Cobots in content marketing: 4 ways to embrace an automated future

“Just as video killed the radio star, so too will AI demolish writers, journalists, and editors,” declared a recent TNW article, which ended as ominously as it began:

“In a decade or two, writers may find themselves in the same predicament as factory workers today.”

Not everyone paints such a bleak future for content creators. According to Stuart Frankel, CEO of Narrative Science, a leader in the natural language generation field with its Quill software: “There is growing awareness that AI technologies, when combined with human skills, is optimal because it produces results reaching beyond what either group could achieve alone.”

In fact, in a recent survey conducted by Workfront, the majority of respondents took a positive view of automation in the workplace, with 86% believing it will encourage us to think of work in new and innovative ways. Still, more than a third worry that in the not-too-distant future, ‘men and women in my line of work will be competing with robots, machines, and/or artificial intelligence'.

Here are four realities that will help content marketers face the uncertainty of the future with optimism instead of fear.

1. AI is already here, and our jobs are fine…for now

There are still plenty of organizations out there with a fuzzy understanding of what artificial intelligence is and what it’s already doing for them.

In a study conducted by Narrative Science, only 38% of enterprises said they’re using AI technologies in the workplace. Yet 88% of those who say they don’t use artificial intelligence went on to say that their organizations use predictive analytics, automated written reporting and communications, voice recognition, and other technologies that are founded on AI. At the moment, there are more companies using artificial intelligence without realizing it than companies leveraging AI intentionally.

What’s contributing to the confusion? Well, for decades, we’ve all been picturing Rosie the Robot maid from The Jetsons or C-3P0 and R2D2 from Star Wars. Who could have imagined digital automation emerging in a cloud-based environment?

The proliferation of synonyms with their nuanced definitions doesn’t help either: artificial intelligence, machine learning, machine intelligence, predictive analytics, bots, robots, chatbots. What fits under the AI umbrella and what doesn’t?

Personally, I like this broad definition from a CNBC article: “technology that senses the environment, comprehends what's happening, and takes action.” When it’s put that way, we’re all using a lot more AI than we realize. And is content marketing bleeding any jobs thus far?

According to Indeed, postings of jobs with ‘reporter’ in the title declined by 21.1% between 2012 and 2016. Meanwhile, ‘content marketing’ jobs grew by 235.9% over the same period.

Are content marketers being replaced by AI? Not so far. Indeed says the number of content marketing jobs has grown by more than 235% in just four years.

Instead of dreading a future where the robots are replacing content marketers left and right, grasp on to this ray of hope from futurist and author James Wallman: “I’ve become a real believer that we shouldn’t be worried about robots taking our jobs. What we should be looking forward to is cobots coming along and supporting us.”

What this means for content marketers

Get on the automation train and find technology that will free you from as many manual and mundane tasks as possible - scheduling, sorting through emails, prioritizing your to-do list, etc. There’s probably an automated solution for every simple, repetitive task that doesn’t require creativity or complex reasoning. You’ve got to get better at the things humans are uniquely able to do, so carve out more time for that as soon as possible. In the future, your employment prospects will depend on it.

2. AI can write, so you need to write better

Whenever a robot beats a human at chess or poker, beats a NASA pilot in a drone race, or writes a poem, the news headlines explode and we start wringing our hands about our imminent obsolescence.

But the full story is usually more complex and a bit less sensational. Take the poetry example. The first computer-generated poem to pass ‘the Turing test’ and fool humans into thinking it was written by humans was published in 2011. Uh-oh. Computers can write poems that are indistinguishable from human-penned poetry. Pretty soon, computers will be writing white papers and blog posts and content-marketing video scripts.

In truth, only one poem fooled the student editors of just one undergraduate literary journal. According to the journal’s editor, it was “the most coherent” one of the 26 poems submitted by the same man, who didn’t reveal they were penned by an algorithm. Clearly, human empathy and inclusiveness on the part of the student editors had as much to do with this poem’s publication than its innate merit. Give it a read. The poem’s meaning is…elusive.

More recent attempts at computer-written poetry have achieved similar results. Machines can mimic form, can repeat structure, can even sound poetic to the untrained ear. But, as human poet Rishi Dastidar said in his critique of the AI poems, they “lack deeper meaning.” There’s an essence that a machine can’t capture.

What this means for content marketers

Once you’ve automated some of your mundane tasks, don’t replace them with more mindless activities. Read every day. Write every day. Listen to Stephen King: “Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

AI can write a bit better than boilerplate copy today. Your writing skills have got to be next level if you want to stay relevant. You’ve got to actually be providing that essence — that added human value — that the machine can’t replicate, otherwise you’ll find a robot doing your job for you one day.

