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The trends defining digital marketing transformation in 2017 (Paid Content by The UK’s Department for International Trade)

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The creative geniuses on your marketing team have achieved what seemed impossible a mere six months ago: They’ve developed an exciting campaign using a trendy technology — an artificially intelligent chatbot, deployed on the website and on social media — in a way that’s simultaneously on-brand, cost-conscious, and effectively drives conversions. 

This would seem cause for celebration: Except for the fact that in the time it’s taken them to master this product, an entirely new technology has taken over the cultural zeitgeist — and your biggest competitor is rumoured to be ten steps ahead of the trend.

This is an all-too-common scenario in the world of the modern marketer. Keeping up with the latest tech tools — and finding a way to effectively add them to a marketing stack — can feel a bit like running on a steadily quickening treadmill. 

This is why digital transformation is perhaps the most excitingly frustrating part of a marketer’s job, and why theories on how to effectively master marketing transformation are prolific among industry experts and analysts today. 

57 percent of marketing leaders say AI is absolutely or very essential in helping them provide personalized experiences for their customers

In Salesforce’s State of Marketing Report released in June 2017, 57 percent of marketing leaders said AI is absolutely or very essential in helping them provide personalised experiences for their customers, and 64 percent say their company has become more focused on providing a consistent experience across every channel as a result of changing customer expectations. 

Below, we’ve outlined a few key things to note about marketing transformation in 2017, as well as a few companies mastering modern digital trends.

Businesses must adapt or die

Heritage companies struggle the most with transformation, according to Nigel Morris, chief strategy and innovation officer at Dentsu Aegis. Speaking at the dmexco conference in Cologne, Morris waxed lyrical about the need for businesses to adapt or die, which can be more of a struggle for those businesses that have been in operation for decades. How do established businesses get the energy, the leadership and the drive to compete and transform in a globalised world? The key is to keep on learning. “When we’re skiing, if we lean back, we fall down.” Morris elaborated, “We must lean into transformation, much like skiing.”

“When we’re skiing, if we lean back, we fall down.” Morris elaborated, “We must lean into transformation, much like skiing.”

Speaking with Allen Blue, VP of product marketing and co-founder of LinkedIn, Morris discussed the importance of an “always-on” attitude to learning, even in the most well-established, successful organisations. “It’s not all about spending more in digital marketing, it’s the redevelopment of skills and relearning what’s new”, Blue lamented, and that means embracing the latest tools and ensuring they’re used effectively as a part of your arsenal.

Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence may sound like marketing goldmines — but successfully implementing them is a complex (read: expensive) process. More than just monetary costs, it also involves dedicating intangible resources like time, talent, and brainspace to the product’s development. And since there are many stakeholders involved in technical marketing overhauls — the CMO, clearly, but also other members of the c-suite like the CTO and the CEO, as well as third-party investors — it’s important to critically consider which technologies are worth dedicating the necessary time and effort.

It’s no longer a (hu)man’s world. It’s a computer’s world

While the above statement is by no means a new concept, it’s one that some companies have been slow to accept. While fledgling businesses have a lot to learn from their seniors, established companies must heed the example of emerging startups. Most of today’s mega-entities, such as Google and Facebook, were born and raised in the digital age. They are, so to speak, the millennials of the business world. They know the importance of data.

Today’s businesses must learn to embrace and fully understand the huge data sets they’re engaging with daily. For those struggling in this area, IBM is one company taking a proactive approach to education. The company recently launched THINK Marketing, a one-stop content destination for marketers scrambling to stay abreast of what’s new and what’s next. 

The hub is built upon IBM’s Watson technology, which uses cognitive learning capabilities to serve users with relevant content based on their online behaviour. A marketing ploy in and of itself for IBM (it is, at its core, an attempt to promote IBM’s own cloud-based content management system), the hub showcases many of the technologies that its content focuses upon — most notably, artificial intelligence.

Kicking off proceedings at September’s dmexco exhibition, Bob Lord, chief digital officer at IBM, spoke of the role of AI in transforming today’s businesses and their ability to connect with customers. IBM’s Watson is an artificial intelligence that’s proven its prowess not only through a Jeopardy victory, but by storming the Billboard chart with Alex Da Kid, and these achievements are testament to just how powerful computing has become.

