What Chatbots Are Teaching Us About the Future of Marketing

Closing the gap between man and machine

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Chatbots are treated like the simpletons of the artificial intelligence world, overshadowed by movie-trailer-creating Watson and its ilk, or the suggestion engines of huge etailers.

David Shing  Alex Fine

But a good implementation of a simple chatbot requires a deft understanding of the interplay between man and machine. And as technology slingshots us forward, the comprehension of this "in-between" space will be a prerequisite for any brand or advertiser hoping to make it in a world profuse with new and amazing digital experiences.

When, and how, do we "hand off" the experience from the machine to the human, and vice versa?

Programmatic targeting is facing a similar issue, in an industry unsure how the coupling mechanism between man and machine should work. Sure, The New York Times has accurate data on its audience, but it also has a deep journalistic history and pedigree—this context, of course, is lost on a programmatic robot. It takes a human touch to correctly leverage this pedigree. The Times, drawing on that brand experience, focuses thoughtful curation and co-creation through its T Brand Studios to close that gap and further increase the trust its consumer has in its brand (while bringing other brands along as well).

Programmatic, specifically, calls out for creative disruption. We can reach the right person at the right time in the right place, millions of times a day. There's no arguing that we've created an incredible system in our digital galaxy, punching holes in the architecture that we could use to guide and inspire consumers. But it all falls apart without creativity. We're still struggling with that handoff: Programmatic tech gives us such incredible and detailed access but requires truly innovative and creative stories only humans can put together.

The challenge will be thinking about creative from a whole different view: Can we have creative that scales? That customizes itself? We find ourselves hurtling toward another handoff from man to machine—what larger system of creative or complex storytelling structure can I design such that a machine can use it appropriately and effectively?

Therein lies the real challenge—finding the correct interplay and balance between man and machine. This is not a battle. The regularly touted man vs. machine conflict simply does not and should not exist, especially when it comes to brands and marketing.

Data feeds the weak AI we have now, and it produces spectacular results. But eventually, humanity must intervene, as evidenced by Microsoft's Twitter experiment or Facebook's censorship debacles. Clearly, man still has a huge edge in understanding cultural context, proprietary and much more. But just as clear is the machine's ability to perform quickly and accurately at scales beyond human comprehension.

I finished up this piece on a bus rolling through a typhoon in Tokyo. A quick trip to Google will show you how obsessed Japanese are with packaging. In a world where everything comes in a brown Amazon box, perhaps packaging is not something we think about as much anymore—but of course, I do. Packaging is perhaps the earliest physical form of marketing and differentiation. If done correctly, packaging does one of two things: It disappears smoothly into the background of our consciousness because it is so seamless, beautiful and convenient; or it adds a dimension of delight and wonder to the unboxing process (à la Apple). I consider chatbots to be brands' attempt to package themselves for social media.

And the man-machine handoff is a central problem in our continued development of social media. We've created all these social networks to facilitate and augment our interactions. Now all we do is complain about how they've made interacting more difficult, more awkward, less real. It's a quixotic paradox: How do we design for interactions that are not meant to be noticed? How do we package something in such a way that it melts into the background or becomes, itself, a meaningful part of the experience?

Clearly, chatbots and other similar attempts to bridge the man-machine gap have not made it there yet. They are annoyingly noticeable and more disruptive than delighting. But the question of perfect synergy between man and machine is of tantamount importance because we sit on the verge of widespread AR, VR and 360 video adoption.

These technologies demand something better, seamless, creative and novel. In completely immersive experiences, any cracks in the interplay between man and machine are immediately obvious and immediately drops the viewer out of the experience.

We have a great opportunity ahead of us with these emerging technologies. But we must be sure we continue to best serve the consumer, protect our pedigree and truly understand that the conflict between humanity and technology is not a conflict at all. It is more like a big, fat media wedding.

David Shing (@shingy) is AOL's digital prophet.

This week's illustration was created in partnership with students from the Baltimore Academy of Illustration. Below is a full gallery of their submissions and links to their portfolios.

Amanda DiGiondomenicoPortfolio

Cait May Portfolio | Tumblr

Camden YandelPortfolio | Tumblr

Chelsea DemitrasPortfolio

On On LaoPortfolio

George BierlyPortfolio

Stephanie SmithPortfolio


This story first appeared in the October 31, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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