The Top Marketing Trends: AI and Automation Drive Digital Interactions
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses had to shut down operations entirely. A wide range of other businesses quickly pivoted to new business models that would allow them to continue operating remotely, without person-to-person interactions. Marketers’ experiences over the past year have led to some significant consumer shifts.
Online shopping soared, with companies like Amazon reaping big benefits. Amazon’s advertising rates jumped more than 50 percent in May from a year earlier.
B2B marketers who often relied on in-person prospecting, sales, and meetings suddenly found themselves forced to shift to the online environment. According to McKinsey, B2B companies now see digital interactions as two to three times more important to their customers than traditional sales interactions. In addition, these companies report that almost 90 percent of sales have moved to a videoconferencing/phone/web sales model. Interestingly, more than half believe this is equally or more effective than sales models used before COVID-19.
Even marketers who were able to continue operating in person discovered that technology could help them boost efficiency and address customer service needs.
The marketing lessons learned during COVID-19 are likely to last. Here we take a look at some of the top trends and technologies that have emerged over the past several months and what the future is likely to hold. Last year we pointed to the increasing use of chatbots, a focus on voice-driven search optimization, and the use of artificial intelligence as the top marketing trends. Two additional trends, podcasts and video, were also on the rise.
This year, we’re seeing much of the same.
Once again, the rise in chatbot use leads the list of top trends, fueled by increased adoption of artificial intelligence, especially conversational AI.
Personalization is another big trend this year. As marketers find themselves in an increasingly cluttered communication environment, they’re seeking ways to better engage with their target audiences. Personalization is a trend they believe holds promise.
Beyond its potential with chatbots, AI remains a technology that is powering many aspects of marketing, and it holds the promise to do even more as the technology undergoes rapid development and innovation.
As we’ll see, each of these trends is integrally tied to the others. Technology is having a real impact for marketers, improving efficiencies and boosting customer satisfaction. Here, experts weigh in on what marketers can expect going forward.
MARKETING TREND NO. 1: CHATBOTS
“The trend toward chatbots has been growing for some time, but in 2021, it seems like the number of websites using them is exploding,” says Devin Johnson, CEO of Kennected, a cloud-based marketing automation solutions firm. “AI-based technology is becoming a more cost-effective marketing strategy, and by 2024 the worldwide market for chatbots will be worth more than $1.3 billion.”
While big companies like Lyft commonly leverage AI-powered chatbots, Johnson says chatbots are also a good fit for smaller companies because they offer “24/7 support with instant responses.” That can obviously be a boon for small businesses that are short on staff or unable to rely on staff, which was often the case during the pandemic.
In addition, Johnson says, many consumers prefer using chatbots to get answers to simple questions. One big benefit from chatbots for both companies and consumers is a positive impact on customer satisfaction.
Around 50 percent of the companies that took part in a survey by LivePerson and Forrester Research cited increased customer satisfaction as the greatest benefit of chatbots.
Coffeeble is a great example of a business that turned to technology like chatbots to address demand during the pandemic. Thomas Fultz, its CEO and founder, says, “AI/live chat was one mainstay of COVID client capture and will only become a more effective tool in the future.”
Fultz says he is “hooked on live chat.” With it, “there’s no tedious click-through process. They go right to the little box that says the magic words: ‘Hello, I’m [name of bot], how can I assist you?’ It’s the only pop-up I know of that a potential customer can’t resist clicking,” Fultz says.
During the pandemic this was especially important, he says, because it could be challenging to get in touch with customers or potential customers any other way.
“When we implemented live chat, Homegrounds’ R&D, quality assurance, conversion process, and retention all became easier and more effective,” Fultz says. “From the first question entered by the customer through the entire chat flow, we learned so much about what they want. With ‘Is there anything else I can help you with?’ we also gleaned their satisfaction without subjecting them to survey clicks.”
MARKETING TREND NO. 2: PERSONALIZATION
Personalization also rises to the top of the list of key trends in marketing. The digital environment was already cluttered, but the pandemic drove more consumers—and, consequently, more marketers—online. Consumers today have an increasingly wider range of options when attempting to address their needs.
Over the past year, the isolation and disconnect consumers felt left them craving more personal interactions.
“Because consumers value authenticity and human connection now more than ever, we’ll see an increased focus on personalization as a must-have tactic for marketers moving forward,” says Dennis Self, CEO of Acoustic, a multichannel marketing hub provider.
Marketers can now deploy technology “that can uncover consumer behaviors in real time at each step of their journey, so marketers can use data-driven insights to tailor email campaigns, mobile marketing initiatives, and other communications,” Self says.
