Algorithms, machine learning, intelligent systems – I’m sure you’ve heard many of these terms in the last years. Intelligent machines are invading our lives, disrupting and replacing traditional systems and processes. “Use smart machines for repetitive processes to relieve humans from monotonous tasks” – they say. “Use intelligent machines whenever accuracy and efficiency outperform (wo)man work” – they say. “Let smart machines free up your workday to focus on areas where creativity, emotions and empathy are required the most” – they say. Artificial Intelligence is here to stay and complement human work – that’s for sure. But do we quietly accept their coexistence by assuming their purpose in doing good?
Let me elaborate a little further on this through the lense of an Online Marketer. In the past years we’ve seen quite a shift in the Digital Marketing space. Gone are the days with hours-long bid adjustments of hundreds of different ad groups or keywords to win the battle and outpace competition. From bidding to keyword research, ad creation, targeting and more, managing a single account in Google to its maximum potential requires time and human resources. However, manual craft is losing its stake and new innovative campaign formats have begun to shake up the Online Marketing market. Google (who else, if not Google) was one of the first companies to roll out automated biddings a few years ago with its own built-in algorithms. Great news for advertisers. By adjusting from “manual” to “automated” bidding strategies Google’s intelligent algorithms are taking over the cockpit and piloting campaigns to success. Nothing easier than that! The only input given by advertisers is the quantification of success or the definition of your objective. How much are you willing to pay for an acquisition? What is the minimum return you expect on your ad spend? Enter your targets and Google’s data leeches are set out to find the most relevant users for you.
Ever since then, the mechanism of automated biddings has spread like a wildfire in the Digital Marketing space. A few call it engines, others call it smart or intelligent campaigns. However you may call it, the story remains the same: Built-in algorithms facilitate the lives of marketers and agencies. Online Articles, Blogs, Newsletter be like: “Switch now to benefit from the huge data pool of Google, Facebook and other tech giants and stop wasting your time. You are more than a machine, apply your great human skills in other areas with a greater impact. Develop strategies, be creative, brainstorm with your colleagues, there’s more for you in Online Marketing.”
After the first inaugural period, agencies start to promote this new “era of bidding” to clients with the promise of a better campaign performance. Tech giants start to publish case studies and reports on a weekly basis to convince the last advertisers and to win their trust for this new mechanism. Slowly but surely the whole industry is moving into an algorithm based advertising where big and small players are all part of the game. Part of a digital marketing game, where each and every player itself is striving for success, user attention, clicks, leads and/or sales. Part of a game, where publishers such as Google and Facebook are supportive and favourable forces. A game, where intelligent machines are freeing up valuable time by replacing manual work by a way more efficient system. A game, you don’t want to miss out (#fomo), the “place-to-be” for Online Marketers.
Sounds like the happy end of a Shakespear tragedy play? A win-win-situation for publishers and advertisers, all involved stakeholders have their piece of the pie? Hmm… Ever wondered how it is to play a game without knowing the rules? Play chess without knowing the underlying rule of each figure? How is success defined and how to assess the next best chess move?
Similar to games where you have winners and losers, algorithms need input data to assess success or failure. These guidelines enable machines to steadily learn and improve based on the large data sets they have. Algorithms are designed by companies and people and can only be as objective as the humans who built them. First and foremost these, I call it “marketing algorithms”, need to pay off for their creators. Whatever input the machine gets, the creator’s own interest, i.e. increasing revenue or profitability, will have its (important) place in the whole equation. Advertiser’s goals and further data are smartly woven into the complex data engine. A smart and complex system is born to take over the ownership in the field of Online Marketing campaigns. Praised as the perfect solution for small and medium business with few to no resources and know-how the algorithms benefit from a strong tailwind in the ramp-up phase. The shift is happening, also for larger companies where key account managers are claiming algorithm-based campaigns as the growth drivers of the future and presenting sky-rocketing KPI’s leaving a sparkle in every Online Marketer’s eye. With the growing empire of smart campaigns, analytical control is simultaneously fading away and leaving advertisers in complete obscurity. Trust. You just have to trust them. You will never get a look under the hood – neither today nor tomorrow.
As an advocate of innovation passionate about digital data I believe in the power of data and value the strengths and benefits algorithms have in Online Marketing. They are well established and play an important role in today’s marketing landscape. They facilitate our lives, act smarter, much faster as they base their decisions on billions of data sources we humans can’t even imagine. Obviously, as in many other areas, the magic lies in the perfect split of human work and machines. Whatever strategy you choose, embrace critical thinking, gain as much information as you get and understand the purpose, the consequences and possible fields of tension around algorithms. Keep in mind that algorithms are designed by companies and people and can only be as objective as the humans who built them. Take the path to new fields, but always keep a sharp eye and zoom out to the broader picture to make well-informed, solid and right decisions for the future.