Source: Exploration of Saturn’s Moon’s by Kacper H. Kiec
As a Marketer, when you craft successful promotions, you’re especially proud of their creative aspects. And it’s understandable because creativity seems our last bastion against the perceived onslaught of machine domination, so we fiercely defend that turf. The tenuous argument being, “robots are no match for human creativity!” This viewpoint, besides inviting a cage match between humans and machines, also smacks of keeping math and machines out of any solution, lest boring and stiff digital influences ruin the warmth of our marketing art and experience show. However, for all the aspiring “Michelangelos” out there, it’s time to rethink this, lest you find yourself selling one-off ad creatives at street-side craft shows.
A promotion is fundamentally your story; your pitch in a nutshell – delivered through a channel to an audience of one – assuming it gets through. And the fact that it oozes creativity and garners the right emotional response can be critically important to a customer’s reaction. But what is its true worth? Compared to what? Is there a chance that for most eyes it will succumb to fading into the backdrop with all the other one-size for all advertising clutter?
With a fickle, time-pressed consumer, your promotion has – at best – a fleeting chance to capture an individual’s attention, make an emotional connection, explain a deal, plus convince that person they should care. On average, you’ll get about five seconds to grab interest; succeed and you may earn another five to emotionally connect, and so on. In most cases, no matter the channel, you’ll be afforded about thirty seconds, a few minutes tops – to deliver the goods.
Given this, every top-line pitch needs a “No Boring Zone” mentality with visually appealing facets – nonetheless cookie cutter theatrics alone won’t win the day. You need to get serious about how to use math along with machines (artificial intelligence) to radically fine-tune sales messages and custom-fit them for individuals – in other words, personalize them. To do that requires scaling up a promotion production and testing factory.
A canvasing of the available marketing automation tooling finds that very few help solve for the bona fide business problem of creating and testing a wide variety of promotions across a plethora of channels. In fact, most simply give you a facility to manually key enter the metadata for each version, creating them from scratch – calling this Offer Management or an Offer Library. The problem is as an artisan, you basically run out of material and time in a futile attempt to manufacture a decent collection for the library. Thus, the conundrum – to cut through the noise, and find the right version that resonates for each nuanced individual, you must create and test thousands of versions, but old-fashioned human means alone cannot keep up. And if you muster the means to produce numerous alternatives, it’s equally difficult to monitor their effectiveness and pick the winners. You need tools that automate mass testing and response tracking, and math to tell you exactly what’s working and why, yet few such tools exist.
Everyone talks about knowing customers better; using that knowledge to personalize. It’s an admirable aspiration. However, commendable goals don’t necessarily translate to better outcomes. In this case, it doesn’t matter how well you know customers if you can’t hyper-customize content, messages, and other creatives – and produce tailor-made promotions that really fit what customers expect in the moment of interaction.
You won’t entice my response by extrapolating from a few of my preferences and placing me into some huge segment. All the “Hey, Vince wouldn’t you love to travel, drink exceptional wine, and eat at these fine places” in the world won’t matter if I don’t get something that is fabulously timed, speaks directly to me and visually jumps out, elicits an emotional connection, stays engaging, and commands attention due to its specific relevance – in other words the message needs to be personalized to my promotional preferences and exact product needs. In fact, the promotion itself (in its entirety) must be an enjoyable experience.
Moreover, the same goes for financial services, transportation, telecommunications, insurance, and healthcare promotions.
Marketing’s 4th Dimension – Promotions
Marketing technologists (martech types), and the automation applications available to them, tend to focus mainly on these big three dimensions that drive response rates:
~ Data: Stockpiling and codifying key customer data
~Behavioral Analytics: Gleaning intent and preference, scoring response propensity, and segmenting
~Channel & Time Optimization: Delivering messages through the right medium at the right time
All of these dimensions are important pieces to solving overall marketing optimization. However, without the ability to generate thousands, if not millions of promotions (with varying copy options, incentive levels, calls to action, creative versions and such), about one third of what drives response and conversion is woefully underserved in assuring messages are noticed, relevant, and responded to.
Presently, this 4th dimension, promotions, has received practically no attention from marketing automation technology and AI – and instead marketers merely accept that snail-like non-scalable A/B testing is the best way. The fact is, even with armies of humans crafting variations and A/B testing, the number of manageable versions you can juggle will be in the hundreds at best – when what you need to compete is the ability to create & test thousands of these.
Ok, not convinced yet? Then perhaps a little math is in order (as he locks the classroom door and places nails…I mean chalk… on chalkboard):
Problem: Calculate the number of email message variations.