3. AI can do the grunt work, so you do the great work

The content-creation AI that’s used in newsrooms and on content teams today can make data readable, can add English syntax to columns of numbers, can autopublish fact-based stories about the Rio Olympics, can even report on election results. In other words, AI takes over the grunt work. And scales it.

The Washington Post’s artificial intelligence system, Heliograf, created more than 500 articles in November 2016, mostly about the US Presidential election. The next step, according to reporting by Wired, is for “Heliograf to keep the data in both machine- and human-written stories up-to-date. For instance, if someone shares a Tuesday story on Thursday, and the facts change in the meantime, Heliograf will automatically update the story with the most recent facts.”

What AI can’t do yet — and I’d venture to say it never will — is the in-depth reporting, the human-interest stories, the underlying connection, the nuance and the creativity. AI can’t plan an editorial calendar and interview customers for case studies. AI can’t build relationships with influencers or host a webinar that anyone would want to listen to.

“Modern buyers have a general lack of trust,” said Brian Carroll, CEO of markempa, a consulting firm that specializes in empathy-based marketing, in an email interview. “They are time constrained, too busy to think and don’t want to be sold. So what do buyers do with our content and marketing messages? They simply ignore them. You can’t automate trust. Building trust takes time.”

A big part of the reading, viewing, or listening experience is the connection we feel with the human who created the content — the trust and rapport that’s built when that person provides us with information we need or value. If the content marketing we’re producing doesn’t have any personality to it, and if our consumers struggle to imagine that there’s a human being behind what we produce, we’re probably doing it wrong.

“AI and tools can’t replace our intuition either,” Carroll says. “But technology can help us have time to make choices and spend more time doing things that build trust. That might be opening Outlook and sending a personal message. Or picking up the phone talk to your potential customers. It is critical to know what customers want to serve them better.”

What this means for content marketers

Maximize your human skills, including learning how to talk to people, how to negotiate, how to manage change, how to manage people, how to plan complex projects, how to envision and communicate project requirements. Perhaps most importantly, learn how to effectively execute AI solutions and analyze the output. In other words, you’ve got to have both people skills and robot skills.

4. AI makes a better copilot, so put on your pilot cap and scoot over

Even the best-automated systems require extensive customization and a lot of human interaction. If they don’t, it’s unlikely they’re producing anything of real value.

A new skill that will arise on content teams will be the ability to successfully manage various software systems and algorithms so they produce the right kind of output. And there still need to be humans driving the decision-making. As Andrew Davies recently wrote:

“While marketing automation promises the world, what it actually does is automate the execution of content marketing, while decision-making remains an impractically manual effort. It offers marketers a strong workflow and even insights, but fails to provide an automated way to act on those insights at scale."

Still, the insights and workflow tools AI offers today were unimaginable just a few years ago:

  • AI can identify trending conversations across the internet, taking the guesswork out of deciding what topics will be in demand — but a human still has to create content that capitalizes on the trend.
  • AI can automatically personalize website content for individual users — but a human still has to determine how to subdivide the users and what content to show at which stage.
  • AI within work-management software can balance individual and team workloads, automatically assigning work based on skill profiles and availability — but a human needs to oversee the system’s suggestions and override them when necessary.
  • AI is making inroads into product pricing, email content curation, sales forecasting, social-media content curation, web design, customer service, PPC advertising, churn prediction, and more — and the human touch is needed in each of these areas, too.

What this means for content marketers

Sharpen your decision-making skills. As intelligent as today’s AI solutions are, they won’t select themselves from their many competitors, decide they’re the right solution for your needs, or insert themselves into your workflow. And once you have a solution on board, you have to decide how to leverage it and what to do with all the new data it generates for you. Make decisions, fail fast and move on.

Facing an automated future

Artificial intelligence is still a first-generation technology, and terrifying tech forecasts never come to fruition as quickly as expected or in quite the way we imagined. (Remember, visions of the 21st century revolved around flying cars, not pocket-size supercomputers).

Are there some content marketing jobs that will be in jeopardy in an automated future? Sure. And it’s important to note that because AI is capable of learning and improving, the pace of change and innovation will only get faster from here.

But so far, all artificial intelligence has done is open the door for ever-increasing content personalization, provide more insights than we know what to do with, and automate the grunt work we don’t want to do anyway — freeing us up for more creative pursuits.

It’s what we do with that extra time that will determine our fate. Will we allow AI to take over the manual tasks that are holding us hostage, currently leaving us with just 44% of each day to focus on our primary job duties? Will we leverage AI to become better communicators, better writers, better decision-makers, and better all-around humans? It’s entirely up to us.