Retail marketers have spent the last decade looking to personalization as the primary strategy for bringing shoppers back through their doors, both physical and virtual. With more than 3,000 stores already shutting down this year, it’s never been a bigger priority to understand the customer and what's going to get them to make a purchase.
However, after years of trial and error hoping to connect to a customer through personalization, it’s time to admit it’s just not working — at least not the way it ultimately needs to for any long-lasting impact on the industry. It’s not working because, as it turns out, creating a truly personal experience between a brand and a customer is incredibly challenging. While most marketing departments are broadly relying on segmentation, delivering tailored messages to 10, 20 or even 50 different groups, artificial intelligence (AI) could create personalized messages that speak to the customer, one-on-one.
Redefining the Role of Marketers
Retailers are already looking towards AI as a solution for many other issues, such as inventory management, recommendation engines, customer service (chatbots, anyone!) and more. The same retailers would be wise to consider its potential role in the marketing department just as imperative.
Presently, marketers are tasked with taking the entire customer profile, analyzing it and creating the segmented messages already decided on. If it works, the customer moves along the purchasing journey and all is well. If it doesn’t, then it’s back to the drawing board. Even with the tools available to them today, it’s a labor-intensive process. What might take the marketing team a full 30 minutes to work through for one shopper could be accomplished by AI in a matter of seconds for 10,000 shoppers.
The point is not to make the marketer’s role obsolete, but to rethink his or her responsibilities. To that end, the primary responsibility must evolve to that of teacher or coach. Machine learning is all about teaching AI what to look for. It’s only as good as the people and data training it. For marketers, that means working with the technology to understand the company’s objectives and audience, as well as how to interact with the CRM system, loyalty program, email marketing, social media, etc. AI and marketing shouldn’t compete with each other; they should be directly engaging with each other.
Don't Fear the Artificial Intelligence
Not only for marketers, but for most of the C-suite, engaging with AI is still approached with an abundance of caution. The AI landscape is full of startups looking to prove themselves as the right solution to compete with behemoths such as Amazon.com and Walmart, which have entire departments dedicated to exploring AI. They’re untested and unproven in many ways. For most executives it’s an incredible risk to allow an AI layer to infiltrate so many parts of the business, especially within a function that's so customer facing.
That being said, soon enough retailers won’t be able to avoid bringing AI into the fold. After all, the moment one retailer begins to capitalize on AI’s ability to bring that one-to-one personalization to life, so will everyone else — or they’ll be forced to hire about 10,000 more marketers to try and compete. Overcoming the intimidation factor new technology inevitably brings will eventually outweigh any concerns when the bottom line is at stake.
For those looking to get ahead of the curve, there are some clear steps retailers can take to test its readiness for AI. The first is to take a look at the inbound data they’re receiving: Where is it coming from? Are they getting a 360-degree view of the customer across all channels? is the full data set there for the AI to learn from? A loyalty program that communicates between the three key channels of in-store, online and mobile is an ideal testing ground to see what data is available. If one data-collecting channel is missed or not talking to the rest, that’s a signal the house isn’t fully in order yet and needs to be rectified before introducing AI.
Marketing automation tools, many of which are already used by marketing departments, can also be tested for the ability to handle AI. Not only must the AI learn the right message, it must connect to the right system to ensure the message is sent at the right time, through the right channel. Many CRM systems in use are already beginning to take the steps needed to support more AI capabilities. At the end of the day, both the inbound and outbound elements need to be in place so the AI can run between them, constantly on and constantly learning.
AI vs. The Marketing Department
It’s easy to see how AI might seem like a threat to a marketing department, when in fact it should be considered a momentous occasion to take years and years worth of experience in personalization and finally deliver on its promise. All that knowledge properly fed into the machine could finally transform the purchasing journey into one the customer responds positively to. However, who is to keep the AI from learning and doing the wrong things — like sending a message to a customer offering a discount on something they’ve already bought! — if not the marketing team?
Alex Muller is the co-founder of GPShopper, a mobile commerce and engagement platform.