IBM Watson and the Not-So-Distant Future of AI in Digital Marketing

There’s a great deal of mystery around the future of artificial intelligence (AI) and how it will shape the workforce. But we won’t have to wait much longer to find out.

The term AI conjures up a range of images for people, most of which might center around sinister robots taking over the world. But more often, today’s AI is specific, rather than generalized, learning how to undertake a specific task through a combination of self-learning and human input.

Within the last few years, basic AI has become part of our daily lives, in the form of Facebook news feeds, Siri and Alexa. It has also begun entering various workplaces and industries, including marketing.

IBM’s openly available Watson AI tools are already being leveraged by companies to build cognitive marketing tools that have the power to change marketers’ day-to-day tasks. Hubspot recently hosted a webinar to discuss how AI is shaping the near future of marketing by both augmenting our capabilities as marketers and changing the nature of our jobs.

IBM Watson’s Alyssa Simpson and Equals 3’s Scott Lipman shared insights on the state of AI in marketing today and predictions on how it will continue to evolve in the coming years. They also tackled a few common questions surrounding both the excitement and fear this technology is inspiring, namely: Will humans even have marketing jobs in the future?

Here are a few takeaways from the panel on the state of AI and marketing.

It’s already available for certain use cases.

No, the panelists said, you don’t need to worry about a computer stealing your job any time soon. Today’s AI is focused on automating repetitive tasks and making data easier to search and apply. AI is being implemented to support marketers in many ways, including the following:

Research and database queries

Lucy, the brainchild of Lipman and his team at Equals 3, is a research assistant built on IBM Watson’s machine learning technology. Lucy utilizes AI to search many different data sources within a company’s network and the Internet all from one window, saving time for marketers and their co-workers on tracking down files and information.

“Lucy is the cognitive companion to the marketing professional, built for the Fortune 1000 and the agencies that serve them,” Lipman said. “The problem we set out to solve working with Watson is the idea that marketers have so much content in so many different systems: their own databases, marketing analytics, website analytics, media data, third-party data, and their own documents like powerpoints and PDFs. Lucy is a SaaS that lives in IBM’s Blue Mix environment that has three major components: research, audience and persona modeling, and helping with media planning.”

Lipman demoed the power of Lucy by examining some timely, real-life examples. When asked “What is the latest information on self-driving cars?” Lucy provided a list of responses relying on natural language processing built in by Watson, as well as Equals 3’s training and feedback. With a 94% level of confidence, Lucy compiled information on levels of audience interest, attitudes and opinions about self-driving cars. Then, Lipman was able to mark the best responses as relevant, giving Lucy the feedback she needed to provide even better responses for the next search.

Lucy can also get granular within documents. Lipman asked Lucy to find a detailed SWOT analysis for Tesla. Not only was Lucy able to quickly pull it up and link Lipman to the source, she was also able to scan the entire document and answer specific questions about it, saving Lipman from having to read the entire document.

It was pointed out that Lucy could have aided marketing teams with the recent United Airlines debacles. After getting into hot water for dragging a passenger off a flight, United Airlines likely tried to quantify just how negatively the viral incident affected their brand.

In this example, Lucy was able to scan research from a variety of news and social media sources to provide marketing insights, relaying that 74% of current online mentions of United Airlines were negative. Further, she provided sources, the volume of mentions, tonality per article, hashtag and image associations, and more. This data could be used in a range of situations, but most notably to provide a baseline to help track whether United is rebounding from the incident in the coming months.

Tonal understanding

As humans, we know that it isn’t just what you say — it’s how you say it. Oftentimes, when things get lost in translation, especially online or through text messages, it is due to a lack of tonal understanding.

IBM’s Watson team has recognized the pressing need for computers and humans alike to be able to decipher a person’s tone along with the content of their communication. They’ve been working on a tonality tool to help companies better understand how to approach customer service calls.

