The age of artificial intelligence (AI) is upon us. As many in the field already know, AI in its various forms and expressions — neural networks, machine learning, computer vision, and so on — isn’t a new media-fueled fad or trend, but rather the next era of our tech-centric civilization.
Simultaneously, there’s a revolution happening with the digital habits of consumers, who are increasingly glued to their phones and communicating more and more via visual means (instead of just text) through social media and messaging apps. As a result of these concurrent trends, business and marketing will undergo radical transformations, with AI enabling powerful and useful new methods of connecting consumers directly with companies. Here are just some of these new approaches.
Messaging is the medium
Since the turn of the millennium, Google searches have been the front door of the internet, fueling advertising, spawning ecommerce, and allowing customers to connect with favorite and new brands. Mobile and social media tweaked that formula a bit, and typing into a search engine is no longer the only game in town.
Daily interactions on messaging services like Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Kik, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and iMessage now beat traffic to major social sites like Facebook and Twitter. Millennials already rely heavily on dedicated messaging services, not only for communication with each other but also to connect with companies. Within one app, they share text, emojis, photos, GIFs, video, and now, thanks to robust developer APIs, they’re interacting with and even making purchases via chatbots.
Thanks to AI, this rich, cross-medium exchange within a single platform is deepening. I’m intrigued by Google’s Allo messaging service, which leverages AI from Google Assistant to completely transform the idea of what a “messaging app” is. Assistant adds novel modes of chat, like answering queries in the middle of a relevant discussion or sharing restaurant picks, movie times, directions, and more. It will find all the pictures you took of or near, say, mountains, and then retrieve them immediately via Google Photos, which uses image recognition to automatically categorize your pictures based on what’s inside them. Inevitably, AI will use image recognition to enable a service like Allo to react and respond to what’s being shared visually. This will create new ways for marketers to reach consumers — a car company reacting to a conversation with pictures of cars, for example — that go beyond text-based chat.
Chatbots: automated sales and customer service
Chatbots that simulate human conversation to perform basic tasks, such as customer service or weather delivery, have been around for a while, but the buzz around them became supercharged in the past year, especially since Facebook’s announcement in April that it would allow developers to unleash chatbots on its near billion-user Messenger service. Since then, more than 11,000 bots have been created, allowing users to do everything from the frivolous and fun (Fatherly’s Dad Joke Bot ) to the functional, like ordering an Uber at 3 a.m. without switching apps.
Most chatbot interactions are still pretty basic. The not-so-hidden secret of a lot of chatbots today is that, lurking behind the apparent AI-driven interface, there just may be a human counterpart fielding tricky interactions when needed, filling in the gaps when natural language processing isn’t quite up to snuff, and training the programs in the process.
This is a good thing — it prevents the shenanigans that can give chatbots a black eye, and it also gets us closer to the potential that AI-powered chatbots have. Consider the current experience for a customer with a busted widget who searches online forums or calls up customer service and waits on hold for 30 minutes only to be read a script by some underpaid hack. Instead, send that person from their favorite messaging app to a chatbot trained through millions of previous interactions, backed by a deep-learning supercomputer churning through vast stores of data, and the question will be answered instantly. Make that a person looking for, say, the right set of tires for their ‘77 Ford Pinto, and presto, you have a sale.
Virtual digital assistants
Though they’ve yet to reach the fictional heights of HAL 9000 or Her, Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant are all AI-based virtual digital assistants living comfortably among us. When Siri and Google Now debuted in 2011, it seemed that we were finally speaking with our computing devices, as had been predicted by a half-century of sci-fi. Just five years later, and those same services are seeping into our everyday lives the way cellphones, once exotic and obscure, are now the major focus of so much of our attention.
Beyond just asking to control a given device’s functions, these services rely on AI for a host of capabilities — they take note of our locations and travel patterns and suggest traffic updates. They pull info from our contacts, texts, emails, searches, photos, videos, and site visits, all in order to make their responses smarter and more personalized.
As every marketer knows, this trove of knowledge is the stuff of dreams. Mazdak Rezvani, CEO of Shoppe AI, recently told me: “Tools like Siri are bringing just-in-time access to AI to a massive audience. Imagine being able to use your voice to figure out if your favorite store sells something or if there’s a special on a particular item without even unlocking your phone.”
The future is highly personal
The watchword for AI, and for marketers, will continue to be personalization. For now, we’re just scratching the surface, but one destiny of AI — based on big data, machine learning, computer vision, natural language processing, and so on — is to create theoretically perfect interactions between consumers and companies, where everyone’s needs are met with maximum efficiency and satisfaction. The right answer, delivered quickly, is coming. Keep that in mind the next time you’re stuck on hold with customer service or searching in vain for a salesperson at your local superstore.