Have we Reached a Marketing Technology Singularity?

In the technology world, a “singularity” is the point where self-improving programs achieve runaway growth in computing power, signalling the end of the human era, and when the number of calculations per second is so high virtually anything is computable at any time.  Of course, we’re some distance away from reaching that pinnacle with tech in general, but it seems like marketing technology gets closer every day on two key fronts.

We beam gigabytes through the open air instantaneously, and think nothing of it…

First, the computer power to crunch marketing campaigns has essentially become limitless.  Today’s (primarily) cloud-based applications and storage support even the largest, most demanding companies in the world by storing billions upon billions of records, querying, updating, and simulating activity in real time at a point that was inconceivable 20 years ago.  There are those of us who remember watching in awe as a ZIP drive wrote almost 100 megs of data to a portable disk (very slowly, I might add).  Today, we beam gigabytes through the open air instantaneously, and think nothing of it.  There might be a few specialized areas I’m not aware of, but I highly doubt that most marketers overly worry about whether or not infrastructure can support their needs; or, if they do, it’s because of volume spikes and other events that can be planned around with some forward thinking.

Sitecore’s CEO, Michael Seifert, announced a major new initiative to support cloud-based delivery and integrate an enterprise e-commerce storefront…

Second, and perhaps more importantly, we appear to be reaching a point where marketing technology is converging on certain key capabilities regardless of the platform.  This is apparent at both the technology provider and implementation level, and it is leading to some interesting crossovers.  For example,  the primary focus at the Sitecore Conference in New Orleans in September wasn’t managing content.  Despite being a leader in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Web Content Management systems (WCM) and powering thousands of enterprise class sites around the world, robust content capabilities were barely referenced by the company, the speakers, or the partners.  Instead, the event was all about “contextual intelligence” and “cross-channel delivery,” otherwise known as personalized omni-channel marketing automation, AKA the customer journeys we hear so much about.

These two themes were repeated shortly thereafter at the Dreamforce Conference in San Francisco (also in September), but before jumping to the West Coast, I should note that e-commerce and the cloud are hot topics as well, certainly part of the convergence.  Sitecore’s CEO, Michael Seifert, announced a major new initiative to support cloud-based subscriptions and  integrate an enterprise e-commerce storefront with the contextual intelligence and other tools.  He described it as the world’s first fully integrated .NET solution for WCM, Online Marketing, and e-Commerce.  Of course, their competition would beg to differ and, sure enough, if you visit www.kentico.com, you’ll see them pushing their “all-in-one” package, describing their solution as “the only fully integrated ASP.NET CMS, E-commerce, and Online Marketing platform that allows you to create cutting-edge websites and optimize your digital customers’ experiences fully across multiple channels.”

Of course, Sitecore and Salesforce aren’t the only ones.  Microsoft and Oracle have similar solutions, as does IBM and a new competitor out of Canada, Marapost…

Back to Dreamforce:  Salesforce has always been a leader in the cloud, but, in recent years, they’ve talked a lot less about their CRM and a lot more about their 1-to-1 journey and analytics capabilities, now with new AI software, and, while they don’t technically have a CMS, there is some cross over in capabilities with the ability to support landing pages and microsites through both Marketing Cloud and Pardot.

Meaning, we’re seeing traditionally disparate software platforms with completely different histories and original intended usages agree on a few key items.  First, marketing systems need to support diverse delivery mechanisms — content on the web, mobile, text message, email, social media marketing, display advertising, etc, all from the same spot.  Second, this content needs to be personalized based on whatever data is available.  Third, this content needs to be tracked in all its versions.  Fourth, the cloud is where the action is on the implementation side (or at least providers like the constant subscription revenue).

 More intense competition from larger, more diverse suppliers coupled with a smaller number of systems required to support your initiatives.

Of course, Sitecore and Salesforce aren’t the only ones.  Microsoft and Oracle have similar solutions, as does Adobe, IBM and a new competitor out of Canada, Maropost.  There continue to be differences in each platform and their approach with strengths and weaknesses based on their respective histories, but the pattern seems to be clear:  We’re converging on features based on personalized, omni-channel delivery powered by automation and machine learning, and it won’t be long before one or all of these platforms is making a pitch as the one system to rule them all (assuming they haven’t gotten there already).

