Picture if you will, dear reader, the marketing apocalypse, a place where human-powered engines are less and less relevant and we are facing a new dawn: robot writing, triggered email campaigns, automated social scheduling and responses, ways to track users wherever they go.
Oh, hang on. Isn’t that . . . ?
Image attribution: Drew Graham
Yeah, it is. We would say welcome to the future, but that scares an awful lot of people. Case in point: all these stories about the robots coming to take our marketing jobs. There is legitimate worry in our industry today, and with good reason. AI and marketing are a perfect mix; so much of what we do involves crunching data and analytics. Surely that’s prime AI territory? It’s a topic that’s been weighing heavily on our minds at the Content Standard, so we sought the counsel of the experts to qualm our fears.
But first, some housekeeping. The definition of AI has merged and melded since the early days of sci-fi, so let’s clear this up: When we talk about AI today, we’re generally talking about “narrow AI,” or algorithms that are set up to do a very specific task, like trade a stock or make a widget. This is where we see automated processes in manufacturing and self-driving cars; the robots are there to optimize processes and make things more efficient. Then there’s “general AI”—in the words of John Mihalik, Skyword’s CTO, that’s Terminator territory, building, in essence, a brain. We’re a way off from that (we hope).
“In the marketing world I see a lot of the same in the efficiency of the lead generation process, the lead qualifications process, as well as what’s known as marketing automation now,” says Mihalik. “Anything that drives efficiencies, anything that takes that feedback loop from analytics to actions and can compress it, that is where a lot of the AI technologies can really flourish.”
Describing himself as a “technologist who thinks he’s a marketer,” Mihalik is a self-confessed data geek who spends his time boning up on AI, data mining, and machine learning. The modern marketing world is exciting, though he does suggest we proceed with caution: Automation might be freeing us from repetitive tasks so we can focus on more impactful work, but that has a cost of its own.
“There are global economic implications of AI over the next, say, 10 to 20 years that are really going to come out more and more,” he says. “This is akin to the Industrial Revolution. It won’t happen overnight necessarily, not tomorrow, but there are implications when AI is literally replacing jobs and the whole economy needs to transform in some sense there.
“Look at Uber. They have problems, but just looking at them from an AI standpoint. This company came out of nowhere literally only a few years ago and provides a very good livelihood for a lot of folks who do Uber driving. Now, I’m here in Pittsburgh and there are self-driving Ubers everywhere on the road, so in a few years we employed a lot of folks, gave them a great livelihood and then all of those Uber drivers may potentially lose that livelihood. There are implications here, there are implications in marketing, there are implications in many careers in terms of AI. That’s definitely something that we have to be very thoughtful about.”
Image attribution: British Library
Mihalik invoked the Industrial Revolution there, and that’s a recurring theme in AI discussions. The Agricultural Revolution stopped us from being nomads and let us settle and domesticate; then came the various Industrial Revolutions in the forms of mechanization, new sources of energy, and technology. Now we have Industry 4.0, driven by the Internet of Things and the new virtual world. It’s all about smart stuff, driven in large part by AI. And not robot writing.
“I don’t think today differs from previous revolutions in many ways,” says Mihalik. “The Industrial Revolution was a complete changing of our entire economy. No longer were you constrained by what you could build and construct from a human hand standpoint; you had the tools and all of the industrial capabilities which magnified what we can do and build. At the turn of the 20th century there was no such thing as a skyscraper or a building above 13 floors, and now here we are, and a lot of that has been made possible by the Industrial Revolution.
“I think AI has that same effect on the economy, and from a job perspective, from a career perspective, there are changes. I don’t mean to be doom and gloom, but it is of concern. I have these discussions with my children about what career they should pick. My son wants to go into the world of finance, but that’s a career where a lot of jobs are directly impacted. Twenty years ago you had a stockbroker you would call on the phone; now algorithms are trading stocks far more efficiently than a human can. Those are the areas where it’s about efficiency.”
Which brings us back to AI and marketing. Surely we’re in a pretty precarious position, given how much our industry has already been automated? The Marketing AI Institute was set up to educate modern marketers on the present and future potential of artificial intelligence; its director Mike Kaput told us that while there are concerns, it’s unlikely entire marketing jobs are on the way out. “AI will certainly automate, and already is automating, lower-level marketing tasks like scheduling social shares, optimizing posts, and testing subject lines. If your job consists of a lot of repetitive marketing tasks like these, then you may want to consider how to evolve your role and skill set, as it will become more cost-effective and productive to have AI handle these types of activities. Look what happened when marketing automation tools like HubSpot debuted: I don’t think entire jobs were made obsolete, but the nature of many marketing jobs changed. Those who learned how to use these automation systems thrived, but they needed to evolve their skill set to do so. AI is like marketing automation on steroids.