“Watson is like a well-funded startup within IBM,” Simpson said. “We’re creating technologies that are, at the platform level, a series of APIs that each do discrete functions. Our tone analyzer takes text and analyzes the tone of that conversation. For example, if you’re interacting with a customer service agent and you are frustrated, we can understand that you’re frustrated and help escalate that call faster or direct you to the right place. Emotion is interesting because reasonable humans can disagree around what emotion is included in a phrase. Emotion is a multi-faceted way of expressing yourself, including facial expression, tone of voice, actual words and context of situation. It’s a very tricky space, but very exciting.”

At least in the near future, AI will be a competitive advantage for marketers — not a job killer.

Today’s AI is designed to help you and your customers solve real problems. Rather than replacing marketers, current AI tools are more like personal assistants that help you be a more effective employee, save time, better understand and serve customers, and make decisions based off sound data.

“I think the businesses that complement the talented individual with an AI companion will outperform those who don’t adopt or embrace AI at all or those who rely too heavily on AI to do the job itself,” Lipman said. “This is all about supplementing and enhancing the individual. We’re going to see more expected of marketing departments and agencies, and they’ll keep up with AI. More will be expected, but more will be achievable.”

“That’s 100% how IBM talks about this,” Simpson added. “We see this as man plus machine; it’s about the partnership between humans and cognitive technologies. We talk about AI as “augmented intelligence,” augmenting what humans are already doing and extending that to help them do things they couldn’t do before.”

The water is warm for entrepreneurs looking to create solutions that solve marketing problems.

Now is the time to start thinking about how AI could be molded to create change in the industry — or at least for your own company. By entering the space now, you’ll be ahead of the curve and will face less competition for your idea or product.

Lipman is a prime example of an innovator who didn’t know much about AI, but immediately recognized the potential it had for his company.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the AI space,” Lipman said. “Two years ago it became clear that IBM was making available the Watson platform to developers, so I sat down with my team and asked what we could do with it. We thought about all the marketing technology platforms we’ve stood up over the years, and thought what if we could bring the power of Watson to bring all of that data together?”

Thus, Lucy was born. However, it is important to note that most of the marketing departments you’d be selling your solutions to don’t have a line item in their budget for AI products or may not know what to do with it. It’s up to you to help them overcome prior notions of what AI is, and guide them to see how AI can solve their problems.

“I think one of the challenges that AI has is it’s been a promise for the last 50 or 60 years,” Simpson said. “Hollywood has promised this ‘magic future world,’ so there’s a lot of pre-existing ideas around what this will be and should be. We’re just starting to see in the last five years this being used by businesses at scale to solve real problems. So people are having to learn what’s ‘magic’ and what’s [really available] ‘now.’ The other side is figuring out what problems to apply this to; it’s just a tool. For example, I can sell you a knife but the magic happens when you as a chef have to apply it to build a masterful dinner.

“It’s up to our customers and the users to make that magic happen and apply it to particular industries and business problems. You have to understand how the tool works and what you can do with it, and to understand the limitations. Then, you must decide how you want to take the tool and apply it to a problem you care about.”

It’s not just for coders or computer scientists.

In fact, IBM has designed Watson so specifically to help businesspeople and marketers (rather than replace them) that it enables non-technical folks to create AI software.

Anyone can begin playing around with the Watson technology for free by going to the IBM Watson site and creating a Blue Mix account. IBM’s Learning Lab contains a bevy of resources to help you understand a few use cases and get started, even if you’re not a programmer. In fact Simpson, who is IBM’s director of product management, doesn’t come from a tech background.

“There’s an idea that this is hard, but I have a Liberal Arts degree,” Simpson said. “I don’t code on a regular basis, but I use AI and can use these developer tools.

“As an example, I got tired of people asking me the same question over and over so I built a chatbot. An hour later, I was done. I want to dispel the myth that this is hard or expensive. These APIs are inexpensive and can scale as you grow.”

Regardless of your role as a marketer, you’re likely going to come across AI in more than one way in the next couple of years. You can either be an adopter and adapt to these changes as they become the norm; or, if you’re an entrepreneur interested in leveraging the next wave of opportunity, it may be time to put on your developer hat.