Marketing in the era of Cognitive

People talk about digital disruption as if it’s the biggest challenge facing businesses today.  Examples are plentiful – you only have to ask the taxi or hotel industry how much their business has been turned inside-out by the digital innovations brought to the table by Uber and AirBnB.

But is it really the use of digital leading the disruption?

Last week I attended in the World Business Forum in Sydney, in which the co-founder of the MIT Media Labs discussed a number of key inventions from the 50s and 60s, including an Uber-type model.  They created a computer program that could geo-locate people, and send cars to pick them up based on an optimisation algorithm.  So what’s different now?  Why has it taken 50 years to be commercialised and become mainstream?  No doubt the pervasive use of smartphones and digital technology played a significant role, but I propose the greatest disruption facing your business is you!

You, me, and the community of customers, consumers, colleagues and citizens around us.  Why?  Because with the simple flick of a finger we can SWIPE LEFT!!!

In the world of dating, we have the ability to swipe left.  We can reject potential suitors before they even get a chance to deliver their best sales pitch – based purely on the way they are perceived in that first impression.  We can swipe left on a bad hairstyle, on a questionable outfit, on the angle the photo has been taken.

But did you know your customers can swipe left on your marketing offers a well?  Mobile devices allow you to view your inbox with a preview sentence – without even opening an email, a customer can decide whether your mail is worthy of opening for a closer look, or simply swiping left to send it to the trash.  In a time when most companies still rely heavily on email marketing campaigns, how does it feel to know your latest catchy campaign may never see the light of day, simply because the customer has the power to swipe left?

Boring subject?  Swipe left!

Generic greeting?  Swipe left!

Wrong time of day?  Swipe left!

In a world where people are time-poor and technology-rich, how do you capture the attention of a moving market?

You’ve no doubt heard the saying that a customer’s last best experience is the minimum expectation they will have for every company and every interaction moving forward.  But have you stopped to think about what that really means?  It means the benchmark is always being raised.  It’s not just your competitors you have to worry about – it’s every company, small and large, that interacts with your customers.

That amazing bank that makes mobile transactions super easy, is raising the bar on you.

That favourite retailer that sends personalised offers when the customer walks past their store, is raising the bar on you.

That innovative telco that put a personal support agent in your customer’s pocket, 24×7, is raising the bar on you.

In a world awash with data, both structured and unstructured, growing at unprecedented rates, customer’s still expect you to hear them, make sense of it, and preempt their needs.  Why?  Because that bank, retailer or telco is doing it already!   More than ever, customers are sharing information about their lives – their hopes, their dreams, their challenges.  They expect you to listen, learn, and predict life events; fight to stop them from churning; understand and know their value; market products to them they are interested in; get the timing right; and design future products and services based on their feedback.  They want you to be invested in them, as much as they are invested in you.

The Chief Design Officer at PepsiCo sums in up perfectly – “Brands are no longer what we say about ourselves, but what our customers say about us.”  And when customers are talking, they expect you to listen.

I’m not just referring to marketing being personalised.  This is about marketing being personal.  It’s about communicating in a way that an individual customer appreciates and values.  Personalisation is a top down approach – here’s a set of campaigns, lets target customers based on these demographics or behaviours.  Whereas being personal is a bottom up approach – here’s a specific customer we value and an opportunity to market to them, let’s create a message that will resonate.  And it’s not just about an offer or an action, but the value proposition and the language you use to deliver it.

I believe there is a new battleground emerging around the future of customer experience, and it’s centred around how you make your customers feel, think and act.  Emotion is fast becoming the future of customer experience.  They may not remember what you showed them or offered them, but they will remember how you made them feel.  This is not simply customer satisfaction – satisfaction determines whether the customer will return a product or ask for a refund.  No, this is much more than that!  This is about whether the customer felt excited, passionate, enlightened, amused, entertained, adored, respected, amazed….enough to promote your brand to their friends and families with so much passion that their connections can’t help but be caught up in the experience too.

Emotion is the future of customer experience, and cognitive computing is an enabler to understanding and influencing emotion.

Take for example Westfield San Francisco, who wanted to change the experience of buying someone a present from a stressful one, to a fun and enjoyable one.  Imagine you are walking into a shopping centre, tasked with buying the perfect gift for a friend – only you have no idea what to buy!  As a parent – I find myself in this situation almost on a weekly basis.  So here you are, standing in the middle of a crowd, asking a series of questions – how old are they? Boy or girl?  Do they like sports?  Do they like music?  How can I possibly chose something they’ll love?  Most of us probably just give up and aim for something they don’t already have and/or won’t mind getting – that’s setting the bar pretty low and reducing the overall experience for the gift giver.

