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The generative AI race is well underway, and we’re already seeing applications in advertising and marketing for creative ideation and development. This includes one of the key pillars of digital advertising—search. As consumers, we have grown accustomed to being overwhelmed with ads and information in search engines, while being underwhelmed by experiences and results from brands on their own sites.
In the last six months, the breadth and pace of innovation has been intense. Google has had more core updates and helpful content updates targeting potential misuses of gen AI. At the same time, they’ve expanded their own use of their Search Generative Experience, which is constantly improving and prompting important debates in the SEO community. Microsoft’s Bing has expanded its partnership with OpenAI, and CEO Satya Nadella’s annual shareholder letter could have been called the “Copilot chronicle” expansion. This doesn’t even cover the mind-blowing expansion of image generation and other advancements over this same period of time.
Brands must recalibrate their approach to harness the potential of these emerging technologies. Gen AI is revolutionizing online search experiences with three pivotal shifts every brand should keenly understand.
Dialogue over monologue
For over 25 years, people have become accustomed to using shorthand when searching for something online. Searching in keywords is a skill that grows increasingly complex as the amount of available online content skyrockets, and by using more keywords in each query, people have attempted to find more precise or helpful information. This is often termed the “long tail” of search and has also caused a gap between how people normally speak with how they search online.
For instance, if someone’s ankle is hurting, they might type into a search engine, “ankle pain lower heel.” Today, this kind of search will usually return a list of monologues, such as nearby orthopedic surgeons or conditions where pain could be indicative of something serious. Alternatively, conversational AI is now able to begin a dialogue, perhaps by asking basic questions like, “How long has your ankle been hurting?” Instead of just trying to rank with SEO for a string of keywords, gen AI will enable marketers to help people refine their concerns or questions through natural, humanized conversations.
For marketers, these dialogues will drive massive changes in their quest for personalization. With conversational AI as the interface, consumers can share exactly what they want to share, and brands can focus on great responses instead of suboptimal guesses. Once consumers become more comfortable with engaging in a dialogue, the days of creepy targeted ads and invasions of consumer privacy will be over. When a consumer freely offers details on what they seek and why, the brand can leverage that zero-party data to personalize their experience. Trust is built through dialogues, not infinite monologues algorithmically ranked in search engine results.
Most importantly, these AI-driven dialogues open unprecedented opportunities for brands to engage each person individually. AI-powered discussions will meet every consumer where they are in terms of their language, reading level, cadence and more—an entirely new level of cognitive accessibility.
Offers, not ads
The future of AI-powered conversations points to sweeping changes in brands’ approach to advertising. Today, significant portions of ad budgets are spent on merely defending objective search questions in top search engines: “What time does [brand] store open?” “Does [brand] have [service] available near me?” These types of questions often require defensive ad expenditure, even though the question is clearly for a particular brand. But competitors bid on these brand terms and similar keywords to try to disintermediate the consumer from their brand.
Instead of defending their brand, marketers will be able to shift from ads to offers with gen AI. 90% of consumers find targeted ads intrusive and annoying—often to the point of depleting the consumer experience. However, if a consumer has a trusted dialogue with a brand, sharing only the information necessary to get the answers they need, then brands can deliver truly individualized offers. For example, a consumer planning a trip could engage with a resort directly by first indicating interest in visiting, and the resort could ask questions such as what dates the consumer wants to travel and who they’ll be traveling with. After gathering specific information, the resort is well-equipped to share offers such as activity and room discounts relevant to the consumer and what they’re looking for.
Where in that exchange is an ad appropriate? Never. Conversations like these build trust and enable the brand to customize an offer that meets the needs of that individual customer. This is the future of offer-based interactions, directly controlled by a dialogue with the customer.
Moving from privacy-invasive ad models to trust-centric dialogue models will take time. But for objective questions—which often directly precede conversion and purchase decisions—brands will utilize gen AI aggressively to take back the consumer dialogue from centralized search systems that seek to monetize ad spend.
Subjective data over objective data
Gen AI’s transformation of search starts with a massive surge of AI or AI-human output. The internet is about to see infinite content growth that will clog classic, centralized search or force it to reconsider its algorithms. This is somewhat inevitable, as marketing monologues are still necessary to attract traffic. Despite cries of resistance from SEO strategists, the use of gen AI to create billions of relatively useless blog posts is well underway.
With infinite content comes infinite subjectivity and misinformation. However, objective facts about a singular business will only come directly from that business or brand. For instance, when a consumer searches “What time does Wendy’s open?” they don’t want to see irrelevant answers (or ads) from 10 other restaurants. Wendy’s should be known as the authority on this type of objective question, and a competitor shouldn’t spend ad money on these types of scenarios.
Compare this to subjective questions, where both ads and centralized search have inherent value. With seaches like “best burgers near me,” there is a genuine benefit for centralized search systems. The issue here, however, is that gen AI will cause such an explosion in subjective content that major search engines will need to carefully prioritize how to answer these questions. Reviews and digital opinions already suffer from inauthenticity, but the next wave of AI-generated subjective content will be impossible to prevent.
Once consumers become more familiar with objective search benefits, gen AI dialogue will create opportunities for brands to have honest conversations and find out what consumers want. A dialogue (through search and chat) powered by gen AI and authoritative knowledge graphs of information is the best way to get started.
Tech savviness has long been critical for marketers to succeed. And while gen AI’s impact on the industry is just beginning, now is the time for marketers to better understand how it affects and will affect search and chat. By embracing the opportunities AI creates—trust-centric dialogues and personalized offers based on objective data—marketers have more opportunities to personalize their campaigns and build deeper, more trusted relationships with their customers.