Why AI is about so much more than chatbots: Q&A with a B2B artificial intelligence expert

We have Arnie and Spielberg to thank (among others) for our collective understanding of artificial intelligence (AI). But what's all the renewed buzz really about? Danielle Howe caught up with Graham Wylie to find out

Graham is VP marketing EMEA at ADP, provider of HR management software and services.

What’s your message to B2B marketers who feel intimidated/overwhelmed/confused/nervous about AI?

Graham: Given all the hype, marketers are entirely justified in feeling less than comfortable about AI. There's more than a whiff of BS from many of the vendors talking about their ‘machine learning algorithm’ and ‘powerful artificial intelligence’, but that should be a stimulus for action – for marketers to learn more and get comfortable, not to try and sit out the change on the sidelines. To be clear, we're not talking about a coming singularity, where computers reach a level of conscious awareness and decide they want a career in B2B marketing instead of taking over the world; but there are real and profound changes in what computers can now do and we all need to understand and adapt.

How is B2B marketing going to change in the next few months and years as a result of AI?

Graham: Initially, it’s one more piece of noise marketers will have to filter in setting their strategy and making technology choices. It’s a good time to understand the opportunity and ask questions: does AI have a role to play in our product offering? Can it improve the customer experience? Will it drive efficiency in our operations? Can it help us communicate more effectively? Will it take my job? Depending on the answers you find, it might be something you need to address in the coming months or something you can prepare for over the next few years.

How, if at all, will B2B marketers’ skillsets change as a result of AI?

Graham: Although computers may never achieve the kind of intelligence we see in the movies, if you're working with large complex data and are looking for patterns or the proverbial ‘needle in a haystack’, the reality is that computers are already smarter than you. It’s how Watson won Jeopardy and DeepMind conquered Go. With the advent of machine learning, computers no longer need someone to build their decision process manually, but given a large enough data set and some initial parameters they can now teach themselves a specific task and build a competency that surpasses human experts in surprisingly little time.

'Watson' computer wins at 'Jeopardy'

In his book Rise of the Robots – Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Martin Ford shows how the ‘grunt work’ of legal discovery, which was once the preserve of paralegals, has been digitised and automated. Now AI is taking the process further, as the machine learns how to tell if information is relevant or irrelevant to the case – the kind of subjective judgement that was once the preserve of a highly qualified and expensive lawyer! Unfortunately, a large part of today’s marketing workload is digital grunt work, and the machines are primed to do this faster, better and cheaper than interns or social media managers. It’s never been more important for B2B marketers to develop a broad and strategic skillset, but I worry our profession has got so caught up in specialisation that AI will present a real challenge.

What are the biggest opportunities AI-powered marketing tech presents for B2B marketers? 

Graham: Specific AI extends the promise of marketing tech in two ways. Firstly, it introduces new possibilities because the technology will do a better job of codifying and recognising buying signals in real time. Secondly, it reduces several ‘barriers to adoption’, where the sheer complexity of manual configuration and optimisation made marketing tech slower and infinitely more expensive to deploy than people expected – a situation which resulted in powerful tools being used for some pretty dumb tasks.

So now, instead of planning an idealised user journey through the website and manually configuring marketing automation and adtech tools to complete a set of pre-ordained steps, specific AI can be used to interrogate the data, decide on the next best action and A/B test the result to optimise in real time. We're already seeing this in programmatic digital advertising where machine learning on large data sets is adapting the buying algorithm to improve targeting and increase activity when the target customer is ‘in market’, not just browsing.

"Marketing is in the midst of a potential golden age, but we need to raise our eyes from the tactical execution of marketing and think more broadly about what we can do for the business"

How should B2B marketers (and their businesses) prepare/adapt for the advent of AI in marketing tech? Do they need to change anything they do/the way they think about marketing?

Graham: Marketing is in the midst of a potential golden age, but we need to raise our eyes from the tactical execution of marketing and think more broadly about what we can do for the business. I think the real power of AI lies not in the automation of the ‘grunt work’, or in clever marketing tech – I think it lies in changing the way customers interact with the business and how a frictionless buying process can create lasting differentiation.

How mature do you think the AI marketing tech landscape is currently? 

Graham: If we think about it in human terms, where print advertising is taking its pension and email is enjoying its 30s, then martech is only just really starting secondary school and AI is still at preschool.

Can you share any examples of AI being harnessed successfully by a B2B brand?

Graham: I suspect web chat is now predominantly AI driven, or at least well on its way with customisable chatbots now available through open source. AI-driven improvements in natural language processing are probably having a similar impact in the way companies handle inbound calls. Some players in programmatic advertising are doing clever things with machine learning to improve targeting and reduce wastage. But beyond that, we're still in the very early days. I asked Siri if she had any other examples and she didn’t give me any.

To find out more about AI in B2B marketing, including how it'll impact your job and what it could specifically enable you to do in future, download our new guide, Demystifying artificial intelligence in B2B marketing.

B2B Marketing InTech 2018

InTech is the biggest and single most influential B2B tech marketers’ event of its kind in the UK. We’re bringing together tech marketing and business leaders from brands who are daring to be different, challenging convention and disrupting themselves and their markets.

Register today

B2B Marketing InTech 2018 – The biggest tech marketers' event of its kind in the UK