Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Marketing


Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah at Inbound 2016

At Inbound 2016, HubSpot’s co-founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah entertained 19,000 attendees with their take on the past and future of marketing. Here’s what I learned from their keynote presentation and a brief interview.

2017 will be the year of the bot. So predicts Halligan, adding “in five years, you will do a lot less navigating through apps and more just asking questions and chatting back and forth with bots… the next thing you know, we like it and it’s easier and more efficient than waiting for the sales rep to call you back.” Shah notes that businesses started building websites in the 1990s so they can answer customer questions 24/7. “Soon,” he says, “they will start building bots. They won’t replace the websites, but they will power them. The shortest time between a customer question and the answer will be a bot. It’s not human vs. bot, it’s human to the bot powered.” (HubSpot’s recent contribution to the bot power movement: Growthbot).

The “marketing conversation” will become a human-machine conversation. That the essence of marketing is a “conversation” between a business (or any “brand”) and its customers and potential customers has been a marketing tenet (and cliché) for a long time. While that conversation has been conducted over the last twenty years increasingly through a computer screen with the help of a keyboard, it is now transforming into human-machine conversation. “The conversational UI,” says Shah, “is going to be an even bigger leap in software than we had with the shift to Web-based software. We are all re-thinking now how to build products.” It’s the most natural way to engage, interact, market and sell: “We will have voice input because it’s much more efficient [than typing] and visual output because it’s more efficient than listening—we can see and read and scan much faster that we can listen. I don’t think screens are going away but the keyboard is likely going to be less and less prevalent.”

AI will accelerate marketing and sales. “In the next few years,” says Shah, we are going to have autonomous, self-driving, marketing automation.” Machine learning will improve sales and marketing software by giving it “the ability to do things without us explicitly telling it what to do.” As a result, tasks such as predictive lead scoring, content recommendations, and email acquisition will get a lot better. Another interesting example Shah pointed to is what he calls ” for leads”—Automatically routing leads to the right sales person based on analysis of the data about the lead and about the sales people.

Marketers will not be replaced by AI and will be able to skip the boring stuff. “Anything that seems rote or mechanical,” says Shah, “there is no reason for humans to do—it’s all going to go to AI.” Marketers will continue to be involved, however, with anything that has to do with creativity and they will focus on “understanding the customer, figuring out what the overall positioning is, having actual conversations with other humans. More interaction design is what marketers will do rather than the mechanics of marketing.” Bots working in the background as virtual assistants will help with the kind of work we (especially sales people) don’t like to do, such as updating the CRM.

Algorithm development will become a commodity and data will become the key differentiator. Now that you can buy algorithms off-the-shelf, “mere mortals like me don’t have to learn about machine learning per se,” says Shah. “More companies, including HubSpot, will start doing things that we thought required 100 PhDs. The winners will be the ones that have the data that can feed the machine learning algorithm.”

The Link Graph is going to be replaced by the Engagement Graph. Google has gained fame and fortune because it has built the best link graph, indexing and mapping the connections between all Web pages, determining content quality by popularity, i.e., inbound links.  Amazon has built the Product Graph and today, more than 50% of people looking for a product, first turn to Amazon. Facebook has built the Social Graph linking 1.79 billion people, and they use its search box 2 billion times a day. But the future belongs to the Engagement Graph where the quality of content is determined by the number of people listening, interacting, getting engaged.

Ten years ago, Halligan and Shah took the idea of inbound links and applied it to sales and marketing. Giving birth to “inbound marketing” and to HubSpot, they understood that the Web changed how people buy. In this new customer landscape, blanketing the market with generic ads and messages and press releases was not going to work as it did before. Instead, businesses, especially small businesses, should get potential buyers to want to come to them, to find them just like they find a good and relevant Web page. With high quality, helpful, and engaging content, they can gain the buyer’s trust and loyalty.

In his keynote presentation, Halligan enumerated what has changed over the last ten years since the inception of inbound marketing and HubSpot:

2006    2016
Fight for an inch on a 4-foot shelf     Battle for a millimeter on an infinite shelf
Buyers read all day     Buyers watch video all day
Google helps you find answers     Google gives you the answer
Pay per click     Pay per lead
The website augments the salesperson     The salesperson augments the website
Buyer expects to get value after purchase     Buyer expects to get value before purchase

Ten years ago, Halligan and Shah imagined not only the soul of the new marketing—the new type of content you need to produce to get the buyers’ attention—but also the new food for the soul—data. To succeed with inbound marketing, you need to have all the data at your fingertips, the data about what people do on your website, and the data about these people and the needs and desires they represent. “We are a data play,” says Halligan. “The fun part of our job is to try and predict the future and build a platform that will match that future.”

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