Are You Smarter Than A Supercomputer? It Depends.

Who knows what is best for your customers? You or a computer algorithm?

That is the question that big data has raised for many marketers. And like all great questions, the answer is, “It depends.”

I’ve wrestled with the question for a while, because I appreciate both sides. There’s no doubt that tremendous value can be unlocked from all the data that customers emit these days. Digital pheromones that drive marketers wild, if you will.

Computers are capable of analyzing such voluminous mountains of data and, if we let them, acting on it within milliseconds. How could we humans ever expect to compete with that?

On the other hand, customer experience is hard to get right. In principle, it’s simple: give people what they expect, when they expect it. But the “what” and the “when” vary tremendously depending on context — who the person is, what they were doing at the time, the thoughts and emotions that color their perceptions.

It’s a whole that is often greater than the sum of its parts.

User experience (UX) professionals hone their craft for years to design and execute such compelling customer experiences. They are guided by assumptions, perceptions, and intuitions that are hard to bake into a quantified algorithm. Although admittedly, the good intuitions are called “instincts” and the bad ones are called “biases.”

So which is better, the computer or the human brain? Well, it depends.

But I think I’ve finally figured out what it depends on.

Expected Experiences Vs. Serendipitous Content

The world is divided into two kinds of marketing touchpoints: those that customers expect and those that are serendipitous. It’s this division that forms the basis for the following algorithmic marketing matrix:

Algorithmic Marketing Matrix

Courtesy of

Expected experiences happen when a customer consciously interacts with you. They click on an ad and go to a landing page. They browse through your website. They make an e-commerce purchase. This applies to offline interactions too: they call you on the phone, visit your retail store, or consume the service you offer.

Serendipitous content, in contrast, means pleasant surprises. It’s an ad that someone happens to notice that triggers their interest. It’s a recommendation that appears in an e-commerce store or the right rail of a publisher’s site. It’s an offer in email that “coincidentally” resonates with someone at just the right moment.

When it comes to expected experiences, customers are not particularly forgiving. If you don’t fulfill their expectations, they will feel let down, and they will hold that against your brand.

In those high stakes scenarios, a human marketer’s supervision over the user experience is greatly preferred.

With serendipitous content, however, the balance shifts. There are effectively unlimited opportunities for ads, recommendations, and cross-sells to pepper the digital landscape. But the stakes involved in any one such touchpoint — to the marketer and the recipient — are relatively low.

In those scenarios, automated algorithms are more cost effective than hand-tuned human direction. You can roll the dice, because you have little to lose and potentially much to gain.

Deterministic Marketing Vs. Probabilistic Marketing

Another way of thinking about this is to consider whether a marketing touchpoint is deterministic or probabilistic.

A deterministic experience will always be delivered in a consistent, predictable way — exactly as it was designed by the marketer. However, when we use machine learning and predictive analytics in automated algorithmic marketing, we’re exposing the customer to a probabilistic experience.

The following graph, from an article I wrote on marketing automation and experience design, helps illustrate this relationship:

Probabilistic Methods in Marketing

Courtesy of

Letting machine learning algorithms probabilistically hone in on the “best” content (best in a statistical sense) to show people at serendipitous marketing touchpoints makes a lot of sense. But when a customer expects a specific experience, a more deterministic approach is better.

Mixing Expectations & Serendipity

Back to the question of which is better in marketing, the computer or the human brain, the real answer is: both. Each applied in the context where it is most effective. And in many cases, they can be applied together.

For instance, data-powered algorithmic capabilities, such as machine learning and predictive analytics, can certainly contribute to delivering better expected experiences. But they’re best used behind the scenes, to help marketers identify new segments and scenarios. When it’s time to deliver an experience based on that insight, however, the marketer retains control.

In addition, in a well-designed customer experience, there are often many opportunities to expose people to relevant serendipitous content. As long as expectations are being met with the primary content of the experience, incorporating secondary content — ads, sidebars, recommendations, cross-sells, etc. — can leverage one touchpoint into several.

Serendipity is great — as long as it is never at the expense of fulfilling the promise of an expected experience.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Analytics | Analytics & Marketing Column | Channel: Analytics | Display Advertising: Programmatic Media Buying


About The Author: is the president and CTO of ion interactive, a leading provider of landing page management and conversion optimization software. He also writes a blog on marketing technology, Chief Marketing Technologist. Follow him on twitter via @chiefmartec.

Sign Up To Get This Newsletter Via Email:  


Other ways to share:

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. You can read more about our comments policy here.

Comments are closed.


Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Marketing Land on Twitter @marketingland Like Marketing Land on Facebook Follow Marketing Land on Google+ Subscribe to Our Feed! Join our LinkedIn Group Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest


Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States


Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech

Free Daily Marketing News!

Marketing Day is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!