Marketer Automation: meet your robot overlords

Robo-Handley

You know how you go into a convenience store or supermarket and instead of, say, eight check-out people there are now four self-checkout machines and maybe one person?

And how one of the seven people they fired now has a temporary job training customers how to use the robo-checkouts instead of bothering the paid meat?

I always feel bad about that. Sometimes I say to the temporary concierge-person: “You do realise these things are taking your jobs away, don’t you?” and they shrug.

Well, this morning over coffee (okay, on the loo) it occurred to me that most people in most marketing departments are that morose guy — we just don’t know it yet.

As marketing automation kicks in, marketing departments everywhere will be able to do a LOT more with a LOT fewer people.

No, really:

My brothers and I toured the distilleries of Islay a few years ago.  One of them Bruichladdich (wonderful, unpeated, honey notes) employed about 35 people to make their whisky. Another, Laphraoiag (super smoky, dense, peaty) was run by two people and a lot of automated machines. Two people to produce one of the world’s most popular brands of single malt.

Couldn’t happen to us.

Technology has always taken jobs away from people. The few examples I cited above are just a few of the robot-replacements that happened during my lifetime. (In fact, there are many, many more. When I was a kid, New York City still had some ‘elevator men‘.)

The thing is, past advances in technology tended to also create more jobs than they destroyed. And the new jobs were better ones.

Computer/Internet advances may not work that way — in fact, it looks like they may replace way more jobs than they create.
A recent issue of Wired reported on a 2013 study by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of the University of Oxford. They looked at 702 types of jobs in the United States and rated the likelihood that technology would displace workers in those jobs over the next 10 to 20 years.
They concluded that a whopping 47 percent employees have a high risk of being displaced by technology, and 19 percent have a medium risk. Gulp.
I never used to think ‘people like me’ — you know, Knowledge Workers (as opposed to the hordes of knowledge-free workers) – were vulnerable.

But I’m starting to think that’s wrong. And that the automatons will also replace a hell of a lot of thinking jobs.

For marketers, the writing is on the wall (and its in javascript).

Look at the largest marketing departments and you’ll see a hell of a lot of what can only be called digital plumbing. Marketing automation, lead nurturing, CRM, interaction engines, personalization tools, testing & optimization platforms…

All of this stuff is there to respond to our prospects’ behavioural triggers. Or offer them the most relevant products and content. Or nudge them back to their abandoned shopping carts. Or follow up with helpful suggestions.

And an awful lot of this stuff can be done with zero human intervention (once they’re set up). In fact, they’re done far better with zero human intervention.

If the modern marketing team (at least in B2B) is essentially building and operating a revenue distillery, then the future is the Laphraoiag model, not the Bruichladdich one. A couple people ought to be enough to watch over the machines that process intention into income for some of the world’s biggest brands.

I’m starting to think that we’ll all look back at the 2010-2030 era as the time when human marketers built the infrastructures that would make human marketers unnecessary.

Yeah, but can the bastards write puns?

Of course this can’t possibly apply to ‘creatives’ (another title, like knowledge workers, that denies a basic human function to all but the in-crowd).

Really?  Why not?

If BuzzFeed robots can test a hundred headlines and run with the winner, surely another robot can generate those headlines. They may not be Bill Bernbach but they’ll be a lot better than a lot of the emails I get (today, a bit of hotel spam invited me to ‘imbibe’ in their renovated bar. Even RoboWriter 1.0 in beta will out-perform shit like this).

Designers aren’t safe either. Dynamic Creative modules are already generating banner ads on the fly from pre-digested digital objects. The best WordPress templates look a hell of a lot better than most human-crafted websites. Yes, these templates were originally created by a human, but the templates will live far longer than the designers who made them.

What can we do about this?

Um. Not much, really.

Most of the impact will probably hit after you and I retire. Our kids might be out of luck though. Or their kids.

All we can do is continue to build the next generation of marketing infrastructure and try to forget that the little toenail you’re slotting into place will one day be attached to a big, fucking foot.

Geez, this turned out way more depressing than I intended.

Sorry about that.

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Update:

I just watched ‘Humans Need Not Apply’,  the video that Ryan Skinner recommended in the comment below. Now, I’m REALLY scared.  I actually started this post as a half-joke (ha-ha, robots will never replace snowflakes like ME!); but the more I read about it, the scarier the picture became. This video kills it.

(Oh, and Harry’s WD-40 robot metaphor — also below — is kinda freaky too. But funny.)

Finally (probably not finally at all), Stella Bayles pointed me to Quill Engage, a tool that reads your Google Analytics and generates a very human-like report every week. Feel the breathing down your neck? Hear the hoof-beats?

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‘nother Update:

Automated Copywriting Startup Persado Raises $21million [OMG, they’re here. They’re here.  Thanks Agustin for this.]

How Robots Will Change the Future of Marketing – from Forbes.

Comments

I suddenly feel a little queasy. (Stupid human innards and feelings and such…)

To your point, we already have creative production tools like Canva, Infogram, and Directr that are starting to add technology elements around the otherwise human endeavor of producing work. So it’s already happening, it’s just currently supportive of humans, not replacing them. It’s not automated … yet.

