The robot apocalypse is not yet upon us

As we enter the ever-braver new world of big data, or simply ‘the information age’, one of the biggest challenges is how to harness information. And beyond harnessing, applying it usefully to marketing. And beyond that … well, some people believe the machines will take over.

Marketing automation is an idea that gets bandied about a fair bit. We are talking here about machines so clever, that they can predict what it is you are going to need next, and be able to communicate with you accordingly.  So for instance, they will know that you should be upgraded to a new phone plan, or perhaps that you should be subscribing to certain channels, or could get a cheaper rate on a service based on your usage. Or that because you bought X, you will really want to buy Y.

To date, most New Zealanders will have been recipients of some automated offers, however witting or otherwise they were about them. But they are still thoroughly in the minority. There’s a reason for this.  We are a long way from really understanding behaviour well enough through analytics to easily automate anything other than the most obvious of marketing tasks. Why’s that?  

Well, largely because of a skills shortage and also a general backlog to really get to grips with legacy systems and the sheer explosion of information.

There’s a scramble across marketing departments nationwide to hire analysts to help with all this, and if you are exiting university right now with a good degree in statistics and a little bit of business savvy, the world is your oyster.  

Or is it?

Wily software developers have hit upon a clever idea – cut out the middleman, and offer marketing automation systems that do it all for you. The machine will work out what customers should get next. It’s a brilliant solution – sit the robot in the corner and let it take the strain, and you can do something else, and hopefully you won’t need all those pesky analysts with their long hair, tie-dye waistcoats, and Star Wars figurines on their desks.

However, there is a wee snag. Someone has to tell the machine what to do, monitor the machine, and coach it along the way. There aren’t a lot of people with degrees in ‘robot coaching’ and so this also is a good wheeze for the software developers to charge a lot of money helping the machine work things out.  

We’ve been here before. I’m old enough to remember the first years of CRM systems, when we paid eye-watering amounts of money for systems that only the marketing department really wanted, but then expected IT to support and sales teams to adopt instead of scraps of paper and their own memory.  

Many of these turned into expensive white elephants, or at best glorified mailing list systems, because they hadn’t been sold through the organisation properly and set back CRM by years due to the long memory of cynical chief financial officers.  

I’m pleased to report that the sort of projects like that I’ve been involved with in recent few years have genuinely been embraced organisation wide, which makes a world of difference; having the CFO on board is even better. But I digress.  
The issue for marketing automation systems is going to be that most organisations simply aren’t ready to adopt them; they need to go on a bit of journey to learn a lot more about their customers before they invest in software which is likely to be overtaken by cheaper better alternatives within a couple of years.

How they get to that stage is hard graft. Start by hiring smart marcomms people who understand database marketing and CRM; hire good analysts, develop meaningful campaigns and test everything; and then, start thinking about how you elevate that into an automated system.

Some automated systems can learn with you, so you can do both at once, but anyone thinking the robot is a silver bullet overlooks the fact that even after all these years we fundamentally still need people to pilot spaceships, drive trains and aircraft, and boil an egg.

  • Ben Goodale is managing director of justONE and .99. 
  • This story originally appeared in the May/June edition of NZ Marketing.

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