Three principles for marketing in the age of cognitive computing

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From time to time, industries or sectors take cues from other industries in order to push their own boundaries of creativity and accelerate innovation. 

It's the reason savvy research institutes will put different disciplines in the same space—make the biology and chemistry departments share a printer room and, lo and behold, a year later you start seeing biochemistry innovations springing up.

It's my impression that communications and marketing teams are undergoing a significant transformation, and should draw inspiration from transitions taking place in the realm of computer science. Specifically, the shift to cognitive computing.

Most tech historians would agree we've witnessed a mainframe era of computing, followed by the PC era, then the Web era—some would say, followed by Web 2.0. As we shift from a period focused on devices, we're embarking on the era of big data in the cloud. Because of this, we're already seeing the emergence of cognitive systems—that is, systems able to cope with ambiguity, make sense of enormous data sets and reason their way into probabilistic determinations (and even predict outcomes).

This shift should prompt communications and marketing leaders to reevaluate and restructure their departments. It's time to abandon the channel-ownership organizational models that mirror the client/server era, the product-centric models that mirror the PC era and even the audience-centric models that mirror the Web era. It's time to create new team structures that are more agile, can quickly learn and react to new information, and iterate based on the influx of insights pulled from big data.

It's going to require a more nuanced approach to engaging audiences—calling for more personalized and dynamic interactions that appeal to specific segments of their stakeholder ecosystem. Marketers need to reorganize themselves to implement specific, customized strategies for engagement, informed by data representing the constituents' behaviors. The data doesn't lie—observing what content and interactions people like and making improvements based on what we learn is the way to gain deeper engagement.

As methods of information discovery and management are changing, so too must the teams whose mission it is to disseminate messages, persuade the public of organizational point of view and cultivate relationships with influential people.  Historically, these teams have been organized along the lines of the channels or audiences they “own” or products they sell. This new age of emergent cognitive systems will require communications and marketing leaders to organize teams in terms of a more fluid network of influence and community.

Here are three principles for the communications and marketing leader to consider:

  1. Build independent, entrepreneurial teams around issues. Rather than wedding teams to platforms, audiences or products, structure teams so that they align their mission with the issues customers care about—and keep the teams small and agile so they can pivot.
  2. Create systems of engagement that generate enormous sets of data. Understanding the data model for your communications landscape will outweigh the importance of understanding channels and influencers. Listening and intelligence gathering will be essential to identifying the proper modes of interactions for specific constituencies.
  3. Compete for engagement with constituencies, not attention from audiences. Constituents have specific needs in relation to why they want to engage with a brand, and have preferred modes of interaction. Engagement is fluid; attention is passive.

Communications leaders need to look at the increasing complexity of the information discovery landscape and how important people are more proactively seeking information that informs their decisions—way beyond simply reading a paper or participating in one online community. Computer scientists have already developed new techniques in processing to cope with greater volumes of this type of data—and companies like IBM have not only created more powerful computers, but smarter systems that look at problems in a ways that allow the system to deal with uncertainty rather than demand fidelity to outdated models. 

As the information discovery and management model continues to change and organizations look to effectively evolve the next generation of comms and marketing, I encourage you to draw inspiration from the transitions that are already underway in the realm of computer science and cognitive computing.

Ethan McCarty is director-enterprise social programs at IBM Corp.
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