Email promotion components:
- 100 products to sell
- 10 images per product
- 10 subject lines
- 100 email templates (to test fonts, color, container locations, call-to-action button)
100 x 10 x 10 x 100 = 1 million promotional variations
News Flash! You have no chance with just brute human force to create and test this many variations.
Lucy & Ethel couldn’t keep up – and neither can you
In this famous Chocolate scene from I Love Lucy, an illustrious TV series from the 1950’s, Lucy & Ethel prove that manual human labor, no matter how clever, can’t keep up – quickly becoming the bottleneck in an otherwise automated system.
Given this seventy year old lesson, why do we think that humans alone can drum up and test an acceptable level of promotional assortment? They can’t. But still, stubbornly, we hand-crank creative versions, accepting less variation. Yet the better way is to let people fashion the promotional raw materials as re-usable creative elements, combined with letting artificial intelligence test the combinations – surfacing the winners – automating and individualizing the wrapping of your chocolates.
Marketers, as well as many businesspeople, are warming up to the current power and future potential of AI and what’s at its core – Data Science. In fact, in a recent study by the Boston Consulting Group of more than 3000 executives, 61% of those surveyed see developing a strategy for AI as urgent[i]. And in this case, machines and math can assist. As a marketer, you already know the power of AI and machine learning. It’s what helps you calculate customer value, score a customer’s propensity to respond to a given incentive for an applicable product, and even predict when to present the offer. And to get started, you don’t need a million options. Instead, use human judgement to field a reasonable set of challenger creative components (perhaps a dozen of each), then use AI to perform champion – challenger tests on the combinations.
Exactly how will AI and machine learning help generate and test copious quantities of creative offer variations? Enter natural language generation and automated (multivariate) testing.
Natural Language Generation (NLG), Visuals, and Templates
In our email example, we discussed written variants (e.g., different subject lines), various visuals (fonts, graphics), and template alternatives (where to place the copy and graphics). Let’s break these 3 elements down:
Natural Language Generation (NLG)
Computers can generate language. In fact, they’ve been doing so for over 30 years. Today, they can even take into consideration emotional aspects. In 2015, Gartner went on record forecasting that by 2018, twenty percent of all business content would be computer generated[ii]. Although aggressive at the time, and unlikely now, it still highlights the potential of NLG, and progress nonetheless has still been impressive.
For marketers, there’s already good examples of how NLG is used today, and can be helpful in solving for the promotional version dilemma.
For example, Persado Go uses NLG to generate variations of email subject lines, and then records performance broken down by specific elements such as emotions, formatting, descriptions, and so forth. Candidate subject lines are generated from a huge database, and a sixteen-version test is setup.
Visuals are combinations of text aspects (font type, styles, size), color, video, pictures, and graphics. A picture is not only worth a thousand words it’s also capable of sparking an emotional connection. And although AI is encroaching on even this human endeavor, for now people (assisted by AI) are still superior to pure machine generated creative assets.
Templates drive how you both organize and showcase content. For an email, it controls where recommended content will display, where a call-to-action button will be placed, what font will be used for written copy, and so on.
As with any element, a wide assortment of templates should be tested, each with innovative ideas about where containers should be located, and which font and color scheme will work best.
Now that you have all the ingredients, just mix and serve. Except how will I know which versions work best in which circumstances?
Multivariate Testing & Adaptive Machine Learning
Enter multivariate testing – which sounds complex and geeky – but it’s not that difficult (although admittedly the term is geeky). A multivariate test is simply a series of A/B tests, done simultaneously – which means you won’t spend months testing; instead doing one test (testing a string of modifications all at once) in as little as a few days or weeks.
And using an adaptive machine learning approach, such as this one available from Pegasystems (in full disclosure I do work for Pegasystems), the whole testing process can essentially run automatically, as the machine (the math algorithm) determines the eventual winners by ranking them higher as the digital response evidence pours in on which promotional variant get the best take-rate in which situations.
You and The Machine will go far
Too often we fall victim to pitting ourselves against machines, rather than exploring a symbiotic relationship with them – like the one we have with our smartphones. As marketers, we need to think the same way. AI can assist us, and we must embrace that. Exploit technology for what it does well, and weave that into your promotional factory, leveraging its ability to scale things to new levels never imagined with manual methods.
[i] S. Ransbotham, D. Kiron, P. Gerbert, and M. Reeves, “Reshaping Business With Artificial Intelligence,” MIT Sloan Management Review and The Boston Consulting Group, September 2017.