When it comes to harnessing the powers of AI for marketing, it’s all about the power of conversation. AI can now decipher tone, process information at an unprecedented rate, and interact so cohesively with humans that at times we don’t even recognise it as a machine. Master AI and your value exchange with consumers strengthens exponentially. As Lord elaborated at dmexco: “shame on us if we don’t start embracing these technologies at scale.”

The most exciting tech tools in today’s marketing stack are AI, AR, and VR

AIM is more than just a nostalgia-inducing instant messaging platform from the ’90s. Today, Artificial Intelligence Marketing is an increasingly attractive addition to a company’s technology stack.

It’s important to remember that while the term may conjure images of robot overlords, AI is actually a much more all-encompassing moniker. Chances are high that basic AI will soon infiltrate everything from smartphones to virtual home assistants like Alexa and Google Home to, yes, AdTech platforms and tools. 

But while many marketing-focused softwares, apps, and platforms are currently touted as “artificially intelligent,” quite a few of these actually employ “machine learning,” which is a slightly different animal. In a recent recap of the two technologies, Sarah Fay of Glasswing Ventures explains this difference concisely: 

“Machine learning generally relates to a software algorithm that leverages specific data sets and rules programmed by humans that become faster and smarter as they iterate in performing the tasks for which they were created.  

Artificial intelligence exists when software can make decisions outside of the data strategy and rules set by humans, to form new solutions.”

Knowing this key difference can help marketers better decide which tools provide the promised bank for their buck.  

There’s valid reason for marketers to be excited about both AI and machine learning, however. First and foremost, the possibilities for customized consumer experiences are practically endless. For example: AI-enabled ecommerce applications may be able to effectively serve customers with product recommendations that make Amazon’s “customers also bought…” algorithms look like child’s play. Social media is another arena in which AI infusion is highly anticipated, particularly with just 7% of marketers stating that they’re able to consistently manage real-time, personalised engagement with consumers across both digital and physical platforms.

In the IBM example above, it’s also clear that there’s potential for AI to act not only as a valuable tool within marketing campaigns, but also as a resource for marketers themselves to learn about exciting, up-and-coming industry trends.

VR and AR — virtual reality and augmented reality — are two more terms that are practically guaranteed to get any marketer’s heart racing. A few companies have effectively added these tools into their marketing arsenal: For example, in 2014 Jaguar Land Rover launched an immersive experience that lets customers virtually design and customise their “dream” vehicle via a VR headset. 

The technology also allows users to virtually explore cars in 360-degree views, and to make changes to designs in real-time. The success of the campaign is ongoing: Three years later, and Jaguar is rolling out virtual reality technology to more than 1,500 retailers in 85 markets and in 20 different languages.

In the realm of AR, Tesco is one brand successfully adding the tool into its marketing strategy. The brand’s Discover Tesco app, for example, allows customers to scan Tesco product labels and engage in immersive in-store experiences. The brand’s physical Home Book catalogue, too, includes a “cushion visualizer” that lets shoppers transpose products into their home environments via mobile device. (Check out the video below to see this impressive tech in action.)

For every success like the ones detailed above, however, there are just as many marketing misfires, as well as thousands of products promising AR or AI that simply don’t deliver the goods.

There’s a crucial warning here that’s applicable to any future technologies upending the marketing stack: Marketers must be wary of becoming hypnotised by exciting buzzwords. Just because a product or software is “AI-enabled” doesn’t necessarily make it the best fit for your marketing stack. In other words: Before blithely investing in every hot technology trend that hits the blogosphere, it’s key to pinpoint the specific initiatives that will best contribute to an overarching strategy.

AI is becoming Augmented Intelligence 

In a conversation about machine learning at dmexco, Paul Papas, global leader, digital strategy at IBM iX discussed that at IBM iX they don’t necessarily think about AI as artificial intelligence, but rather augmented intelligence. 

“We think of AI as augmenting human intelligence. Supporting people in their professions, so Watson for healthcare, legal, tech, — using Watson to transform all industries. We ask ourselves: How much more effective can they be with the power of these capabilities? They can now create hyper personalised strategies, advanced audience segmentation, and make sense of data. It’s extending a person’s capabilities.”

And it’s not all innovation for the sake of innovation. 76% of the audience at the dmexco panel on machine learning answered ‘yes’ to a poll that asked if they would want their personalised customer experience to go from offline to online to suggest the next trendy product they could buy. 

As we continue to hurtle through this digital age, one thing is certain: If a company hopes to compete in the coming race, they need to adapt, embrace, and keep on learning.

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