“Programmatic is definitely a big use case. Check out Albert for an AI system that can almost completely run and evolve your paid campaigns without human involvement. Other interesting use cases we’re seeing include AI to optimize email subject lines, which is done best by a tool called Phrasee; it uses sophisticated AI to write subject lines that perform better than the ones humans write. SEO will be another big use case—BrightEdge excels in this space. The company uses AI to optimize content for search and automatically improves content discovery and engagement.”
Unsurprisingly, tech bible Wired has covered this, too. Writes Joe Lonsdale: “The information architecture underpinning the work processes of all our major industries is being upgraded to cloud and mobile ecosystems and is leveraging big data in thousands of new ways . [But] roughly 50% of jobs in the US economy have been replaced with new forms of labor every 60 to 90 years . . .
“Designing, building, and managing community marketplaces for brand and business purposes can probably employ millions of Americans part-time. UX designers and content writers; social media influencers such as style bloggers, YouTube stars and Instagram celebrities; digital marketing consultants, and other e-marketing professionals will find employment opportunities in our changing economy. How we understand and measure communities and influence is likely to change, and new roles will develop for people with different interpersonal skills to contribute to this sector of the economy.”
We can’t help but hear an echo of Jan Brady: Automation, automation, automation. That’s why all the talk of robot writers is really darn scary for us creators—and why it’s so heartening to hear Mihalik talk about the continuing importance of the human touch in marketing, despite the robots.
Image attribution: Igor Ovsyannykov
“Truthfully,” he says, “I believe that where these jobs and these professions are going to shift to with the impact of AI is actually to the creation aspect; that’s where humans thankfully will still have a role. If you want to look at an area where you could thrive, and where there’s more job potential, it’s in creating something. When AI gets a role in creation, we have a lot of other problems potentially to worry about—that’s where the existential crisis comes in. This is why as a journalist, as a writer, as a creator, I think that’s really where there’s a great potential to thrive.
“As we’ve seen with where content marketing is going—actually, let me rephrase that, where marketing is going—marketing is turning to creation of content, and I don’t see AI impinging upon that for a very, very long time to come. The creation aspect is definitely the human touch, and that’s where we thrive, when we create something. So create, innovate. Build something new.”
Yes, it all comes down to storytelling, and humans love a human story. As Kaput told us: “Human marketers are uniquely qualified to tell stories that resonate about their brands, which in turn attracts high-quality prospects and establishes trust that translates into sales. AI can’t necessarily tell better stories, but it can make the content ideation and creation process more productive and easier to scale. Today, machine systems can’t identify which stories or messages will resonate logically or emotionally with prospects. Machines also lack the ability to truly synthesize all the data they process into cohesive marketing strategies. These areas, at least for now, are ones where the human touch is imperative. They also happen to be critical pillars of any marketing program, making the human touch essential—even in a marketing tech/AI-heavy organization.”
Image attribution: Dominik Scythe
But all this talk of creation doesn’t mean marketing is taking more from Netflix than just its binge-tech; don’t expect to see marketing teams full of YouTubers anytime soon. Rest assured there is still a role for data geeks in the marketing team of the future. Says Mihalik: “Where there are some aspects of entertainment that we can and should learn from, in particular when it comes to true story form, there are still a lot of other activities that go into marketing. There’s a big difference between entertaining you and marketing to you. I’m marketing to you for a very specific purpose, I want to sell you a product, I want to up-sell you, I want to get you aligned with our brand. A lot of that is much more strongly data-focused as opposed to entertaining.”
Once again, it’s all about that creation thang, he says. “The impact of AI on marketing gives us more of an opportunity to apply and to start creating content. Before, we’d spend a lot of time, a lot of resources, a lot of people, a lot of man-hours, on figuring out, optimizing, calculating lead ratios and qualifications—now that stuff largely is going to the AI route. I think there’s going to be more ability, more time, more bandwidth, and that will move us into creation. Story writing and the creation aspect really is the human touch. AI does have a role in taking away a lot of the time that we spend looking at analytics and processing and crunching the data—all of that should be fulfilled by AI to free us up to do truly creative work.”
So, dear reader, here’s why we’ll always need humans in marketing: empathy, creativity, quality assurance. The human touch cannot be replaced by AI (yet)—and if it ever gets to that point, we humbly suggest you get your bunker ready. For now, we must celebrate the fact that we’re more free to create truly outstanding and original content—and to leave some time to make sure our robot writer overlords don’t secretly plot to destroy the world through content. Rest easy. For now.
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Featured image attribution:Jehyun Sung