This is now true down to the individual consumer level. “AI-enabled martech can help marketers uncover these interest patterns and serve consumers relevant content,” he says. “Coupled with automation, marketers can create more agile personalized campaigns that can help them pivot based on real-time behaviors, market changes, inventory levels, and more.”
But bland, generic messages aren’t likely to attract the attention of, and engage, today’s consumers. Targeting messages to specifically address consumer needs—whether in a B2B or B2C environment—is a must to stand out from the masses.
Personalization also has an impact from a customer service standpoint, says Ravi Dodda, founder and CEO of MoEngage, an intelligent marketing cloud provider. “The pandemic has escalated the urgency for personalization in marketing as customers’ expectations of brands have increased.” Those expectations, Dodda adds, include the expectation that the companies they do business with will be able to “anticipate their needs based on their last interaction.”
This isn’t just a trend that is tied to the pandemic. “Personalization will become a vital investment for brands as the economy recovers and consumers feel safe to start spending again,” Dodda says. “Brands that can personalize their approach to where and how they engage customers and invest in paid media selectively will win a majority of sales in the economic rebound.”
Personalized marketing messages can forge a real link between companies and their target markets, says Shiv Gupta, CEO of Incrementors SEO Services. “Today’s technology allows digital marketing teams to sink deep into the data to pinpoint the things that keep customers up at night—and describe [which] messages will solve those problems and lend them a good night’s sleep.”
Personalization can take a variety of forms, notes Danielle Savin, senior director of digital marketing services at Capgemini North America. “When studying examples of the power of personalization, it’s hard to overlook popular streaming services and technology companies with their tailored media or product recommendations,” she says. “Pandemic-related consumer habits have also encouraged food and beverage companies to jump on this trend. There are multiple versions of gamified mobile apps that draw on data like purchase history and location to get as personal as possible, all while promoting various loyalty programs that encourage customers to return and make additional purchases.”
None of this would be possible without one underpinning technology—artificial intelligence.
MARKETING TREND NO. 3: AI
AI, of course, is integrally tied to the ability to create powerful consumer impressions and experiences through both chatbots and personalization. Because of its significant impact, it deserves attention outside of those specific use cases.
Phil Strazzulla, founder and CEO of Select Software, says, “AI and machine learning can help uncover consumer trends that allow businesses to provide the personalized suggestion the customer is looking for. AI can turn important behavioral insights into essential demographic and customer data. These personalized recommendations usually have a better conversion rate than traditional ones.”
AI can also help marketers address information constraints, like the eventual withdrawal of support for third-party cookies, Strazzulla says. Marketers must learn to adjust to potential negative impacts of this decision. “The best way to do this is to use machine learning to make the most of the customer impressions that will still be captured by first-party cookies when customers interact with a business’s website,” he says.
In addition to its use in chatbot development and personalization, AI is also poised to significantly improve how marketers create content, leverage SEO, understand and predict consumer behavior patterns, and more.
“There was a time when artificial intelligence, data-driven marketing, and personalization were buzzwords used to describe a future state of digital marketing,” Savin says. “Today, these advanced digital marketing trends are included as top priorities for most businesses in an effort to get to know consumers better.”
AI enables computers, software, and smart learning engines to better understand consumer behavior. For example, Savin says, “programmatic advertising uses behavior learning to automate ad buys and better target more specific audience segments.” Leveraging this technology can help marketers free up time to focus on more strategic considerations.
Here are some other technology trends that marketing experts feel are worth highlighting:
• Automation or robotic process automation (RPA). Marketers who are consistently pulled in many different directions and facing stiff competition and an onslaught of new technologies and communication channels are turning to RPA to help automate various tasks.
• Live-streaming. Video continues to be a popular way for consumers to digest information online. With the advent of immediately popular tools like Instagram and TikTok, scores of consumers are using live-streaming, so marketers can’t ignore this opportunity.
• Experiential marketing. With so many consumers educated during the pandemic about everything they could do online, some marketers have concerns that it will be tougher than ever to lure them back into the physical marketplace. Experiential marketing offers one possibility—making the shopping experience truly an experience—one that can’t be replicated in a digital or virtual environment.
“There are so many new digital marketing trends on the rise,” Savin says. “Marketing and technology are growing together to create customer experiences that are defined by consumer segments. Consumers want a unique experience, and they want a defined message that is particularly relevant to them.”
To gain an edge in this competitive environment, marketers simply must stay on top of these trends and adopt those that would best meet the needs of their target audiences. It might seem antithetical, but technology is letting marketers be more connected in more engagements and in more personal ways.
Linda Pophal is a freelance business journalist and content marketer who writes for various business and trade publications. Pophal does content marketing for Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, and individuals on a wide range of subjects, from human resource management and employee relations to marketing, technology, healthcare industry trends, and more.