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In Marketing Automation We (Don’t) Trust

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Have you noticed the fingertip speed and agility of a teenager texting or swiping through apps? The dexterity is mesmerising, like watching a spider spin a web.

This is but one example (fashioning wheels and building fires are others) of how instinctively we use technology, and in this digital information age, there is so much technology to spin.

Another instinct that seems to be sprouting from the fertile ground of digital technology is a desire to employ digital automation to make our lives easier and more efficient.

That’s especially true in the digital marketing sector, where we are now using software platforms and technology to distribute information through multiple online channels like email, social media, websites, paid media channels, and so on. The big change of late is relying on artificial intelligence to tell us what that message is and how we should express it.

Said a co-founder of Rocket Fuel in a June edition of The Drum

“…machines will need to be able to make the right decisions to construct a persuasive two-way conversation with a wide variety of audiences. They will have the intelligence to deliver many convincing messages, replies and retorts in realtime.”

Along with having an artificial intelligence come up with your strapline for you, the advantages of automation are greater efficiency, the cost-effective handling of repetitive tasks, and ultimately, better ROI based on time and labour saved.

Despite these benefits, I believe it’s risky for marketers to rely too heavily on automation to handle communication with audiences, and there are cautionary tales to back me up. Last year Facebook introduced the ‘Year in Review’ feature, which was meant to delight community members with an end-of-year photo celebration of all the great content they shared through Facebook. Here’s a highlight:

Facebook year in review

Similarly ill-chosen cover images — selected via algorithm — unfortunately graced the Years-in-Review of people who were grieving lost family members, as eulogised by someone with the moniker Redfellterrior on the Guardian:  “Still waiting for Facebook to apologise to me for framing a picture of my late mum with dancing figures who looked like they were having a party.”

So this is the algorithm making decisions on our behalf. It’s not like marketers are benevolent human beings – far from it – but at least we have the potential to make thoughtful decisions rather than mindlessly filtering keywords, links, likes and shares to decide what content to post.

In May 2015 Google had to apologise for its own version of algorithmic cruelty in the wake of this ugly discovery: a Google search for ‘nigger’ produced a Google map of the White House.

google obama racist automated image

While this repulsiveness may accurately account for the online search activity of racists, it’s also an illustration of the soullessness of the algorithm – something that displays who we are, rather than who we want to be. I suppose that’s where human and machine part ways — marketers can consciously convey images and perspectives of our better selves, while the machine is confined to reporting the ugly truth.

Perhaps there is a place where we can meet in the middle and make peace with automation. People should do the critical thinking, message forming, and consideration of ethics, while the machine does heavy lifting of delivering human-selected content through the myriad digital channels.

For those that argue that artificial intelligence should be in charge of producing the message as well — based on it having instant, more powerful access to Big Data that informs where consumers are and what they wish to consume — I ask: where’s the love?

A final depiction of the shifty ethics of AI marketing in parody form: this headline from the satirical press, The Onion:

the onion algorithm

This piece is the latest in a series considering the debate of people v. machines in the world of marketing.

To continue the discussion about how PEOPLE can strategise and implement your digital marketing plan, contact us here at Ambergreen.

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