Machines vs. Marketers: Is There a Race to be Won?

In the past, marketers gathered all available information from different sources, and then, based on market research, best practices, benchmark reports, and gut feelings, they would make calculations and decisions regarding the marketing mix. The human element was very strong.

With new trends in e-commerce, marketers these days face a much more complicated reality. Consumers are looking for individual treatment and personalized messages. With everything now generating data that’s easily captured, it becomes very difficult for marketers to identify and address the specific needs of the consumers.

Man at workplace

Current Marketing Expectations

Mass targeting has lost its appeal. It’s now all about personalized messages and consumer behavior prediction, because every person loves when they are treated as individuals. By now, most marketers use some kind of system or data analysis tool as part of their day-to-day tasks.

Marketing systems can now support the marketer in making decisions about how to market products to consumers. More advanced systems provide clarity by grouping potential buyers according to marketing segments and grouping products in categories that can be aligned with those segments.

The more sophisticated the marketing programs, the more challenging it becomes for the marketer to keep up with the complexity of those programs, to oversee the progress, master the features, and maximize the advantage the software gives them.

At the same time, as these systems can do more and more, alarm bells have started going off, and some marketers might already be asking themselves: “What if my job will be replaced by this system?” This question might have been around for a while, but it still remains relevant as the productivity of machines keeps improving.

Marketing in the Age of Big Data

But is it realistic that marketers will be replaced by machines? Is artificial intelligence (AI) technology poised to take over? There are signs that we have to re-evaluate our role in the process and personalize it the same way we do with our marketing messages.

Let’s face it: there is simply too much information out there. No matter where we look, everything is now a data point (USB toaster, anyone?). If we look at the quantity of information that the average marketer needs to oversee per contact, it makes sense to let smart machines do all the heavy lifting.

With hundreds of contact points to cover for an average customer, even a marketing company like Emarsys, focused on serving SMBs, ends up with billions of data points in the database that need to be organized, analyzed, and interpreted correctly. Using that information to then personalize and send over 6 billion messages per month puts things into perspective; machines can do more than we ever can.

When you look at the quantity of work necessary, achieving the same volume in a month requires more than a single marketer could accomplish in their entire lifetime. This is why machines are getting more involved and why marketers need to embrace this automated assistance.

The Value of Machines

Humans just can’t scale like machines. While the human brain is still much more powerful, complex, and creative than a computer, the human brain can be beaten on several criteria, among them linear computation performance and durability (memory).

Unlike the human brain, computers can be physically scaled and expanded, with the only real limitation being the available budget. Plug in new memory, boost the processing power, or even harness quantum computing; a machine will happily accept these enhancements and just keep trucking, and to top it off, machines don’t suffer from data-blindness in the same way a fatigued human can.

If machines are evolving so fast and beating us at solving specific tasks, is there hope for us, mere human marketers? Perhaps the good old human instinct could win the race for us? Formed by many thousands of years of evolution, maybe this psychological mechanism can help us preserve our supremacy against machines?

Well, the bad news is, these days, even human intuition is beaten by machine algorithms. For example, human parole boards do much worse than simple formulas at determining which prisoners should be let back on the streets. Highly trained pathologists don’t do as good a job at diagnosing breast cancer as image analysis software does. There is simply too much useful data out there that can’t be handled and interpreted by people in the traditional way.

Paul E. Meehl, an American psychology professor, and pioneer of ‘man vs. machine’ research, stated in his 1954 book ‘Clinical vs. Statistical Prediction: A Theoretical Analysis and a Review of the Evidence’ that mechanical methods of prediction would, when used correctly, make more efficient decisions about patients’ medical prognosis and treatment. Throughout his career, he gathered scientific evidence that human intuition, even when coming from the best experts in their field, make worse decisions on average than machines using algorithms and sufficient data.

The Role of People

If even our expertise and professional experience don’t help us to beat the machines, what’s the point? What is left for dedicated marketers who are not ready to clock out just yet?

Instead of making it a ‘man vs. machine’ race, we are better off just making peace with our tools and finding our best place in the process. Look at it this way: if we use the extra time that automation provides us to solve strategic issues, we can view machines as our allies rather than our competitors.

Algorithms learn from the billions of data points and patterns that have already worked in the past, but marketers are still needed to set goals for the machines. Marketers will need to dust themselves off and adopt a more strategic role by spending more time driving the marketing strategy and becoming part of the AI feedback loop, helping to fine-tune high level algorithm parameters of the algorithms.

Spending less time bogged down by data processing and analytics, marketers can focus more on the fun, creative aspects of the content that machines deliver for us. When dealing with aesthetics, beauty, creativity, and all those wonderfully subjective areas that machines cannot cope with, people are still absolutely vital.

So, dear marketers, let’s look around, and add beauty and rationale to the campaigns that the machines are sending out on our behalf. Push the button, and forget about all the boring stuff!

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Wednesday, 12 October 2016