn’t the only place that’s ideal for AI. Other potential applications include (but are definitely not limited to) marketing automation tools, social listening, metrics and measurement, copywriting, SEO analysis, smart editing tools for rich media, email personalization, chatbots, ad buying…truly, the list of applications is nearly endless.

A Robot Revolution…or Invasion?

Perform a simple Google search and you’ll find pages and pages of search results declaring that robots and AI will be taking over human jobs at a scary-fast rate – one estimate pegged the number at some 50 million by 2030. If that’s not worrisome enough, in early September 2020, The Guardian published a cheekily headlined op-ed piece, “A Robot Wrote This Entire Article. Are You Scared Yet, Human?” Isn’t this proof enough that AI is gunning for our marketing jobs? No, not quite…but if you’re a copywriter, you may want to buckle up for this next bit.

We often leverage AI tools without even thinking about it. For example, if you’ve used Advanced Marketing Institute’s headline analyzer to check the quality of your headlines, you’re tapping into the power of AI / ML. Using deep datasets and pattern matching, these copywriting tools can help writers deliver attention-grabbing headlines, improve copy readability, and proactively correct grammatical errors.

When AI benefits humans, it’s all good. But, when it suddenly becomes a perceived threat to our livelihoods? Not so much. In a series of tests, an AI copywriter outperformed its human counterparts, leading one company to sign a five-year deal for AI-written copy across multiple platforms. And then there’s the author of that aforementioned op-ed piece, OpenAI’s GPT-3 AI / ML system. Did I mention it’s about to go head-to-head with human writers to see who comes out on top?

As scary as all this high-stakes, high-profile activity sounds, I don’t believe that humans will lose out entirely to machines. Our capacity for understanding the human condition – our empathy, our quirks, the very qualities that make us living beings – is something that AI hasn’t yet perfected. Will it ever be able to? Maybe in time, but who knows how long that might take? A human touch is still very much needed, and AI / ML is best when used to complement human efforts. Copywriters, you can stop quaking in your boots now.

Step Forward Now, Not Later

AI is already entrenching itself in our industry, so the time to start planning and adapting is today, not tomorrow. There are challenges and complexities that must be addressed for marketing to fully capitalize on the competitive advantages of AI / ML. For example, AI’s learning curve can be steep and require a sizable buy-in to get started. The technology is also ever-evolving, so adding it to your marketing mix means continued resource investment over extended periods of time, including training, computational power, high-quality data, and security.

Another (and maybe most important) challenge is trust. Ethics and data privacy are paramount concerns to consumers. One study found 81 percent of consumers said they must trust a brand before buying from them. A different survey of 2,200 U.S. adults found 73 percent called out personal data protection as a critical factor when trusting a company. AI can provide great benefits but not if it’s misused, even inadvertently. Being as transparent as you can about what you do, how you do it, and why you’re doing it will help mitigate many of these obstacles.

Recognizing that the complete assimilation of AI into marketing is inevitable and its adoption will be necessary to remain competitive, what should brands and organizations be doing to prepare themselves? Here’s a step-by-step process that can help successfully introduce AI to your organization’s marketing operations:

  1. Set your goalposts. What do you want to achieve by mixing AI into your marketing operations? What business outcomes do you hope to realize? Are these target goals attainable or is it just blue-sky wishful thinking?
  2. Evaluate your use cases carefully. What opportunities are there to integrate AI in your marketing initiatives? Can you improve the customer experience by deploying chatbots? Or what about streamlining your social media efforts with AI-driven automation tools?
  3. Do your homework. Knowledge is power, so arm yourself with quantitative research data that supports your target use case. This will help you to make decisions that are grounded in fact rather than fantasy. A good place to start is the Marketing AI Institute.
  4. Build your strategy. Once you know where and why you want to deploy AI, you need to think about how and when you’re going to pull the trigger. Write it down. Create a detailed framework that can be analyzed and refined, including desired outcomes, a vetted list of potential vendors, and KPIs that will measure overall effectiveness and ROI.
  5. Make it happen. AI in marketing is already a thing and that convergence is only set to deepen as time goes on. The sooner marketers can begin their journey into the AI arena, the better. Once you have all the pieces in place, all that’s left is to execute.

One note of caution: be realistic. You can’t shove a square peg into a round hole, and AI is not a panacea for every business challenge that comes tripping along. It’s actually quite healthy (and astute!) to recognize when your organization is or isn’t ready for a big digital transformation. Just don’t forget to revisit the idea when the situation warrants.

A Bright AI Future

From greater personalization in email campaigns, to virtual assistants, to interfacing with current or potential customers, AI in marketing is here to stay. I believe AI will become increasingly pervasive across the marcom landscape. It’s up to us as marketing, PR, social media, and advertising pros to use it to work more intelligently. But we must do so in a way that generates true ROI while maintaining essential integrity in the eyes of audiences and customers. Any way you look at it though, the future of AI in marketing is bright.

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