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How AI already influences digital marketing

Dave Jagodowski

By Dave Jagodowski
November 17, 2023

How AI already influences digital marketing

Remember when AI was new and exciting? It was only November 30, 2022, that ChatGPT launched! In that time, we’ve heard stories of how AI was either going to destroy our world or solve all of our problems.

But what has actually happened (at least for the moment) is something less dramatic yet more invasive. Generative AI technology has gone mainstream.

That’s right. We’re all using it—whether you know it or not. For instance:

  • Have a Gmail account? AI is filtering out your spam emails and organizing your inbox.
  • Have a voice assistant like Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant? They all use GenAI to understand and respond to your voice commands.
  • Use online services like Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify? They use AI to analyze your behavior and preferences to provide personalized recommendations.

Believe me, I could go on.

Expectation vs. reality

AI was fully expected to revolutionize the big industries like healthcare, retail, manufacturing, and banking, but this stealthy “fast creep” into all of our personal devices comes as a bit of a surprise.

This got me thinking about marketing. If AI is already reading our mail and our texts and studying our preferences and behaviors in everything we do involving the internet (i.e., everything we do), how else is that data being used? Is it just to make our lives better, or is there more?

In this article, I reveal some of the ways technology is currently being used by marketers—both B2B and B2C—and speculate how this could be used—or misused—in the near future.

The evolution of personalized marketing

Advanced technologies certainly present many advantages for the consumer. Those with sufficient life experience will remember the days of abundant junk mail (paper and electronic) and cold sales calls. That was because marketing campaigns, though targeted, had only basic data and demographics to work from—often limited to age, gender, marital status, and location.

Those days aren’t just gone; they’ve been gone for a long time.

As early as 2012, there was a somewhat infamous incident involving Target stores, when they began using direct mail to market baby products to pregnant women in their first 20 weeks. The story went viral when a dad found one in his mailbox addressed to his teenage daughter and complained to the company.

Long story short: the dad—I mean granddad—ultimately apologized to Target.

giant robot looking down on woman through magnifying glass

How did the store know she was pregnant before she did?

Target claimed their statisticians analyzed the buying patterns of women who signed up for Target baby registries and identified about 25 products that allowed them to build a “pregnancy prediction” score that could predict the woman’s due date within a small window.

That was in 2012—using data from a single private database.

Nowadays, marketers have access to amalgamated databases that contain (literally) everything you purchase and consume. Unless you’re paying cash for everything, they know every item in your grocery cart, every piece of clothing you buy, how often you buy gasoline, and everything you consume—from television to Taco Bell. Nothing is too personal or too detailed.

And now it’s not just a couple of human analysts reviewing the data. AI-powered analytics engines capable of creating their own algorithms can make connections and inferences from all of your data.

That means if you routinely go to Starbucks and order a Venti, half-caff, triple-shot, caramel, mocha, soy, no foam, extra whip, extra hot, upside-down, caramel drizzle, double-blended Frappuccino—they know it, they’re analyzing it, and they’ve got some AI-powered software program using that to figure out what type of car you might want to drink it in.

bearded man looking through blinds with binoculars

Is it still just about enhancing the customer journey?

There are things I really appreciate about targeted advertising. For instance, when I’m perusing articles on my smart device, I’m mostly seeing ads for the things and places that interest me: Bass Pro Shops, Home Depot, Lowe’s, the NFL, etc. (Yes, I’m a manly man.) It goes off the rails a bit during the holidays when, after weeks of shopping for my wife, I have dress shop and jewelry ads popping up—but usually only when I’m showing something to a client or coworker.

So, when does targeted marketing become too invasive? Shortly after the tragic wildfires in Maui, Hawaii, I heard a story on the radio that I later communicated to my wife at our kitchen table. Within a day, I was receiving “Cruise to Hawaii” ads from a company I had never heard of before.

Coincidence? Maybe. But it was a sharp reminder that my phone, my watch, and my Google Home device are always listening and tracking my every step. I know we shrug it off in the name of convenience, but it seems there is something Orwellian about the whole thing.

arm extended with hand holding horseshoe magnet that is drawing people, shopping carts, and other buying information

How AI is changing B2B marketing

Two big changes AI brings to B2B marketing are personalization and data-driven decision-making. When a customer visits your website, you could have AI analyze the content they view and use that to create personalized marketing campaigns and digital experiences. For instance, if the customer frequently interacts with content about a specific product or service, generative AI can tailor future content to highlight that subject matter and keep them engaged.

Using machine learning, businesses can analyze years of customer purchase data to identify subtle trends and buying patterns to project their future needs. This data could also help you develop hyper-personalized campaigns to tailor every interaction. After all, it’s much easier to create a successful content-based marketing campaign when you know what content the customer wants. And now, with GenAI, you can tailor a different experience for each customer!

giant bearded man's head being plugged into outlet by small man

How this goes bad

As long as people are conscious of their actions, the influence from targeted marketing campaigns remains nominal. For instance, I know that I’ll see ads for what I need, when I need it, but at least I’m aware of that. I choose to carry a smart device in the name of personal convenience.

But what happens when that choice is taken away?

An area of AI research seldom talked about involves scanning brain waves. Researchers around the world are developing and training AI models to interpret brain signals and translate them into tangible outputs.

The receptors no longer look like you’re wearing a bionic colander on your head. They can be placed on a scarf, hat, earbuds, headband—in other words, you won’t notice them.

To what end? In their 2023 session in Davos, Switzerland, the World Economic Forum created an animated video to give us a glimpse into the “workplace of the future” where this technology is pervasive. If you think this is awesome, here’s a little thought experiment for you: for the next 10 seconds, don’t think of your PIN.

So maybe there’s a line here we can all agree on:

  • Want to monitor my every physical interaction within the digital world? Sure—it’s “pay to play.”
  • Want to read my private thoughts and use that data to manipulate me? No. Never.

That’s the line between marketing and psychological warfare.

What’s next?

If the past several months have been any indicator, it’s likely that the next round of AI technologies designed to “help” us won’t be rolled out in front of us like a new Tesla. They’ll be integrated into the devices we already trust—our phones, our tablets, our TVs, or our cars—and then a wave of new apps will come out and (again) we’ll forget how we ever lived without them. And just like that, Siri will start asking us about our feelings and questioning why your heart rate increases every time Caitlyn from the sixth floor walks by.

In the meantime, it’s a golden age for marketing. With more data than ever available, companies willing to use it are in a position to create highly personalized experiences for their customers—and have more ways than ever to capture their attention.

It’s no longer a static experience where you send one message to an entire demographic and play the odds. Generative AI can create personalized experiences for your customers on the fly and in real time.

It’s a brave new world!

The future of AI in marketing is truly exciting, promising a world where interactions are personalized, responsive, and more engaging than ever. We must tread thoughtfully to ensure we respect privacy and maintain trust, but the potential benefits are undeniably vast.

Emerging AI technologies can help us deliver more value to our customers, foster stronger relationships, and elevate our marketing efforts. At the end of the day, it's about enhancing the customer experience in ways we never thought possible. And given the option, I say we should embrace the future, with its challenges and opportunities alike, as we continue to innovate and redefine the boundaries of what's possible in marketing.

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