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Five ways marketers can prepare for the rise of the sentient VPA

AI is going to create huge new challenges and opportunities for brands in reaching consumers, writes Mike Cooper, chief executive officer at PHD Worldwide.

Mike Cooper

Computers are already writing stories for major newspapers, helping doctors to search for cures for cancer, and winning game shows. In short, AI (Artificial Intelligence) has crossed the chasm from science fiction to science fact.

It’s therefore time to start thinking about what this means, both for our lives and, yes, for marketing.

Although AI has largely been the domain of academics and large internet companies, it’s starting to trickle down into the consumer sphere, and that’s where the most noticeable applications will present themselves. Those applications will be largely ad supported, meaning that marketing will be one of the first disciplines disrupted by AI.

This new world of intelligent machines will create many new opportunities as well as new challenges for brands. On the one hand, there will be far better tools for finding new audiences and for delivering customised ads to the right customers. But it will also create new challenges, as personal AIs may take the place of traditional advertising for many consumers.

“With sentient VPAs making many of our purchasing choices for us, brands will have to adapt”

The more we depend upon AI software to handle tasks on our behalf, the more power we give to those AIs, and the smarter they will become. Ultimately, they will usher in the new world in which advertisers will need to operate.

A big area of focus is the development of the technology underpinning virtual personal assistants (VPAs). Within three to seven years we are likely to have unrecognisably more powerful systems than the current forms of Cortana, Siri or Google Now, and these systems will start to make purchase decisions and purchases for us.

With sentient VPAs making many of our purchasing choices for us, brands will have to adapt. Instead of marketing directly to consumers, brands will have to market to algorithms.

So what can marketers do in the short term to better equip themselves for this AI revolution?

1 – Optimising to the machine will be the greatest determinant of success. Ensuring that the current disciplines of SEO, PPC and programmatic buying are being embraced and upskilled now will help in the future as these will be the most transferable skills to new AI models.

2 – Brands that effectively build marketing stacks – namely plugging together the critical elements of their marcoms eco-systems such as data partners, agency suppliers and off line channels – will be best placed to quickly take advantage of the potential of AI. At PHD we’ve hired Google’s Ben Samuel as head of technology to help clients navigate this complex world.

3 – Similar to the world of search engine optimisation, the AI era will make it necessary for products to have “tagged” information. This will include everything from essential ingredients to where they were produced so that our VPAs can make informed decisions on our behalf. This “tagged-up world” will be a vital part of how brands optimise their offerings for the age of the sentient VPA. Marketers will need to think hard about what types of product data to tag-up, and what types of offers make the most sense in different contexts.

4 – Maintaining positive brand sentiment will be crucial. Feedback from other customers will be one of the most important signals that sentient VPAs look at when deciding whether to recommend a product to you. That means selling high-quality products will be more important than ever.

5 – Advertisers will need to future proof the way they use customer data. Current re-targeting methods allow for a consumer to be plagued by ads for a product that they might have already bought from another retailer or on another device, but this will become an outdated model. Better uses of more complete data sets will ensure targeting doesn’t become an irritant as advertisers become smarter and more responsible in the ways they create their target audiences. AI will mean there might be fewer messages seen, but the ones that do get seen will have been selected based on extremely specific purchasing and behavioural data about you, and therefore much more influential.

AI is going to radically change what we do, and create huge new challenges and opportunities for brands in reaching consumers. Those that anticipate these future changes and prepare for it, will undoubtedly be those that thrive.

Download a copy of Sentience: The Coming AI Revolution and The Implications for Marketing on Amazon, Google Play and the iBookStore.


Mike Cooper

Chief executive officer, PHD Worldwide

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