4 Ways to Catch Robots' Attention With Your Marketing

Artificial intelligence often first line of contact with consumers

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Decision-making consumers are a marketer's most important focus. Now imagine consumers having someone else deciding all their purchases—computers talking only to other computers, making decisions for their human "masters" without consulting them—deciding what foods they should eat, what detergent to use, what vacations to take. This isn't some dystopian Hollywood future. It's today's reality. We're all standing outside the club, hoping to get past the velvet ropes, and who is holding the clipboard? Robots.

Jason Alan Snyder  Illustration: Alex Fine

Here's a scary truth for modern marketers: We're trying to sell to the wrong decision makers—people—when we should be speaking with the robots and their people.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is already working on consumers' behalf behind the scenes all the time. AI robots know "BustyGirl69" isn't sending you emails you want, so those paeans to prurience go straight into your spam folder. AI robots suggest a scarf that similar users bought to go with those winter gloves you just ordered. AI robots know it's dinner time and show you nearby restaurants in your Waze map on your way home.

Whoever is closest to the consumer controls the conversation. But it's not you who's closest—it's the machines. The good news for marketers is that unlike fickle, demographic-defying consumers, robots are consistent—staying true to their programming. For now anyway. And talking to them requires speaking their language—and increasingly that language is less about understanding 1's and 0's and more about simple, normal words.

Robots have incredible power already. Say you purchase those gloves on Amazon, which, using its massive scale and data collection, extrapolates that you'll want a scarf, too. OK, but approximately 225,000 results appear for scarves. No one expects a consumer will wade through nearly a quarter-million options to buy a scarf. So Amazon offers options that similar users have purchased or viewed. The robots that decide what's shown have immense power, since users are far more likely to engage with "curated" options than browse through limitless options. Knowing how to entice those robots is one of the most important things you can do for your brand. (Anyone who's ever worked on an email campaign has probably already been thinking about this—if not, you should be.)

Machines are very good at tracking things (inventory, purchase history, etc.). If we want to sell to modern consumers, we need to make sure the machines think it's a good idea.

Back to laundry detergent. What drives your choice? Cost? Convenience? That Mom purchased a certain brand? Machines have one goal—to execute. Unlike us, they don't care about experience. Today's machines are unable to understand the subtle social and nonverbal cues people thrive on. That will change in the future—but for now machines simply see you're low on detergent and need more. Based on previous purchases, the machine knows your brand, what you're willing to spend, then emotionlessly, your new detergent arrives on your doorstep. Laundry crisis averted.

Of course, that doesn't mean we've given up all control. You can decide to change detergent brands. You could choose to eat fast food every day, but your AI fitness trackers will explode while you do it. Machines ultimately answer to us. But knowing how to talk to the machines, and how they talk to people, is one of the most important challenges in modern marketing.

No one advocates ignoring 50 percent of a potential audience, yet that's what marketers do by ignoring machines. Here are four of the most important approaches you need to take to get past those computerized velvet ropes:

Recraft your messaging: How you talk to humans and to machines isn't always the same. Wholly bypassing the robots—who control what can be seen or not—is a huge mistake. Create messaging that connects with what machines want (to give their humans the best, most data-appropriate option possible) and what people want, then you'll succeed.

Focus on sophistication: These unseen robots know more about us than many of our friends; they see us across a wide spectrum of moods, interests and needs. Increasing your brand's sophistication in parsing that information to find ways to get your brand in front of the robot's—and your customer's—eyes is mandatory.

Control the ecosystem: Consumers are comfortable with the established Apple or Facebook or Google or Amazon ecosystems (among others). You don't need to build a new one yourself—trying to create new behaviors fails 999 times out of 1000. Instead, go where people already are. Knowing how those ecosystems socialize your brand is an absolute must.

Don't fear robots: They're here to help us—to make our lives easier. Like loyal pets, they want to please. Talk to them appropriately, give them access to your brand so they can pass it along to your consumers. Robots are already here, and as AI gets smarter, more sophisticated and better integrated in our lives, we're ignoring some of our most important customers if we aren't including them in the conversation.

Jason Alan Snyder, chief technology officer at Momentum Worldwide, invented the mobile platform Jagtag and the Luci solar lantern. He's based in New York and tweets from @evil_robot.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 4 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.