2016 was a year that most people want to forget. However, it was the year artificial intelligence (AI) took a great leap forward; not only into mainstream media but also into our homes.
As Trump enters his First Term as President, it is worth noting that not all the soothsayers got the results wrong. Those who watched ITV’s live US election coverage on 8 November might recall that the broadcaster’s AI; EagleAi, called it for Trump long before the tide visibly turned. It dredged through a mountain of social media posts, photos, videos, comments, searches and press coverage in search of patterns and connections, and seemed never to harbour any serious doubts about the outcome.
Another AI system, the Mumbai-developed MogIA, which analyses data from Google, Twitter and Facebook, also predicted a Trump win on the basis of 20 million data points. South African company BrandsEye, armed with 37 million social conversations, mostly from Twitter, tipped Trump too, having previously predicted Brexit.
So while opinion polls and mainstream media were failing to notice massive electoral upsets unfolding, AI tools crawling the social web were able to locate revealing and unfiltered truths.
The interesting aspect for brands should be that fast-maturing AI power is in the thick of this, and yielding the most valuable insights. So, the question for marketers must surely be: if political pollsters can get it so wrong without warning, how flawed might brands own qualitative consumer research - the focus groups, the commissioned studies, the small-scale social listening - actually be?
AI-driven listening offers local and global windows onto trends, conversations and narratives that indicate our real attitudes and hint at our future behaviour. On top of this, AI interfaces are becoming simpler for companies to access too. In the US, Colgate-Palmolive has spoken of its use of AI to guide its R&D efforts, using machines to gather the detailed consumer behaviour data that traditional research methods couldn’t find.
Retail is another sector where AI is already being used to offer online customers an in-store ‘personal shopper’ experience. Outdoor clothing retailer The North Face are already out of the blocks, in conjunction with IBM Watson, they are using AI to help consumers find the perfect jacket for their next adventure.
Google Analytics last autumn launched automated insights that highlight and illuminate trends and sales spikes for brands online. Companies with their own data analysts, Google suggests, can use such data to scale up their ambitions, and those without such a resource can effectively use Google as a virtual analyst.
Consumer uptake, however, is important, because the more data AI platforms churn, the more potent and sophisticated they become. Virtual assistants such as Amazon's Alexa, Google's Assistant, Microsoft's Cortana, Apple's Siri and newcomers like Viv are getting smarter. And as mobile is currently the leading delivery channel, we can expect AI growth to be genuinely exponential.
All the indications are, in fact, that AI is fast extending its reach into many other areas, not least our homes. Much hyped last year, but now clearly flying, are household AI interfaces such as Amazon’s Echo and Google Home. At CES in Las Vegas, it seemed that every brand was announcing Echo-integrated products, whether baked into new TVs or offered as standard in every room of the delegate-packed Wynn Hotel.
However, machines are still a long way from taking over the world, and we still require data scientists in order to process all this information. But what this does offer for brands is the ability to move faster with consumer needs and desires.
Marketers are already working closely with clients and their data to help influence their advertising, AI will add an additional layer of insight...the future is bright if we learn how to harness the data.
By Aisling Cahill, media strategist at Tug Agency London
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