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How brands can use AI to transform the buying experience

Artificial intelligence will deliver added economic output of about $13 trillion by 2030 and boost global GDP by 1.2% a year, according to McKinsey Global Institute’s September 2018 report “Modeling the Impact of AI on the World Economy.”

The past 12 months have seen a significant uptick in brands using cutting edge AI experiences to engage customers.

There are more than a half-dozen Amazon Go stores open or about to open in the U.S. that use technology to track what shoppers take from store shelves and check them out automatically. L’Oréal recently rolled out a conversational recruitment chatbot to interact with candidates looking for internships or roles as beauty advisors at the brand. Tommy Hilfiger partnered with IBM and the Fashion Institute of Technology to identify real-time fashion trends such as styles, silhouettes, and colors using IBM’s data.

AI is already being used in a variety of ways in comms, such as in determining sentiment in earned media using a subfield of the technology, natural language processing (NLP), that learns to read and comprehend human writing.

But early adopters of AI are also using it to better map and build a more engaging and relevant journey to purchase for the customer. That includes using AI to harness opportunities identified through not only words but also visuals.

Through dozens of data inputs, AI is determining what customers want and are responding to along each stage of the journey.

Meanwhile, fueled by AI, social media giants are pioneering new ways for people to buy.

Next stop for AI?
The workplace

According to McKinsey Global Institute, at least 30% of activities involved in 60% of all occupations theoretically could be automated by adopting and integrating AI technologies that exist today.

This would free up employees to devote more time and thinking to higher-value tasks, in turn giving them a potential competitive advantage in their marketplace.

“PR practitioners, like any other professional, need to gain an understanding of AI and get up to speed on the tools that will help them perform better,” says Imad Lahad, senior director, global digital practice lead, APCO Worldwide. “If not, they will be in danger of becoming disposable because of the technical developments that they are choosing to ignore.”

Natural language processing (NLP) – machine learning to read and comprehend human writing – could also be a game changer. It is being used to identify sentiment in earned media, and the promise is that it could eventually write owned content for a brand.

“It could well change the way we work in the future,” says Lahad.

To test and experiment with the technology, APCO has set up an AI Comms Lab in its Dubai office with comms and tech experts.

“We don’t see AI as an add-on or an offering to clients,” he points out, “but as an engine to drive the new normal in the way we operate.”

Many other comms providers are investing in machine learning as well.

With its AI-powered platform Marcel, Publicis Groupe is aiming to improve productivity and connectivity. The platform can connect brands with creatives by posting open briefs for which they could apply; find and recommend employees to projects based on their expertise, experience, and workload; and share employee behavioral patterns, needs, and desires. Marcel aims to cut time spent on manual processes by auto-generating time sheets and expenses for edit and approval.

Creating relevant content

Countless studies have shown that shoppers research before buying, whether online or in store. That holds true for not only big purchases, such as vehicles or major appliances, but also smaller-ticket items, such as lipstick and home furnishings.

Understanding how consumers are researching your brand offers a huge advantage, say PR pros.

“Once you understand how people search for your product in the research stage, you can develop an earned media strategy that incorporates the keywords people input in their search,” says Mary Elizabeth Germaine, EVP and MD, global research and analytics at Ketchum.

Machine learning algorithms can also detect which messages in earned, owned, shared, and paid media are resonating.

“You could go into the marketplace shouting out a message about competitive pricing, for example, but if your target could care less, they are never going to pick up on it,” says Germaine. “It is less about what you as a company want to say and more about using AI to discover what they want to hear and understand.”

Getting in tune with buying habits

AI is driving new ways for consumers to buy.

“We are beginning to see some major developments in this realm,” notes Imad Lahad, senior director, global digital practice lead at APCO Worldwide.

For instance, Snapchat recently partnered with Amazon to create a new way of shopping via its image-recognition software.

“Like a pair of cool sneakers a friend is wearing? Take a picture on Snapchat and a card will appear showing details of the item and how to buy it on Amazon,” says Lahad. “AI, in combination with AR, is helping to truly disrupt the consumer space.”

New technologies like this are truncating the purchasing journey, allowing consumers to move from brand awareness of a product — for example, seeing their friends wearing something — to consideration/evaluation and, ultimately, purchase in a matter of minutes. They also reflect how much people today are communicating via images versus text.

As a result, more brands are using AI to comb through images to kickstart a journey to purchase that otherwise might have been missed.

LogoGrab – which Gartner named this year as one of the coolest vendors utilizing AI in marketing – has a social media monitoring platform that uses AI to find brand logos and markers in social media images, videos, and GIFs. Its research shows that in conversations about brands, 80% of the time they are referenced only visually rather than in text.

“Brands are missing out on conversations and understanding moments of customer consumption,” says Luca Boschin, CEO and cofounder of LogoGrab, whose clients include eBay. “By looking at pictures, you may discover your ideal target group and that the people using your product are not who you expected.

“AI can help brands target the right audience, uncover insights about moments of consumption, and identify influencers where your brand and the brand of your competitors appear,” continues Boschin. “It is about bringing what brands have already been doing with text in identifying audiences and intercepting them with messages to a whole new era of visual.”

Keeping consumers engaged post-purchase

Just as important as making the sale is what your brand does next. How is it engaging with buyers so they share their new purchase with friends and followers? How is it going to re-engage them in a second buy?

“Machine learning can help brands figure out the next way to put the buyer back into the purchasing journey by looking at how they purchased the first time,” explains Germaine.

“And it can help us figure out how to convert that buyer into an advocate who shares content. That’s important: Shared content may be a key way the brand gets new buyers into the purchasing journey or to move them closer to purchase when they’ve already started the journey.”


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