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Now that marketers are finally sold on AI, can IBM Watson reclaim its crown?

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By Chris Sutcliffe | Senior reporter

March 29, 2023 | 7 min read

Forget Bard, Ernie and ChatGPT, whatever happened to Watson? For our Tech Takeover deep dive, where we’ll be covering everything from AI to web3, we revisit the first mover in AI for marketers.

IBM Watson logo

Can IBM Watson reclaim its crown?

AI is threaded through digital marketing, from its use in chatbots to the boost it gives to analytics and measurement. But while the excitement is concentrated around generative AI and text-to-video, AI has already moved from experiment to mundane utility in the wider market.

One of the earliest pioneers in that space was IBM, whose Watson tool was (and is still) responsible for a huge amount of validation of AI’s potential for marketing. Its Watson Assistant chatbot was an early example of how customer comms could be handled effectively by artificial intelligence, primarily used in the banking sector.

But since its early days of besting human players on the game show Jeopardy, interviewing Serena Williams or editing The Drum magazine (no, we’re not making it up), the luster has faded from IBM Watson while the new AI giants of Microsoft, Meta and Google have taken up its place with their shiny new marketing options. So, what happened?

IBMissed opportunities

Following all the hype of Watson’s debut, the company was gradually forced to shrink its ambitions for the product. Where once it was mooted for widespread use in the medical space, for example, it became apparent that the use cases for Watson’s capabilities were better suited to specific tasks.

Practitioners who worked with Watson are keen to point out, however, that it was very good at those limited tasks. Jason Snyder, the global chief technology officer at Momentum Worldwide, explains: “Watson provided a comprehensive AI platform with tools tailored specifically for marketing and advertising. It democratized the use of AI for marketing, providing businesses access to powerful tools previously available only to a select few.”

Additionally, IBM’s early entry into the market allowed it to establish a strong reputation and build a customer base, paving the way for the dynamic AI-powered marketing tools we enjoy today.

Back in 2021, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence directly compared Watson’s performance around standard natural language tasks with the AI services offered by Amazon, Microsoft and Google and found that it was at least on par with those big three. At the time, IBM said it had 40,000 Watson customers across 20 industries using its capabilities to automate processes such as invoicing. That figure now stands at 100,000+.

Since 2021, however, the vast strides taken by those other companies have again thrown IBM Watson into the shade, in terms of noise made about the product at least. Generative AI has taken the marketing world by storm and the behind-the-black capabilities are often overlooked.

Incumbent strengths

The AI space is still wide open for disruption, even from incumbents such as Watson. While OpenAI reportedly spent millions training ChatGPT, researchers at Stanford claim to have managed the same feat for $600. It is both validation of the power of the AI and a recognition of the difficulty of any one company owning that space.

Snyder explains: “Despite increased competition, Watson’s continued investment in new technologies, such as quantum computing, and its focus on ethical AI should enable it to remain a relevant player in the AI market.

“It is a pioneer in natural language processing, its NLP capabilities are among the most advanced in the market, and the platform offers a wide range of tools and services for businesses looking to leverage NLP in their workflows. Its early investment in NLP has also given it a foothold in industries such as healthcare, where understanding and analyzing unstructured data is critical.“

Additionally, Watson’s long use as a chatbot enabler is likely to make it a competitor in that space. Most major brands have a stake in using chatbots to engage consumers and Watson’s NLP capabilities are well-tested. Crucially, Watson’s NLP capabilities support many languages, including English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese and Chinese. That multilingual support acts as a key differentiator for Watson as many competitors offer more limited support.

Name recognition might also play a role in a Watson comeback. Brand safety concerns are still hobbling the uptake of AI for marketers and the recently launched Mozilla.ai demonstrates that there is a desire for ‘trustworthy’ AI, while IBM’s official Twitter bio makes a point of saying it is AI built upon trust.

Luke Davis, a SEO specialist at Impression, says: “Due to Watson’s proven track record in sectors such as finance, travel, healthcare and retail, its strengths in AI solutions lie there. And I think that will be crucial as IBM challenges companies like OpenAI and Google, offering similar products and technology.

“I also think its connections to trust will be important, particularly with Microsoft’s recent ethical AI team layoffs contrasting with its ‘responsible AI’ mantra. Perhaps Watson isn’t as dominant in its marketing compared with Google and OpenAI, but its history and results make up for it.”

For marketers, the shiny and new option is always more appealing. While the tech that powers ChatGPT-4, Bard and Ernie is impressive, it is often untested in a marketing capacity. Watson might lack some of the luster of its competitors, but for the people who have used it, it is still a major contender.

For more on the latest happenings in AI, web3 and other cutting-edge technologies, check out The Drum’s latest Deep Dive – AI to Web3: the Tech Takeover. And don’t forget to sign up for The Emerging Tech Briefing newsletter.

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