Every year at CES, there always seems to be one particular theme that weaves its way through every booth, regardless of industry or sector. This year, the most prolific technology – more prolific than any that I have ever seen at CES -- was artificial intelligence. From car and home automation to personal assistants, including robots, you couldn’t go more than 3 booths without seeing something about A.I., machine learning, and the technology platforms that extend those capabilities, like Amazon’s Alexa. So, I asked myself: What should brands be thinking about as A.I. continues to transform the customer experience? As audiences increasingly delegate purchase decisions large and small to digital concierges, how does a brand not only stay relevant, but rise and thrive? This CES offered plenty of clues, pointing out the way forward for discerning marketers.
A.I. Eats Search
First, let’s take a look at the state of play.
As the digital age got under way, being a winning brand meant one thing: when a customer used a search engine, you wanted to be the first face they saw after they hit “enter”. Thus was born the arcane art of Search Engine Optimization. Google quickly became the top of the online purchase funnel, and brands soon learned to massage the content of their pages to make themselves attractive to the site’s search algorithms.
That was then. Now, artificial intelligence is creating a powerful undertow, taking us away from webpages with neat rows of link results, and instead making decisions on our behalf using criteria that are rarely transparent. These days, a user speaks to her Amazon Echo device, or the Google Assistant on her phone: “where can I get some good Chinese tonight?” And because A.I. has pushed web pages away and replaced them with natural conversation, we no longer get a list of links to peruse. Instead, it makes more sense for the system to respond with a single entry that it has carefully curated on our behalf. The wide-open purchase funnel has been narrowed to a single point.
Clearly, new thinking and new tools are required for brands who wish to triumph in the Age of A.I.
A.I. Takes the Wheel
Let’s turn to a real-life scenario: Your self-driving car will drop you off at the mall, head off to a charging station of its choosing, top up, and then come back to pick you up. (Even Ford committed themselves at CES 2017 to a fully self-driving car for consumers by 2021 – oh, and did we mention that Alexa will be built in as well?) Your smart home will resupply itself (via technology like Amazon Dash) based on general parameters you set, arbitrating on its own between brands of similar quality and price. You’ll ask your phone’s A.I. assistant to make dinner reservations, not caring about the particulars since the system knows you so well – the more you delegate to A.I., the better it gets at pleasing you; a virtual circle.
How Would You Express Your Brand as an API? (because you’ll have to)
Let’s look at the issue from a different angle: chatbots. They’re crude now, mostly offering simple decision trees to customers who wish to engage with a brand or make a purchase. As they inevitably move from limited Q&A format to fully-fledged artificially intelligent agents, they become a digital distillation of a brand’s principles and attributes. Customers will expect the same shopping experience and “vibe” they’d get if they entered a physical store. Chatbots will be the new front-lines of customer service. They’ll use A.I. to guide purchases, detect when customers are becoming frustrated, and solve a range of problems. But most importantly, in every single customer interaction, A.I. will need to stay “on brand”.
CES offered a range of new products and platforms to let brands spin up chatbots quickly. Particularly interesting was Recast.ai, a system that lets you write a chatbot once, and then run it on multiple platforms. On the hardware side, Neato revealed robot vacuums that show up as conversants in Facebook Messenger, a trend that looks set to grow as user interfaces simplify down to the comfortable, familiar method everybody already knows: chat messages.
Clearly, companies need to start focusing on how best to represent themselves via these artificial assistants. What is your brand’s algorithm?
So… How Do We Hack the Decision-Making Process of a Machine? (What does SEM for A.I. look like?)
The best weapon against the onslaught of A.I. is, of course, more A.I.! For brands to stay relevant, they simply need to be creative about harnessing the strengths of A.I. for their own marketing efforts. Don’t let the equation be one-sided; A.I.’s power works both ways.
• Use A.I. to refine your prospect lists to a white-hot sheen. Tools for generating business insights are adding A.I. to manage and exploit the growing amounts of available data. CES was buzzing about Salesforce’s newly announced Einstein, a cloud-based service that applies powerful artificial intelligence to CRM.
• Use A.I. to predict exactly when the conditions are ripest for a purchase. USAA, for example, has applied A.I. to predict when a customer is most likely to get in touch. Predictive customer service, once a futuristic pipe dream, is here.
• Increase personalization. With so much data available on prospects as they come into view, it’s criminal to greet them with generic, one-size-fits-all messaging. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a webpage or a face-recognition-powered video screen at a bus stop.
• Natural Language Generation. Flood the digital universe with dynamically generated content highlighting your brand. The big A.I. platforms, such as IBM Watson, offer plenty of tools to automate the act of writing. The LA Times, the Associated Press, Forbes, and others are creating earnings reports, sports stories, and much more without any human involvement.
• Dynamic content marketing -- see, for example, systems like The Grid and Wix, which algorithmically create websites that optimize themselves based on data results. Idomoo had a strong presence at CES, flaunting their powerful platform for creating dynamic, personalized, contextual video content on-the-fly.
• Speaking of Idomoo, brands can perform relevance optimization on visual and audio content, not just on text (present your best face to the image recognition systems that are increasingly part of the Internet’s housekeeping).
• Old-school site optimization benefits from A.I. as well – machine learning tools are faster and able to simultaneously test far more variables than traditional AB Testing.
Fight Fire with A.I. Fire
These examples are only a drop of water in a sea of available options. The bottom line is that artificial intelligence is empowering brands in ways limited only by creativity and imagination. Brand-harnessable A.I. platforms are proliferating (from IBM, Amazon, Microsoft, and others), and they are designed to be cheap, scalable, and powerful, making the barrier to entry low for even the smallest one-person company operating out of a garage. Brands need to embrace this next evolution in customer experience and use it to win in a world where machines are making the decisions on behalf of consumers.