Marketing to the Machine: How Brands Will Thrive in the Age of AI Decision-Makers

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Amazon's Tap uses Alexa software to perform tasks such as playing music for consumers, delivering weather reports and ordering food.
Amazon's Tap uses Alexa software to perform tasks such as playing music for consumers, delivering weather reports and ordering food.  Credit: Amazon

Aritifical intelligence is no longer inevitable -- it is here.

Not as Hollywood's vison of "bots gone bad" characters like HAL or T-1000, but as their non-malevolent granddaughters Siri, Alexa, and the lady-with-no-name whom we trust to get us from Point A to Point B via the quickest route possible. That's not to say AI's potential is anywhere near fully realized -- yet. But sooner that we think, we'll see consumer decision-making influenced by the recommendations from virtual personal assistants, making VPAs the gateways through which brand messaging reaches customers.

The coming world of sentient VPAs will create a completely different marketing environment -- one in which ingrained consumer behaviors like impulse buying are eliminated, and standard marketing objectives, such as stealing market share, become more challenging.

As VPAs carry out many of our day-to-day tasks, including searching for purchase options, our choices and preferences will be learned by the software, allowing preemptive decisions to be made on our behalf. AI systems will sift through all of the meta-data from brands and decide for us. Many of us will simply let our VPAs do much of our shopping -- bye-bye, impulse buys -- and allow them to replace items with the same brands without asking -- so long, switchable moments. On the plus side, a VPA might also encourage brand migration as it learns from a consumer's changing behaviors. For example if you started making more ethical choices about food purchases, it might make suggestions for different laundry detergents that fulfill your ethical criteria.

With VPAs becoming the gatekeepers, we will move to an era of marketing to the machine. And marketers will have to adapt. Instead of looking to influence the consumer, marketers will also need to influence the algorithm -- an algorithm that will aggregate price, relevance, previous purchase behavior of the end user, and review scores and usage data from current users. Ultimately, there might be fewer messages seen, but the ones that do get seen will have been selected based on extremely specific purchasing and behavioral data about the consumer -- all processed in nanoseconds by our VPAs, and served up without us knowing which brands or products narrowly missed out.

There is a precedent for this in search engine optimization, which aims to maximize a website's visibility to Google and other search engines. VPA optimization is next. Obtaining positive sentiment from customers will become the biggest determinant of whether the AI devices recommend it. Leading marketers will be category-best-in-class at optimizing to this KPI. (Reviews and sentiment are going to be so important, it may be that this become an emerging marketing function.)

There's a big opportunity for marketers to grasp the future impact of VPAs, but it's an opportunity that must be grasped now. Specifically, marketers should consider what data their brands need to be more accessible in an AI environment; how they can know their customers' real behavior even more intimately; and how that knowledge can be used effectively to inform everyday decisions in the AI age.

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