Here come the marketing bots: The role of machine learning and AI in marketing

By Scott Anderson , Monday, March 13, 2017


A Q&A with Scott Anderson, Chief Marketing Officer, Sitecore

Mind in the Machine blog series

You can see it everywhere: Artificial intelligence is working its way into modern marketing workflows and tech stacks at a furious pace. In this blog series, “The Mind in the Machine,” we’ll be talking to some of our experts—both inside and outside Sitecore—to gather viewpoints on where artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are making an impact and where it’s all going from here. First up: our CMO, Scott Anderson.


Q: Why are we seeing a rise in artificial intelligence and machine learning in marketing?

A: I recall reading a story about how the most advanced jets have outpaced the ability for a human pilot to operate them. It’s a little like that with marketing. The advancement of technology has evolved consumer expectations to a point where marketers are challenged to keep up the pace amidst all the complexity. I see three primary drivers that are powering the adoption of artificial intelligence and machine learning in marketing:

  • First, the complexity of the new marketing challenge: The number of channels, the sheer volume of data, the fragmentation of the tech stack, and the unpredictable nature of the buyer’s journey.
  • Second, the need to process all this in real time, to make decisions about offers and personalization and context in milliseconds—which lets you optimize engagements in digital channels.
  • Third, the need to do it at scale. The complexity and real-time imperatives might be manageable just using rules if you were handling a few interactions. But you’re handling millions.

Put these all together and you can read the writing on the wall: The gap between consumer expectations and technology complexity means marketers need help.

Q: There are all kinds of claims about AI in marketing. How much of it is just hype?

There’s a lot of hype out there and a lot of over-claim. But instead of getting into arguments about what machine learning or AI really are, I prefer to focus on business value: What can it help marketers do?

Whether one is referring to rules-based automation or natural language processing or machine learning or AI isn’t really the point. The point is that we need help managing some hard tasks. Tasks like gathering all customer interaction data, processing it for insight, visualizing it, activating the insight across touchpoints, and measuring the results.

Focus should be on the value we’re trying to realize: Delivering more relevant experiences for customers, improving our business outcomes because of that relevance, and doing it efficiently so we can get more from our budgets. That’s business value.

Q: How much of the overall marketing discipline can actually be done by robots and AI?

It’s changing fast. Today, artificial intelligence and machine learning are still relatively new categories for marketing—but the technology and uses for it are evolving rapidly.

This is not a man vs. machine battle like that of Skynet in Terminator. Rather, current state is a little like cruise control on your car. With cruise control there are a number of complex technologies and processes under the hood, but the driver is ultimately in control of the car and the technology merely helps to deliver a more enjoyable driving experience.

Machine learning and smart automation are beginning to prove value in an increasing number of areas including optimization, personalization, customer segmentation, and contextual intelligence. In these cases, the technology is useful in enabling marketers to automate incredibly complex processes so they can focus on the marketing rather than manual tasks.

The algorithms and use cases continue to advance. We’ll see more benefits as the trends eventually shift from early adoption to broader acceptance.

Q: Can every marketing team deploy AI and machine learning now? Are there any prerequisites?

The first prerequisite is a shift in mindset. Marketing in general is on a transformative path as consumer expectations evolve. First movers will recognize the benefits of AI and machine learning, and hence gain competitive advantage with the ability to move faster, deliver better user experiences, and optimize programs.

Most marketing teams are probably deploying at least rudimentary AI in places they may not even realize—in their marketing automation or ecommerce recommendation engines and other areas. But there’s a lot more to be done.

Another prerequisite is that you have the right data in place and ready to be analyzed—integrated, cleansed, mastered, etc.

If you don’t have access to the data that customer interactions generate, or if that data is locked up in channel or app silos, then your ability to leverage machine learning will be pretty limited. It’s critical to get the data layer right.

Q: Does Sitecore use machine learning now?

Absolutely. I’ll leave it to the upcoming posts in this series to show how the Sitecore® Experience Platform™ (XP) uses machine learning now and where we’re taking it.

Next up in our Mind in the Machine series will be a Q&A with Sitecore Chief Development Officer Lars Floe Nielsen—on the differences between ML and AI.

Scott Anderson is CMO at Sitecore. Follow him on @Scottsvoice.

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