Generally speaking, this should be an exciting development for marketers:  More intense competition from larger, more diverse suppliers coupled with a smaller number of systems required to support your increasingly complex initiatives.  For many of us struggling with system overload (is that in our CRM or data warehouse or on the website?), it sounds like a dream come true, but potential problems could arise.

If one tool will rule them all, you need to make sure you are purchasing the ideal solution from the start…

First, it means that the selection of any individual system is going to be even more important than ever as it’ll do more than ever.  If one tool will rule them all, you need to make sure you are purchasing the ideal solution from the start, and it’s going to be very hard to change once you’ve sunk thousands if not millions into a platform.  It’s also going to be potentially expensive to support several systems at once.  I doubt many of us are going to spend tens of thousands on the Marketing Cloud after investing in a Sitecore website if the personalized marketing tools are roughly equivalent.

Second, it means you could experience more restrictions and limitations.  Yes, it might be easier to avoid integrating systems, but you’ll lose some of the unique tailoring and customization we currently enjoy.  Continuing the example above, there might be some feature in platform A that is better than platform B, but between the increased cost and complexity there will be little value in the investment.

Where do we go from here?

I would recommend taking a more long-term, thoughtful, and dare-I-say-cautious approach starting immediately.  Instead of sending out an RFP for a WCM, consider how it might be used as a marketing automation or personalized engagement tool as well, and don’t be afraid to think beyond the immediate needs.  We should also start evaluating systems that weren’t really competitors just a few years ago, like shopping a sports car against an SUV, and looking at our software spend as a single investment across several functional needs — perhaps you can go open source on your WCM and save money if you are lining up with Salesforce for your CRM and online marketing.  This should help us make more informed decisions, and give everyone a better sense of how these tools are being used by leading edge companies.

In my next post, I’ll delve into the dream of a fully functioning, fully integrated CRM in All I Want for Christmas is a Fully Functioning CRM and how we can work backward to achieve short and long term goals, but I believe it will serve the entire industry well if all of us start thinking more holistically before the new year even begins.

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Salesforce Einstein vs The Real Deal

The AI craze is officially upon us with the majority of marketing and consumer technology providers promoting some form of advanced machine learning, and some of the leading minds in business and academia like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking warning of an imminent computer revolution right out of James Cameron’s Terminator film-series, or perhaps more topically after the season finale last night and my post last week, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa’s Joy’s Westworld.

One of the latest entries in the rapidly evolving space is Salesforce’s Einstein, an AI that the leading CRM and cloud solution provider claims is “built into the core” of the Salesforce platform.  Einstein promises to be your own personal data scientist and assist with discovering insights, predicting outcomes, determining next best steps, and automating tasks.  The language used to describe Einstein is very human, a far cry from the antiseptic modeling language of earlier incarnations of similar software, and he even has a cute little graphic representation.  Is the revolution already upon us?

Computers are barely scratching the surface of a small portion of human talent…

As usual in the marketing world, one needs to separate fact from fiction, and the truth lies somewhere in between.  It’s a fact that big data, ridiculously fast processing power, and increasingly sophisticated algorithms are completely changing our perception of what computers are capable of, and that some of the latest and greatest software and devices can seem intelligent at times.  It’s also a fact that this new technology has real benefits for marketers as they seek to engage in truly personalized interactions with their visitors.

Thanks to solutions like Einstein, the same types of technologies that power a brief exchange with Siri that resembles a real conversation or Google’s predictions about where you’re headed on a road trip, can be applied to your marketing campaigns.  This offers your organization the benefit of ever more sophisticated and targeted models to uncover new relations among your customers and prospects, and the ability to improve engagement by personalizing interactions in real time.

These are truly amazing developments in the marketing world, and they will change the way we plan campaigns, segment customers, and measure ROI, but, getting back to the original topic, is any of this truly intelligence in the human sense of the term?  Or, more dramatically, do we need to be worried about the future of the human race if we set Einstein loose on our target audiences?