To flip the experience from a stressful one to an exciting adventure, Westfield San Francisco introduced the Westfield Virtual Personal Shopper, powered by IBM Watson Personality insights, to match people to the brands and products they are most likely to love based on their personality.  Are they outgoing or reserved?  Are they sensitive or confident?  By providing Watson with an individual’s social profile, we are able to analyse the language and sentiment used to determine an individual’s personality traits, and match them to brands and products that resonate with that particular personality profile.  Let’s consider the same demographic – same age, gender and location, but different personality profiles.  One individual is self-expressive, and loves a challenge – the Virtual Personal Shopper might recommend a new set of kicks.  But for someone who shows strong practical and conservative traits, it might recommend a good quality wallet.  With the gift of insight, shopping for a birthday present becomes fun, exciting, and even intriguing.

Imagine walking into a department store and being greeted by an adorable robot:  “Hiya Kat!” (That’s how I like to be greeted by the way.)  “Great to see you in store.  I found the perfect pair of shoes to match that bag you bought last week – would you like me to take you to it?”  Sound futuristic?  It’s not – we’re working with retailers around the world to bring the power of cognitive computing into the store to make it personal.  It doesn’t feel like a up-sell/cross-sell campaign, it doesn’t feel like a marketing ad, it feels personal – this store knows me, what I love, and what I can’t say no to.

Cognitive computing doesn’t just understand and learn natural language, it also analyses images and videos too.  Once you know a customer’s personality, you can also pick the perfect image to include in that targeted offer – one that is going to invoke the right emotion that gets them to click, to buy, to act!

Of course, if you’re going to make it personal, it has to be on the customer’s terms, at a time that is convenient to them.  Customers shouldn’t have to work around our opening times or preferred channels.  When my husband is eating breakfast at 7am and checks his sports twitter feed – that’s when you target him on the iPad.  After the kids are in bed, and I’m sitting down at 8:30pm to catch up on TV, that’s when you target me on my mobile.  And at either of those times, day and night, someone needs to be there to answer our questions and help us take action – except maybe that someone isn’t necessarily human, but a computer trained to think like a human that can guide the customer through the decision process.

In the era of Cognitive, marketing becomes less about selling, and more about educating, engaging and advising.

It’s more than just being able to serve up the right offer at the right time, it’s about being able to follow through to purchase.  How frustrating is it to execute a fantastic marketing campaign, only to have customers drop out of the purchase process when they can’t find the product or service they need?  Using cognitive computing, our customers are creating personal shopping assistants and online agents to make sure customers get the help they need to close on a purchase each and every time, day or night.

Take The North Face for example, when directed to their website, customers can engage with the personal shopping assistant to help them find the right product by answering a series of questions about where they are travelling to.  Combining product information, with climate data, the personal shopping assistant can make recommendations and revise as the customer shares more about what they are looking for – colour, size, style etc.  The customer doesn’t need to know that behind the scenes their personal shopping assistant is actually a computer powered by IBM Watson, consuming information from product and geography websites to understand the specific needs of the customer, make recommendations, and converse using natural language.

Virtual agents

Similarly, Wayblazer uses cognitive computing to provide a personal travel assistant to each and every customer – helping them along their purchasing journey.  Based on the questions and answers from the customer, Watson learns the types of activities they are interested in, and makes recommendations on what events they would most love.  Again, no need for the customer to know the person helping them make their trip the best experience possible, is actually a computer powered by IBM Watson.

Cognitive computing will no doubt change the game in how we connect and engage with our customers, but it’s also going to fundamentally revolutionise the way marketing professionals connect and engage with technology too.  Cognitive commerce is fast becoming the future of work.

If you were lucky to attend IBM Amplify in Florida a few weeks ago, you would have got a sneak peak into the future of cognitive commerce.  Where marketing professionals can leverage the power of Watson to understand which text, images and videos are having the best impact, and which are best suited to the personality of their target audience.  A platform in which you can evaluate the performance of individual campaign assets, and tweak them accordingly to get a better response.  A tool in which you can view a single view of a product or brand – including both an internal perspective, and external sentiment from social media and news sources.  The ability to conduct market research across both structured and unstructured data in one instance.  But most importantly, a platform that speaks your language – in which you can engage in a dialogue to navigate, question, discover and refine marketing campaigns for maximum efficiency.  An era in which your marketing tools speak your language, not the other way around.

Today, customer expectation of the companies that serve them is based on their last best experience.  But tomorrow, the expectation will be “If computers can understand me, why can’t you?“.  The question you have to ask yourself, as marketing moves into the era of cognitive computing, will you, or your competitors, be next to raise the bar?