The marketing story has always been about data, because that’s how you scale digital experiences. All the problems related to capturing, managing, and using data still need to be solved, but there's something else getting more attention right now - AI. AI can't fix all the problems with your data, but it could help. You just need to dive into AI and learn how to best use it.
That’s the view of Amanda Cole, CMO of e-commerce experience firm Bloomreach. She argues that marketers have had very negative reactions to AI because it was something they couldn't wrap their heads around. Every company talks about it, but when it comes to implementing it, it isn't changing the reality of what is happening in the business.
Part of the problem comes from tech companies themselves. Cole believes many have put lightweight AI in their technology and tell marketers they have AI that will make their lives easier. But then marketers use it, and it doesn't change the business. Marketers were never going to try to understand AI at any depth, so most just grouped with automation and weren't impressed.
Then Open AI and ChatGPT came along, and everything changed. Suddenly, everyone (technically inclined or not) understood the power of what generative AI could do. All the marketers she knows are thinking about the creative ways they can use it - including her:
I think now that marketers realize and now that the world honestly realizes the power of Artificial Intelligence in a really easy to understand, really tangible way. The interest to dig in and understand the different types of AI and the different kinds of capabilities and automations that are possible inside of technology is making them more informed buyers.
Bloomreach has seen this change firsthand. The company holds thirty-three AI patents, but when it came to explaining AI capabilities to potential customers, people weren't listening. The firm would explain to marketers that it uses AI to power and automate the reports that helped them understand channel and campaign efficiency, but until they used and experienced the platform, there wasn't a willingness to accept that there was intelligent automation behind it.
Cole says that generative AI has enabled Bloomreach to bring its AI capabilities forward credibly and lead with them. People now get the scale and efficiency that comes with it; now they need a plan, but many companies aren't prepared. Cole says they need to educate themselves on the different types of AI available, how it can be used, and what it means to leverage it to scale and automate business functions.
Cole suggests that the situation is comparable to an email marketer who needs to learn the technical details of email marketing - deliverability, spam, and inbox placement - or a paid media specialist. They have to learn the technical differences inside their function because that's how you make technology and investment decisions:
It's no longer lightweight capabilities [AI], that if a platform has it or doesn't, it doesn't matter. The investment in technology and your ability to win is at a totally different scale. If you understand AI, how to buy it, and how to implement it in your business, it will be a game changer for you as a marketer.
Even the creative side of marketing is diving in. Cole’s brand team is using it to create conceptual storyboards in hours, and the content team is using AI to help with repurposing, infusing, and updating content with new perspectives and voices. AI is even helping identify influencers. It can replace a lot of the manual research and backend work effort, dramatically improving how stories are created and delivered.
The flaws in traditional marketing that AI can fix
Cole sees many ways AI can ‘fix’ marketing. One of these is the budgeting process. Budgets are tied to performance and outcomes, but in B2B, the buying process is six months or longer, and there's a buying team to deal with. She said the data analysis that goes into understanding how and why a deal is won and what marketing activities supported it and turned in ROI is wizardry. AI can help, although she has yet to find a tool to do everything she wants:
I think there's a huge opportunity, particularly with the capabilities of generative AI, to do a better understanding of the different inputs into a deal and start to provide, especially in B2B marketing, more intelligence around spend that's working and actually helping turn it into deals; the pattern analysis across such a disconnected set of data. It's really interesting what I think generative AI is going to be able to do there.
Getting the team onboard
Cole hasn't met a design or content team that has said they don't have enough work and are worried about AI scaling. These teams are overwhelmed, and AI could be an answer to that. She would worry if a team member feared AI, but she points to a lack of understanding about AI among company boards and executive teams. They can't tell how much you can or can't scale with AI. But they are asking the question and want to see that teams are thinking about it and trying to understand how it will change how they work:
It's more that it would be akin to, let's think about computers. If the CEO is like, ‘Everybody's using computers, and it's going to do something, but I'm not exactly sure what it's going to do’. And you, as an employee who is resistant to using computers, you want to keep using a typewriter. The CEO doesn't understand the full impact that computer is going to have, but they know it's going to be the future. And so they want to invest in employees who are interested in whatever that future is going to look like.
Cole finds that most conversations currently are about how to bring AI tools and people together, not how to replace people. No-one thinks that AI can come in and replace jobs; even the C-Suite does not think this will happen at scale. But there is an expectation that headcount will not increase. The goal is to figure out how to get the most efficiency inside the current team.
She also does not believe that marketers will bring in AI and have it work perfectly. Users must understand how to prompt the AI well, ask the right questions, and understand the data. But mostly, you have to learn how to tell the AI what it did wrong and help it continuously optimize. This is not new for marketers; the job has always been about optimization; it's just that now it's on an entirely new scale:
This is why I think the new AI is so closely aligned to the job of the marketer when you think about, hey, you need to really understand how to ask questions. Marketing has been doing that forever. We've had to survey people forever. You have to understand how to reteach it, how to make it rethink. That's literally my job every day. So you have to understand what insights you're trying to get and really get to the root of the problem.
Her advice for getting started? Jump into the deep end! Cole’s team has a Slack channel (AI tools for marketing), and she's constantly demoing new technology because she wants to understand how these companies are positioning themselves.
You also need to get your team educated. It's a significant change management process. Cole suggested giving them a playground and time to investigate AI tools and get creative about different ways to use them. Her team is excited to try new things, she concludes:
I feel like it is made to bring marketing to an entirely different level inside of the organization if the marketing team will embrace it, understand it, and become master users of it.
We talk about AI all the time, but according to research from the Marketing AI Institute, much learning still needs to happen. That's OK, because things are changing so fast that continuous learning technology is simply the name of the game.
I appreciate Cole's perspective on the impact of AI in marketing. And she's right; learning how AI can improve marketing is no different than learning the technical details of any other marketing function. The only difference is that AI impacts all marketing functions, which means everyone in the marketing department needs to understand where it brings value. That's a good thing because the more team members that test it, the faster marketing teams should be able to bring it in and improve the scale and efficiency of their programs.
Cole's advice of just diving in isn't wrong, but others believe AI needs a plan from the start. I suspect there is still an element of testing and playing as part of that plan because it's changing so fast that you will always need to learn where and how it helps. Maybe that's the fun part of generative AI we all need to embrace.