Using AI to Make Marketing Resonate
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are being used these days in businesses of all kinds to streamline operations, make better decisions, and predict the future behaviors of employees and customers. In many cases AI simply does what humans have long done—only faster and better.
This is especially true in marketing. Marketers have long known that a deep and thorough understanding of their customers can help them develop marketing messages and materials and select the right channel to drive their messaging home most effectively. But AI can do that and more. AI can leverage data—lots of data—to do things more quickly, more accurately, and more cost-effectively than humans ever could.
In fact, sometimes AI yields some very surprising results. Simran Cashyap, head of product and design at Echobox, a company that uses AI to generate and streamline marketing content for social media and content distribution, recently had such an experience. Cashyap noticed that Echobox’s AI had scheduled a post for one of its publishing clients to go live in the middle of the night, defying standard marketing best practices. Despite thinking the AI had made a mistake, he let the portal do its job.
The result: It was one of the highest-performing posts he’d recently seen.
In considering why this occurred, Cashyap realized that the post, which was related to the British Royal family, would have a significant international audience playing out across various time zones. It’s an example of how AI can take trends and data into account that the average human is likely to miss.
That’s just one example of the role AI can play in helping marketers create and distribute marketing materials for better results. AI, says Paul Taylor, chief marketing officer of SS&C Blue Prism, is already being leveraged in narrow applications like digital advertising placement, sales forecasting, customer service chatbots, and scheduling content through marketing funnels with tools like Marketo. And Salesforce, of course, has been a go-to marketing automation tool for years now—a key tool in most marketers’ toolboxes.
Nadia Gonzalez, chief marketing officer at Scibids, offers another example related to media buys. “Consider a campaign that needs to deliver 200,000 impressions each day with an average CPA [cost per action] of $27,” she suggests. “It appears that local daytime hours perform better than evening hours, with
a daytime CPA of $24 and an evening CPA of $43. A logical conclusion would be to stop the evening campaign delivery but, believe it or not, that would make it worse—increasing total CPA from $27 to $31. Why? Because constraining the terms for the AI forces it to buy from a more limited pool, including lower-quality ad impressions during the day it would have otherwise refused, and that would be worse than night impressions.”
Increasing the available volume of impression opportunities instead of restricting them as a human might do, Gonzalez says, allows the AI to be more selective in its choices. “AI designed to compute optimal media prices with all available data will outpace and outperform human guesswork,” she says.
But AI has applications that can go beyond simply automating tasks. Marketers are discovering ways to leverage AI to help them be more strategic in targeting specific messages to specific audiences through the channels that are most likely to reach and resonate with them.
MANAGING CONTENT AND LEARNING WHAT MATTERS
AI automates processes that are rote, repetitive, and time-consuming, giving marketers more time to focus on more complex tasks, Taylor says. “It allows people more time to be creative and employ the skills that attracted them to marketing in the first place.” This technology can be used to help marketers ensure that they’re getting maximum traction from their content.
Organizations—especially very large organizations—have a lot of content on hand, some current, some not so current, some holding hidden gems that become buried, lost, or forgotten. AI can help surface it all.
“For large enterprises with thousands of pieces of content, including blogs, brochures, and sell sheets, and hundreds of customer-facing employees, finding updated content that is customer-ready and marketing-approved can take up valuable time that salespeople, for example, don’t have to waste,” says Debra Cancro, senior vice president of data products at Bigtincan, a provider of sales enablement solutions.
AI and machine learning technologies, Cancro says, provide a simplified way “for customer-facing representatives to find, search, and deliver content with consistent brand messaging to provide a positive buying experience for all current and prospective customers.” In addition, she says, “marketers benefit from trackable content metrics and the ability to prove the ROI of their efforts.”
AI can help marketers “gain a deeper understanding of which elements make up the pieces of content that deliver the highest return on investment. AI enables marketers to present a tangible, direct link between deals closed and content created, tying dollars to insights,” she adds.
AI can also be invaluable for marketers by identifying prospects at just the right point to become customers.
Vin Turk, chief operating officer of marketing solutions provider Madison Logic, explains. “Let’s say a bank in North America is planning to move to the cloud. And security and networking is extremely critical. We’ll take content from one of our clients in the cloud space and find the key personas inside that bank that have been showing the signals of researching, downloading, and consuming that type of content, and then perform somewhat of a matchmaking service.” As the prospect moves deeper and deeper down the sales cycle into different buying phases, Turk says, “the messaging and the content management logic changes and is adjusted based on the specific needs of the prospect.”
Users of this technology, Turk says, “can see very clearly which verticals, which company segments, and which accounts are showing them signals.” This ability to pick up on even subtle signals is one of the key benefits of AI in the marketing process.
