You’ve probably heard that 2017 is the year marketers are expected to overtake IT in technology spending (subscribers can read The State of Marketing 2016: What Gartner for Marketing Leaders’ Research Surveys Reveal for details). Gartner predicted this in back in 2012 (archived here), and although the prediction reads “by 2017” rather than “in 2017,” I think we can agree that was a pretty good call.
As marketers embrace technology and automation, the question occasionally pops up as to whether this is, on balance, a totally good thing. For people like me that spend a good deal of time in the martech world the question at first seems rudely naïve: of course it’s a good thing! The better we are as marketers at finding and cultivating the right audience for our products, the happier our customers will be, and the better our companies – and the economy – will do. And the more we understand people’s needs and wants, the better we’ll get at designing and delivering the products they’ll love: a true virtuous cycle of innovation and efficiency, all enabled by the advanced technologies of modern marketing.
But let’s admit there may be a few dark clouds. First, “automation” automatically produces fears of job loss. And while marketing automation is bound to eliminate many low-value, time-intensive mechanical tasks from the marketing process – while making high-value tasks more efficient and less labor-intensive – its near-term net effect on employment is surely positive. Marketing budgets overall are at historical highs and have been climbing at a rate of nearly 10% per year for the last three years. At the same time marketers habitually complain of shortages in skills in both data science, where demand is legendary, and on the creative side where scaling up content for personalization lends hope to the non-STEM set. The more technology they buy, the more marketers need to skills and expertise to leverage their investments. And although AI does have some designs on creative jobs (bots are already writing jingles and copy), the threat to artists seems more remote than, say, media buyers. Perhaps overall head-count reductions and displacement are an inevitable long-term consequence of technology, but the effect will be offset by new opportunities for people to contribute to the growing experience economy, driven by rising consumer expectations.
Then there’s the worry that all this technology is inducing marketers to play too fast-and-loose with our personal data. I won’t wade into this topic here, except to say that consumers surely need trustworthy representation in the opaque marketplace in which companies track them and profit from their behavior, and that such representation can only be effective if it’s empowered by smart technology that protects personal privacy and security. See Algorithmic Marketing Essentials for more on this controversial subject (subscribers only).
Some worry that the growing dependence on technology to market products is creating new barriers to small business and contributing to a concentration of power among enterprises large enough to afford to spend a fortune on advanced marketing technology. This is not a new concern – we’ve heard it expressed about mass media – and it mirrors a similar observation about the effects of digital commerce on local retailers. Here, again, there’s a countervailing democratizing effect when the tools of digital marketing and commerce become accessible to small entrepreneurs who can use them to quickly build scale unfettered by physical costs and constraints. This is one of the most compelling features of the AI revolution: the availability of open platforms for big data and machine learning that can turn small companies with good ideas into big ones pretty fast. Or so goes the digital utopian theory anyway.
Lastly we come to the darkest fear of all: that marketing will lose its human touch and evolve into a science of persuasion where machines exploit models that can predict better than humans what makes us tick. I suspect there are conspiracy theorists out there who believe this has already occurred. But marketing has never been able to escape the ultimate judgment of customer satisfaction and word-of-mouth. Even as the targeting-and-personalization arms race escalates, competition maintains a balance of influences, and our social connections are there with ratings and reviews that encourage us to research and deliberate before making a decision. Most of us, anyway.
When it comes to automated experience, machines are often still stuck in the uncanny valley. Wise marketers recognize this and use technology to enhance, rather than substitute for understanding. So let’s figure out how to use these new marketing technology budgets to build something that does more than just streamline our sales process and turn up the volume.