It's time for marketers to lead on AI


AI and its associated technologies like ChatGPT have been major discussion topics at the martech conferences I've been to this year, not just on the stages but in conversations after sessions and during all the networking sessions. We're not just talking about what these models are, but how marketers are using them and what their downstream effects are.

The Email Innovations Summit is taking up the topic on June 20 with Matthew Dunn's opening keynote, AI in Email: Assistant, Overlord, or Overload?

Lots of marketers are experimenting with ChatGPT, and to a lesser extent Google's Bard and image creators like DALL-E. But many of those experiments use ChatGPT to write subject lines.

As an email marketer who has seen email innovation come and go over the last 20 years, I find that disappointing.

If you’re just using AI technology to help with day-to-day tasks, you're missing a huge opportunity. These powerful language models have the potential to solve some of your biggest marketing problems and to elevate your marketing team's role as a revenue and tech leader within your company.

We email marketers, and the email industry as a whole, need to address the implementation and use of AI and its associated technologies. In particular we need to lead the conversation on AI. These conversations are happening in many companies already, and not just at the enterprise level. Are you in on them?

As the people who will work most closely with AI in our companies, we can't afford to wait for marketing technology vendors to catch up to our needs or to let them, or others in our own companies, define the uses for us. The danger is that we get stuck with what the vendors see as the need, framed by what their technologies can do.

We have to step up and speak out, to ask our vendors relevant questions for our programs and our companies and arrive at solutions that enable us to accelerate innovation.

ChatGPT and similar technology have the potential to make things easier, more streamlined and frictionless. Currently, people are talking about guardrails, use cases and integration. This is where modern marketers need to take the lead.

Imagine the greatest value AI can bring

When I ask marketers what they're doing with AI or ChatGPT, the answer I hear most often is "We're playing around with it" or "It's helping us with subject lines." This makes ChatGPT nothing more than the latest shiny new toy, like countdown timers. Remember those?

Everybody got excited when companies developed a real-time tool to push customers into action. They went rampant a few years ago. We saw countdown timers everywhere. But the countdown timer is just one of the functions for real-time technology, and marketers ignored every other technology developed by leaders like Moveable Ink and Liveclicker.

Similarly, boxing AI in as a subject-line tool can mean you won't see it as a means to achieve a greater downstream impact. AI-generated content at scale could modify language to match unique segments or cohorts in your marketing efforts to better initiate action or recognize intent. Subject-line generation is one means to that end, but it isn't the end by itself.

Using AI to generate cohort-matching content brings relevance at scale. It can solve a real problem, that personalization beyond first name can be too hard in small-scale organizations. 

Your first move will be to set up testing and experimentation. It's like creating a mini research and development program for email. What could you do today? It could be a way to increase personalization. But you need to set up a series of tests and plans that show how you will use it and what the larger benefits will be.

Within the boundaries of technology today, once you set up and run your tests and analyze the results, you can start thinking of other things you can do with the technology. What if you move into generating assets like images and calls to action? Envision what the ultimate goal for your program's use would be when using AI at scale. Think big!

Don't sell yourself or your program short by defining a box that will be gone very soon! Expand your horizons and test into what it can do to elevate your results.

Push your vendors on AI

I've seen a lot of product releases over the last few months where companies have rolled out ChatGPT integrations for subject-line creation … and that's all. No content generation. No cohort analysis. That earns nothing from me but a universal groan.

We marketers need to take the lead (there I go again!) and pull vendors into conversations about what the roadmap will be for this technology. Yes, ChatGPT is still in its infancy, but it's growing up fast even as we try to define it. I am interested in knowing what vendors are planning.

Historically, ESPs have been docked for not innovating at the same pace they maintained before the buyouts and consolidations of the mid-2000s. Back then, when ExactTarget and Responsys were still independent companies, they piloted and released groundbreaking technology that expanded email's reach and functionality. Then Salesforce bought ExactTarget, and Responsys disappeared into Oracle, and innovation slowed from a river to a trickle.

Today, you must ask your ESP for a roadmap or a briefing on its long-term vision for AI. If their answer is "Nothing" or "Subject lines," maybe it's time to start an RFP and talk to other vendors that are farther down the innovation path.

The ESPs that will survive the coming shakeup will be the ones that innovate and push the bounds of functionality. They will make innovation at scale easier for customers of all sizes and budgets. AI could well become the defining characteristic for ESPs, the best indicator that it has the chops to help you succeed.

Challenge your vendors. Ask for details and input. Take the ideas that you gained from doing Step 1 above and apply them. Hit your vendors hard about what they will do to help you reach your goals.

Insert yourself into the AI conversation

Every organization I talk to is focused on what the future of AI will look like. Many enterprise companies are testing the implications, cost and time savings and how to use AI to expand marketing's role. As email marketers, you need to be in those conversations.

Why? Because email delivers the highest ROI of all your marketing channels. If I make the most money in my marketing work, I deserve a seat at the table. I can do content generation at scale. I have more touchable consumers. I have greater functionality and proactive messaging path directly into the inbox. I don't have to hope my customers find my emails – they're right in their inboxes waiting for them.

Bring all the power and authority of email to bear in your AI conversations. The ideas you generated from Step 1 and Step 2 above will flow into this process and inform your discussions. You can use this knowledge to take control without waiting for your vendors or the industry to define the role of AI.

Wrapping up 

AI might very well create a “Terminator Genisys” scenario. If that happens, I will welcome my AI overlords. But more realistically, I see an expansion and acceleration of AI in many forms, and it will bring us to greater personalization faster than we could imagine now.

For 20 years we have been talking about dynamically inserting relevant content into messages to increase engagement. This is one of those technologies that could get us there. But it's not going to work if we marketers don't actively take part in deciding how to use it for its highest goals in marketing. We can't be passive technology users. We must be active influencers of the path.

Participate in this great movement by testing, leading conversations and learning about what it can do. And then do it!

Editor's Note: Ryan will be leading a discussion on this post during the May 18, 2023 OI-members-only Zoom Discussion. OI members, watch the list for the link to join us. Not a member of OI? Register and join today

florian roost t6Q QuMN8wM unsplash 600Photo by Florian Roost on Unsplash

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