Artificial Intelligence Brings Out The Best -- And Worst -- In Email Marketing

The majority of marketers are already dabbling in artificial intelligence, according to Salesforce’s annual State of Marketing report, but the field will expand rapidly over the next two years. 

Artificial intelligence was the top-ranking technology that marketers planned to expand the most over the next two years, with Salesforce estimating that A.I. will grow 53% faster than any other type of technology. Fifty-one percent of respondents expressed some level of familiarity with A.I.-powered digital marketing, while a quarter planned to begin a pilot program within the next two years. 

The poll of 3,500 marketers, published earlier this year, exemplified marketing technology’s embrace of A.I. in 2017. Every marketing cloud vendor now touts some form of machine-learning framework, from Salesforce’s Einstein to Adobe’s Sensei, to help marketers with more personalized offerings. 

Anil Kaul, CEO of Absolutdata, says that customer-directed marketing will have the biggest impact for marketers in 2018.

“Customer Directed Marketing is the combination of A.I. techniques, smart data harmonization and marketing engagement wherein actions and behaviors of the customer determine the next marketing engagement,” explains Kaul. 

Kaul says leveraging A.I. to create email marketing campaigns that are in sync with customer behavior could yield double- or even triple-digit returns for marketers by increasing marketing efficiency and effectiveness.

“By leveraging AI architectures to ingest and process diverse data in near real time, insights will better reflect the shifting behaviors of buyers and deliver complex campaign strategies on a day-to-day basis that are based on more relevant insights,” says Kaul. 

Some of the top benefits of artificial intelligence expressed by marketers in the report included hyper-personalization of content, such as more targeted product recommendations and optimized email delivery times, as well as sentiment analysis and predictive journeys.

Artificial intelligence can empower email marketers, but there are also severe downsides to machine-learning algorithms that lack any human oversight. A.I.-driven personalization has unfortunately served as a conduit for marketing discrimination, with technology companies like Facebook and Google facing criticism this past year for allowing advertisers to target online ads based on ethnicity and race.

Ensuring artificial intelligence does not reinforce ugly stereotypes and racist ideology will be an important push for advertisers and marketers in the New Year. Both Google and Facebook have switched tactics. They no longer allow machines to create advertising categories on their own.

“Machines can and should recommend us approaches to take and categories to prioritize, but they should never have the power to enforce those approaches or categories on their own,” says Michelle Huff, CMO at Act-On Software.

Huff says that it’s important for marketers to put “guard rails” on artificial intelligence. Machine learning is a tool for marketers, she explains, not an independent identity.

Huff explains that when applied correctly, “AI and machine learning can bring more intelligence to the online journeys our customers travel,” but that’s only so long as “marketers are disciplined in managing these technologies — actively checking to ensure the ad categories they have in place don’t overstep or presume too much.” 

“I’d urge marketers to look at machines primarily as tools at their disposal — extensions of themselves, rather than independent vectors, and subject to checks and balances,” says Huff.  

Huff recommends that email marketers view machine learning as a kind of recommendation engine suggesting marketing content and actions.

“Just because an algorithm recommends an action, doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take it,” she says. “It’s just one of many tools in our arsenal.”

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