Stuck in the middle
(This is a gently-edited version of a post that originally appeared on the IPRA site)
For many marketers in Asia, understanding how artificial intelligence can help them do business better has become a priority.
Nearly two-thirds of Asian marketers see a need for AI within their business models, compared to just half of their North American counterparts.
For many, AI will play a critical role in how they create more personalised experiences for their customers. But how much of a human touch can a machine really deliver?
Marketing works best when it tells a human story, the sort that can directly change the way we think and feel.
The most effective marketers understand their audience on a level that moves beyond data in favour of empathy. That’s something no AI can do on its own, no matter how sophisticated its algorithms or voluminous its data.
However, AI can – and should – play a role in corporate storytelling.
When marketers work with machines, they can tell better stories. Stories that are more effective, engaging, and even empathetic.
For this to work, marketers must trust AI to help them understand what customers want and need, and sometimes even point them in a more relevant creative direction.
AI can indeed help to tell stories that touch our hearts. But not without human craftspeople ultimately directing the narrative.
AI sees what humans can’t
For corporate storytellers, AI’s strength lies in its perceptiveness.
44% of all enterprise leaders globally say that AI helps them make better decisions. Mostly from the ability to sort through and make sense of far more data than we humans can.
We’ve already started to see this play out with things like Alibaba’s FashionAI, which uses a combination of smart mirrors and sensors to serve up personalised recommendations on outfits, sizes, and colours to customers at its Hong Kong test store.
AI can also spot points of friction that we as humans may overlook. Nissan’s machine-learning technology boosted conversion rates by 900% in one Asian market after highlighting usability issues in one specific test-drive form.
In most marketing applications of Artificial Intelligence, technology provides ways to improve the customer experience.
Could the same apply to how marketers develop the narratives that underpin their work?
For that to happen, today’s AI will need to leap from simply understanding behaviours into understanding emotions.
That shift may come sooner rather than later. Some companies are rolling out AI that can identify human feelings with some degree of accuracy. Other experiments suggest that machines can find emotional trends in comments on digital content.
If an AI can start to assess en masse the sorts of narrative themes or subject areas that resonate most with a marketer’s target audience, that marketer can potentially craft far more relevant stories that connect with that audience’s interests and emotions.
Even today, AI can reveal a lot about our emotional state. High opt-out rates at a certain point of a digital experience – like that of Nissan’s test-drive form – point to widespread frustration.
A purchase of one of FashionAI’s recommendations can translate into happiness, or at least a sense of some emotional fulfilment, that the AI in turn learns from for future engagements.
These basic emotional readings give marketers valuable clues into improving customer experience, as well as tailoring the stories that surround it.
In other words, AI already works well as a marketer’s assistant, offering critical feedback on the work being produced. Could it also function as an actual co-creator of the human stories that marketers strive to tell?
If a novel co-authored by an AI can make it past the first round in a Japanese national literary competition, anything is possible.
I’m not a robot
If anything, AI will make the human touch in corporate storytelling even more important, for three reasons.
First, AI’s “creativity” ultimately comes from understanding what has worked before. Steady, incremental improvements in a brand, but not the major, transformational breaks with tradition.
The iPhone, and the narrative around it, could not have been derived from analysis of past data. Neither could a commercially successful yet convention-breaking story like that of Inception.
Often, the most powerful and human stories come from radical leaps in how we think about a certain issue. Machines, despite their abilities, cannot yet make this kind of leap.
Conversely, relying too much on AI and data in storytelling can lead to those stories losing their originality and their ‘human-ness’.
One of the risks of using AI for marketing comes from confirmation bias, leading brands to focus only on stories that generate a certain reaction at the expense of others that might be equally, if not even more valuable.
It’s up to marketers to challenge the recommendations that AI makes about tone, mood, and voice. Going against audience expectations, as this “inspirational” advertisement did, can amplify your message’s impact.
Finally, marketers can gauge how their audience responds to their stories in ways that AI can’t.
All the data and analytics in the world won’t provide the insight a skilled interviewer can get from face-to-face conversation.
While AI may be able to identify what narrative decisions might work in a certain situation, it still struggles to weave them together seamlessly.
For now, at least, AI’s role in telling compellingly human stories will remain one of advisor rather than author.
To truly touch human hearts, and turn audiences into loyal customers, you have to “think human”. That requires an empathy and creativity that only flesh-and-bone marketers can muster.