But where I think we will always reign supreme as humans is in sitting on the couch and eating nachos, so luckily, the robots will help us get there soon.

There’s a nacho-eating sofa-bot in development somewhere, Jay.
No crumbs. No need to go for a pee.

I’ve certainly sat on some briefings for companies that are doing some of this stuff, and it certainly makes you say “wow! amazing!” while thinking “wow! terrifying!”. Kottke pointed me at this excellent video: http://kottke.org/14/08/humans-need-not-apply

My half-baked conclusion: We’re headed for a big, big shift akin to the creation of a middle-class with leisure time. This could look like a utopian future where all our needs are met and we can dedicate 100% of our time to abstract pottery, sushi classes, dream interpretation and sofa-diving. It could also look like an enormous class of unemployed people living on the edge of subsistence. An increasingly angry and desperate class.

Ideally all the extra leisure time isn’t spent starving or sofa diving but instead on doing other stuff that humans might be willing to pay for.

Like applying WD40 to the joints of the robots who’ve taken over the manufacturing processes at the WD40 plant.

This reminds me of the notion of “shadow work” — where machines increasingly take over the responsibilities other humans used to do, and we are left with the “shadow work” — shuttling groceries over the scanner, or booking our own flights, or oiling the robots (as Harendra suggests above). (<<love that, BTW.)

And to add gasoline to our pitty pyre over here… I often wonder how the concept extends daily life, where we allow technology do things for us that we used to do on our own. Thing that prevent us from learning. For example, I'm excellent at parallel parking — and I learned that the hard way: because I lived in Boston for five years. I hit a lot of car fenders, but dammit. I'm now great at it. My kids, meanwhile, can't parallel park without the use of a back-up camera.

Who am I to judge, though? Because I can barely make it to the mall without my GPS guiding the way.

That's the wonder and the menace of technology.

I'm sorry to drop my own link here, but I pondered that here, too:
Me and TomTom: True Love Always http://www.annhandley.com/2008/03/07/me-and-tomtom

I don’t know, Doug…Yes, we will have more and more automation in everything we do, but doing marketing automation requires more than an occasional touch-up, else it gets out of date pretty fast. I also don’t buy it that automation will do as good a job as a human for certain kinds of work – branding, great writing. It’s been tried in the journalism field, yes, but the results – for local papers, for example – have been terrible.

I also think the worse problem is not that marketers will lose their jobs, it’s that we as consumers are going to be subject to increasingly awful marketing in the guise of optimization. Will everything have an Upworthy-style headline?

I think the more things get automated, the more opportunities there will be for companies (and their marketers) to stand out for communicating like a human.

We ain’t seen nothing yet. Have you read The Circle by Dave Eggers? (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Circle-Dave-Eggers/dp/0804172293). That’s uncomfortably close to now.

You should read this too: https://medium.com/backchannel/the-deep-mind-of-demis-hassabis-156112890d8a Phrases like “”the exciting thing about these learning algorithms is they are kind of meta level. We’re imbuing it with the ability to learn for itself from experience, just like a human would do, and therefore it can do other stuff that maybe we don’t know how to program.” This is, of course, SkyNet come to life. When the likes of Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are signing petitions worried about AI then it is time to be concerned.

Perhaps it’ll end up like WALL-E (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0910970/). We humans will float about as blobs doing very little, kept happy with Soma?

Then again I realised that, as my children are becoming teenagers, I was facing the prospect of ferrying them round to their friends and picking them up from parties all the time. But soon I’ll be able to send the driverless car to get them. How good is that?

Humans Need Not Apply is crazy-scary and probably correct. There’s no reason to think that most marketing (and sales) can’t be automated, at least enough to do a better job than most humans. Even “creativity” usually boils down to considering new combinations of existing things (words, images, methods, concepts), and computers can try lots of different combinations much faster than people. Once they add some rules to eliminate the clearly untenable options (which has already happened), they will be vastly more efficient than people at creating good-enough results. Add their ability to dispassionately test which concepts work better, and they will beat human marketers pretty much every time.

Like Doug, I’ve found that every scenario I look at along these lines ends up with the machines taking over the world. Pretty depressing but perhaps something we can avoid or turn to our advantage. In the shorter term, the question becomes more political — who benefits from the huge gains in productivity (=output per worker)? Income inequality is getting higher for exactly this reason (workers have not shared the benefits of productivity growth). This is something we can address, even if the machines will still take over in the end.

Doug has such a great sense of humor and I love everything he posts. Machines are taking over the world. In fact, truck drivers will be gone in ten years or so.

Jeff Ogden, President
Find New Customers
http://findnewcustomers.com

Harlan Ellison called it back in ’67 ~ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Have_No_Mouth,_and_I_Must_Scream

In marketing automation helps a lot but it is not that 100% solution to everything. I am using infusionsoft from many months and I see it has increased my ROI and campaign builder is really powerful.

Thanks
Adam

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