Ben Hookway, CEO of Relative Insight, a text analytics provider, says effective advertising relies on understanding consumers mind-sets, “identifying who is viewing content and the level of their engagement.”
That’s nothing new. Popular TV programs like Bewitched and, more recently, Mad Men have exposed consumers to the behind-the-scenes workings of the advertising industry and the thought process used by Darren Stevens and Don Draper, respectively.
Today, though, technology can help immensely with this process, Hookway says, “speeding up the time it takes for marketers to deliver relevant messaging.” In addition, he says, especially in light of the demise of third-party cookies, marketers are increasingly in need of solutions that deliver intelligence at speed and at scale.
Hookway points to natural language processing (NLP) as one example. It offers the ability to use computers to recognize sentiment or emotion expressed in text. “Many social listening platforms can complete basic NLP sentiment analysis, which can be helpful when it comes to pulling the social media conversations relevant to your goal or area of inquiry,” he says. “If you’re looking to uncover common issues with your product or service, for instance, it can be useful to pull only the posts tagged as negative.”
But, Hookway notes, the real value of NLP can go even deeper to help marketers understand how their customers really feel about their brands and why. “A reviewer might say they are ‘not happy.’ While the word ‘happy’ is included in the review, the preceding word indicates that the consumer is anything but. To create marketing materials that resonate, organizations must conduct truly robust emotional analysis on the variety of text data sources they tend to have at their fingertips, such as social media, reviews, and open-ended survey responses.”
These deep insights, which would be difficult if not impossible to get without AI, can help inform product, customer experience, and marketing strategy, Hookway and others say.
Hookway’s company recently worked with a university to gather insights on what prospective students were looking for both in terms of courses and lifestyle, enabling its marketing team to create a new prospectus designed to reflect their priorities and to stand out from the competition.
Today, Hookway says, “it is possible to gain enormous value from text-based data thanks to next-generation technologies which go far beyond mere word clouds.”
Companies have vast amounts of text data at their disposal that they’re not taking advantage of, “often thanks to an outdated perception that it is harder to organize and analyze than quantitative data.” Using text data effectively, Hookway adds, can help marketers get to the why behind customer sentiment and actions.
The concept and application isn’t different than it has ever been. But technology can take the place, to some degree, of more time-intensive processes, like focus groups or observation, or even gut instinct.
AI can also take this one step further, actually interacting with consumers to gather information or guide conversations.
Conversational AI has been around for a while now, with popular platforms like Alexa, Siri, and others already highly adopted among many consumers groups. And chatbots serve as the basis of many online interactions, whether consumers realize it or not.
But, Taylor says, the potential for this technology has not yet been fully realized. “There is significant potential with conversational AI, moving away from set decision trees and frameworks to understand more about the intent behind customers’ behaviors or questions,” he maintains. For instance, he notes, AI is already being used by clothing retailers to suggest purchase options to customers based on their previous purchases.
StitchFix is one company doing this quite effectively. During a recent Shop Your Looks beta period, more than one-third of clients who purchased through Shop Your Looks engaged with the feature multiple times, and approximately 60 percent of clients who purchased through the offering bought two items or more.
Chatbots also are becoming increasingly conversational and interactive.
Chatbots, Taylor states, “will evolve by being more aware of the intent of customer questions, becoming more casual and humanlike in their responses.” Their use, he says further, “within creative fields has only really just begun,” noting that they have “vast potential in helping marketing functions understand, speak to, and delight customers,” while at the same time delivering greater ROI.
Not there yet? You might already be falling behind.
AMPING UP AI INVESTMENTS
“Quite simply, teams that don’t leverage technology to remove manual tasks where appropriate—saving on time and resources—will lose out to those who know how best to combine human creativity with increasing technological power and potential,” Hookway says.
Yes, larger companies have better access to this technology today than smaller players, Turk acknowledges. Larger organizations, like his company’s cloud provider clients, might have hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to spend winning new accounts, while smaller middle-market SMBs just don’t have access to that type of capital, he says.
Still, there are opportunities for smaller players, especially as technology continues to advance. They can also take cues from the larger players and see how they’re using technology to gain insights into target audience sentiment and to discern the right channels and times for reaching out to prospects and customers with finely tuned messaging.
For smaller players, Turk says, “it’s even more important to really harden in on who their true ideal customer profile is and then to focus maniacally on that segment to help them grow their business.”
AI-powered technologies are making it increasingly possible for companies of all sizes to augment the human aspects of marketing, leveraging both technology and people in ways for which they are uniquely positioned to get results.
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.