How To Approach New AI-Based Marketing Technologies:
Questions To Ask
I'm sure you've heard statements like these recently, and probably at an accelerating pace. The business world, including marketing, has become obsessed with all manner of new technologies, most of which have some basis in artificial intelligence. This obsession is, I believe, a healthy one–provided the marketer's intrigue is handled in an appropriate, systematic and value-focused manner. If not, Shiny New Toy Syndrome (SNTS) is going to play out and result in a high potential for wasted time and money. How do marketers, then, approach new AI-based marketing technologies and avoid succumbing to the so-called SNTS?
Over the last year I've been thinking about this a lot because it is a really important aspect of a company's approach to today's (and tomorrow's!) tech-focused marketing landscape. I've talked to CMOs and CDOs from leading companies as part of the Oxford Future of Marketing Initiative, listened to and worked with participants (all senior executives) on the Oxford Strategic Marketing Program, an immersive week-long focus on all things new in marketing, and studied companies' successes and failures with implementing new marketing-related technologies. I've come to the conclusion that a systematic, well-thought-through approach is absolutely essential. This is all the more important when senior marketing leaders are finding themselves being asked by their CEOs, and in some cases their customers, to put new tech before anything else by doing things like developing an AR or VR app, launching an Alexa skill, or even building voice assistants such as Alexa or Google Home directly into their products.
The systematic approach I now advise leaders to adopt has six lines of questioning.
Will this marketing technology project be relevant to one or more of our existing customer segments?
Simple as it might sound, this is often forgotten. If what you're thinking of doing has nothing to do with anyone in your existing customer base, then there's no point in going ahead with it (for now, at least). Consider relevance first and foremost. But also keep in mind that there might be a valuable signal from doing something "techie" as it could suggest to your customers (and competitors, investors, board, C-suite) that your organization is tech savvy.
What are the benefits to our customers? What are the associated costs and risks?
I've written before here on Forbes.com about remembering that our fundamental responsibility as marketers is to create value for customers. This is the pathway to sustainable, long-term business growth, in my opinion. So it makes sense to see any new tech project through the customer value lens. For example, does introducing an AR app for trying different hair styles and colors, as the world's largest beauty company, L'Oréal, recently did, deliver more value to their customers? If it changes the core customer experience for the better, then great. If it adds a new touchpoint or set of touchpoints that customers will deem relevant and appreciate, fantastic. But if it is just tech for the sake of it without any direct connection to improving things from the customer perspective, then think twice about it.
Would testing or experimenting with this new tech teach us anything that could be useful later on? Is this worth investing in now (vs. waiting)?
Imagine what you're going to get before you jump in. For example, what new data streams will created and how might they better inform people inside your organization about meaningful things? Will this teach your people new things, or give them the motivation and opportunity to learn new things that are going to be useful? Think through these aspects, as it is often the case that a new tech project is going to be valuable internally from largely a learning standpoint. And then it is also worth deciding if now is the right time. Maybe waiting a bit (e.g., while new tech platforms' bugs are ironed out) isn't necessarily a bad thing. And perhaps you can learn vicariously by watching other companies jump in first–as long as it doesn't give them a major new competitive advantage over you, of course.
Do we have the internal capability or sufficient external partner/supplier networks do pull this off?
Seems straightforward to ask, but it is worth thinking about at this stage instead of deciding to go ahead and then figuring out how to implement. Ideally there will be some internal capability in place, but invariably external partners will be needed for particularly new things. The external route can be smart, as they have transferable expertise and learnings, and they in some sense can take on some of the risk.
How do we determine success or failure?
Also straightforward but often an afterthought when the SNTS is driving new tech project investments in marketing. Figure out what success (and, conversely, failure) looks like and set some KPIs–just like for any other strategic investment. Despite the uncertainty of something new, you can figure out some reasonable and meaningful KPIs. They probably won't be related to sales conversions, though. They should be connected to things like development of internal capabilities, learning outcomes, customer usage and engagement.
What do we do after the initial test project phase?
Finally, you need to give some thought to what comes next. If this thing succeeded, do you scale it up and invest more? Or do you remain a bit more cautious? What if it failed? Do you cut your losses or do you try to learn quickly (i.e., fail fast and learn) and move forward? It makes sense to think ahead about such things, even if it is impossible at the strategic planning phase to imagine all possible outcome scenarios.
Marketing leaders must be in the driver's seat when it comes to considering new tech projects in their organizations. Putting humans–customers, predominantly–first and technology second can be hard when there's increasing pressures from inside and outside the organization to do new things with tech. And new tech is cool and exciting! But to avoid distractions and to ensure that some value is being created, a careful systematic approach is useful. These six lines of questioning should be helpful to the marketing leader who is embracing tech in a thoughtful manner.
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