Marketing through artificial intelligence begins with the small

Rapp Global CEO Marco Scognamiglio stresses the importance of keeping humanity in mind with any AI marketing efforts. / Franck V via Unsplash

A few years ago, Dr. Stephen Hawking opened the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence and described Artificial Intelligence (AI) as “either the best, or the worst, thing ever to happen to humanity." Words like that coming from Hawking hung heavy in the air as they conjured the wildly utopian/dystopian themes that play so well in Hollywood and science fiction.

On Madison Avenue, though, it’s a bit different. AI is viewed as a dynamic but mostly misunderstood technological breakthrough. In the race for the next great marketing technology, there is a school of thought that has immediately identified the value of AI and begun to apply it to develop media strategy. Even more are asking: Can we AI our way to brand building or driving loyalty?

There is a natural tension between AI and humanity and it centers on empathy. Will a machine appreciate an individual’s circumstances, which change continuously and at any moment in time, then apply the appropriate sense of urgency to a problem? Will it exercise judgement?

It seems quite unlikely that AI will ever achieve the empathy of a human being – it cannot work in isolation without the human aspect. The ability of a human being to make a judgement based on context is something that machines are far from capable of. For now, at least.

The marriage of technology and society, though, creates a whole new level of opportunity which should be celebrated and embraced – the ability to deliver scale at speed. Modern expectations have engendered a “right here, right now” attitude among consumers. That means an increased workload for marketers. The ability for AI to help deliver value to consumers faster and more efficiently thanks to large data sets opens up real opportunity for brands.

One brand that has seized this opportunity is American Airlines – proving that it’s the smaller AI capabilities that have the potential to create empathy, not just the big things. I have used the American Airlines app many times. Once I’ve checked in online and my boarding pass shows up on my phone, a tickertape appears telling me how long it will take me to get to the airport from my current location. In one instance, when I finally got to the airport, albeit rather late, AA staff actually called me to inform me that my plane was boarding. Yes – a real person! That was the pinnacle of my experience using the app. They’ve expertly balanced the precision of AI with technology that tapped into my emotive, human needs; pulled in GPS, maps, location. Now that’s utilitarian. The next thing to improve this system would be hands-free voice activation.

So how can marketers learn from this and adopt similar principles as they look to create successful AI-driven experiences for their consumers?

AI must take aspects of what we might consider our “best selves” and emulate those traits. Tuning into the emotional needs of the consumer is difficult enough – where AI can begin is with the small. If you are sitting at a restaurant where a waiter accidentally spills on you, that waiter will likely go out of his way to look after you. When a brand falls short of satisfying a customer, what can AI do?

Focus the technology on certain customer behaviors. At this early point in AI’s evolution, our industry remains overly fixated on jumping straight to platform solutions, as opposed to solving actual problems by helping consumers with barriers. The way to embrace AI lies in our ability to focus the technology precisely on customer behaviors – and then also understand when to leave it to real people.

Find the balance between man and machine. AI won’t solve all of a brand’s issues, but it will help with alleviating some of the burden, freeing up real people to focus on the intangibles that technology alone can’t figure out.

A US insurance carrier did just that with a recent AI cognitive solution they rolled out that works side by side with company representatives to answer client questions. By providing representatives with fast access to information policies and procedures, their AI solution has cut down on call times and increased the overall customer experience, thus giving representatives the ability and freedom to be more human. AI’s journey in marketing begins with its ability to be employed in ways that are of direct benefit to the consumer.

AI has the potential to propel consumers towards brands when used properly. Conversely, it could just as quickly drive them away when abused. It’s all about finding the balance that works for your brand and end user, and remembering that it’s okay to start small.

Marco Scognamiglio is global chief executive officer of Rapp.

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