I’m a massive, unashamed sci-fi geek. I went to the Blade Runner Secret Cinema, I just got a replica (replicant?) of Deckard’s whiskey glass, I can’t wait to see Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira in pin-sharp 4K, and if any technological development that’s vaguely cyberpunk turns up in the news, I’ll be the first to exclaim ‘William Gibson predicted that!’. I love this stuff.
So, I often look at the world through the lens of speculative fiction (the ‘literature of cognitive estrangement’, as academic Darko Suvin put it) and apply this kind of speculation and extrapolation to all kinds of things in everyday life. That includes aspects of my work, our industry, and so on. ‘What do you mean by that?’, you may rightly ask.
Recently, I was creating a marketing persona for a project, inventing an imaginary sales lead from the clay of research and experience, and something struck me: One day, AI will be doing this for me. What will that be like?
And that thought led me down the rabbit-hole.
Making fake people from real data
We live in a time when more data is created and recorded, covering more aspects of our lives, than ever before. It’s already being used in all manners of ways – from the recommendation systems of Amazon and Netflix to deciding whether you’re a safe bet to borrow money.
And, as our burgeoning digital lives increasingly blur with our physical ones, alongside the growth of the Internet of Things and devices like Alexa, this big data is only going to become bigger. That will provide those that hold it with deeper and more intricate insights into who we are. What once may have been a relatively shallow and generic impression of a customer now has the potential to become really nuanced – to the extent that a buyer persona becomes a buyer simulation. But why does that interest me so much?
As a marketing writer, there’s a tendency to become attached to the personas you create. It’s an imaginative act, after all, and imaginative acts are inherently interesting and enjoyable. When you’re inventing a person, with their name, professional and educational history, along with numerous other incidental details, they begin to take on a life of their own. You could be forgiven for thinking things like “Ah, classic Persona! Of course they’d do that.” When you start inventing significant others, families and pets for them, it’s time to click ‘Save’ and step away from the computer. In every marketing persona, there’s the seed of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the first sci-fi novel of all) and, before that, the Prometheus myth: “It’s alive!”.
But devising comprehensive marketing personas and delving into the lives and mindsets of possible customers isn’t only an enjoyable part of marketing work – it’s vital for engaging and connecting with your audience. And who knows how much more valuable it can be when AI (our digital Igor) is using today’s data goldmine to help with the creation? The possibilities are strange, maybe a little unnerving at times, but ultimately highly intriguing.
Fact is quickly catching up with fiction
In an early episode of Black Mirror (season two, episode one: ‘Be Right Back’), Domhnall Gleeson’s character Ash is killed in a car accident. OK, this article’s taken a dark turn, but stay with me. His grieving partner Martha, played by the excellent Hayley Atwell, signs up for an online service that builds a new virtual Ash out of all the data floating around, including social posts and other digital communications. He/it is very, very accurate.
I won’t spoil what happens next (apologies if I’ve already revealed too much) as it’s a bloody good episode. But you see where I’m going with this. What could marketers do with this kind of technology? And the central idea behind the story – building a synthetic person out of all the data they emit simply through existing today – isn’t just science fiction. It’s closer than you think.
Be Right Back aired in 2013, and as I always say, tech years are like dog years. The previous decade might as well be 50 years ago, and as we hurtle toward the singularity at ever-increasing breakneck speed, what was once a strange future is quickly becoming our strange now.
Do synthetic personas dream of electric sheep?
Development of ‘synthetic buyer personas’ is already well underway, with some companies already mooting market-ready solutions. Such is the depth of the data and sophistication of systems that there are even elements of personality-based marketing entering the equation. This has the potential to provide even richer insight into how customers really ‘tick’. How risk adverse is Persona as an individual? Which psychological motivators are at work here? What would Persona’s instinctual reaction be to X or Y? Would Persona respond more positively to this analogy or design choice as opposed to that one?
Personally, I’m eager to see what will happen when today’s highly advanced chatbot technologies, such as Pandorabots’ Mitsuki, are thrown into the mix. Imagine having a full-blown conversation with a buyer persona – on their virtual lunchbreak, perhaps (insert old tech joke about ‘having a byte to eat’). What would a focus group be like, conducted with a (chat)room full of synthetic subjects? These are questions that I think (and hope) will probably be answered soon enough.
The machines have been busy
This is only one area of marketing where AI is making itself useful. For some time now, it’s also been helping to manage and optimise pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, personalise website experiences and email marketing, and predict customer churn – which is extremely valuable for Software-as-a-Service companies, among others.
If you can think of an aspect of marketing, chances are ‘there’s an AI for that’, able to help us make better choices, speed up processes, and do what we do more effectively. There is even the prospect that one day, design and content may become SUPER responsive, personalised and dynamic – to the extent that no two people see the same website. Or even the same website twice. Everything from the style and tone to the user experience would be perfectly curated for you and you alone, at that moment in time, by a very smart machine.
AI can already write (to an extent) and assist with design. What’s further down that road? Will writers like me someday become AI’s editors? Will designers and developers become their art/technical directors? Could you one day even engage the services of a digital agency that’s literally a digital agency? These are all pretty dizzying concepts for someone who cut their copywriting teeth on old-school banner ads and still hasn’t completely gotten over the death of Flash. But, again, they’re very intriguing thoughts – for me, for Fifty Five and Five, for our clients, and for the industry as a whole.
The spark of human creativity
With the universe of possibilities around synthetic buyer personas, and the growth of AI-powered marketing in general, you’d think I’d be little worried about someday becoming obsolete. “Hire a human marketing writer? That’s so 2020…” Replaced by the Machine in the Grey Flannel Suit. But I’m a firm believer in the spark of human creativity and ingenuity. So, at the risk of coming across like Neo or John Connor: I believe we’ll triumph over the machines.
Machines can gather the data. They can collect and corral it in huge quantities, analyse it and make it available in a form we can comprehend. But they’re not yet able to make the intuitive connections and creative decisions, the subtle leaps of understanding and insight, that make great marketing that really resonates with other humans. Ultimately, we know us better than computers do – even with all the data in the world. But AI certainly can – and will – give us a lot of help.
If you’d like to discuss how Fifty Five and Five can help you target your audience more effectively and ensure your digital marketing is firing on all cylinders, get in touch with the team today.