For example, a Presidential election forecasting model that…well, there’s part of the problem in a nutshell…

That’s a far more difficult question to answer, partially because intelligence itself is very difficult to define, and there are a lot of behaviors — memory, creativity, intuition, reasoning, etc. — that are usually blended together when we’re talking about the general subject of human intelligence.  No offense to Mr. Musk, Mr. Hawking, Mr. Cameron, or Mr. Salesforce,  but I believe computers are barely scratching the surface of an exceedingly small portion of human talent, and that a lot of what we are seeing with the AI craze is anthropomorphic language over-selling a certain type of data-driven analysis.

At its most extreme, I think it is fair to say that current technology is capable of (very) limited forms of what we would traditionally call deductive and inductive reasoning, though even that is a stretch given that the algorithms that actually draw conclusions from the data are written in advance by human programmers.  In the deductive case, the appropriate algorithm and associated databases are designed to draw conclusions based on multiple premises.  For example, I often go to my mother’s house on the weekend, therefore if I am traveling on the road I usually take to her house and it is a Saturday afternoon, Google assumes that’s my destination; Google might even give me the time to her house in advance every Saturday morning.

The inductive case is a bit more complicated.  A  large amount of premises that are either true or mostly true are turned into specific predictions.  This is usually done with the assistance of a living and breathing data scientist, where the computer crunches the numbers and the human reviews the output.  For example, a Presidential election forecasting model that…well, there’s part of the problem in a nutshell.  Models are nice and neat; the real world is a lot more messy and difficult to capture in terms of the discreet data points that feed both artificial intelligence approaches.  While a certain marking persona has the propensity to be a new customer, that doesn’t mean that an actual person will be one.

It’s dealing with this very messiness via the human capacity for intuition and ingenuity that has yet to be replicated by a machine, and — in my opinion — remains an essential part of true marketing intelligence, but before we return to the marketing world let’s consider the real Albert Einstein, usually known as one of the most brilliant minds to ever walk the Earth.  How does his Salesforce-branded AI mascot stack up?

While a certain marking persona has the propensity to be a new customer, that doesn’t mean that an actual person will be one…

I think most scientific historians would acknowledge that Einstein’s greatest gift was the ability to make incredible intuitive leaps, to combine completely unconnected data in entirely new ways that ultimately invalidate (some of) the old assumptions and data. In Special Relativity, it was assuming that the ether didn’t exist at all and there was no privileged frame of reference.  In General Relativity, otherwise known as gravity, it was the idea that acceleration and gravity are the same.

Furthermore, the key insights often came from simple thought experiments.  For General Relativity, Einstein imagined an individual in outer space in a windowless elevator, if the elevator was being pulled upward at the same acceleration as Earth’s gravity exerts downward, the individual would have no means to determine if he or she was accelerating or in a gravitational field.  He also imagined that if you were to jump from a very high building along with some office supplies, everything would fall down at the same rate and — for a while at least — it would seem that you weren’t subject to the effects of gravity and that you were in free fall in outer space, therefore acceleration can also cancel gravity’s effects.

This kind of insight and imagination — or dare we call it storytelling — isn’t subject to reason or modeling until after a living, breathing Einstein makes the mental leap.  In Einstein’s case, these leaps lead to assumptions that lead to some of the most powerful ideas in human history.

Identifying and engaging customers without us worrying about the fate of the world…

In short, this isn’t the kind of conclusion Salesforce’s Einstein is going to make anytime soon.  While the revolution will likely be televised, it’s still several generational leaps of technology in the future.  In the meantime, we can safely enjoy the benefits of big data and machine learning as they make our personal and professional lives easier.

In other words, let Google keep helping us avoid traffic, and the new Salesforce Einstein identifying and engaging customers without us worrying about the fate of the world.  Let’s also be sure to remember that marketing is both art and science; machines can help round out the science, but humans are needed to develop truly engaging stories and exercise creative judgment on how best to connect with other humans.  This is true for marketing topics large and small; we can discuss further over my next post, Google vs Google:  Do You Need Best Practices for Your Best Practices?

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