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AI marketing and the journey through the uncanny valley
Restoring the brand/consumer relationship in the age of aggressive personalization
“Things usually get worse before they get better.”
“It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
Whether it’s the valley of the shadow of death in the 23rd Psalm or the Dangerous Trench on the way to Shell City in the Sponge Bob movie, we’re used to the concept of feeling that things are getting worse, even though we know we’re headed in the right direction.
This experience can be represented by a U-shaped curve, literally forming the shape of a valley between two peaks. In technical terms, the curve represents a nonlinear relationship between two variables. A specific example is the uncanny valley — the hypothesis of the unease, frustration, or even revulsion we feel as something approaches the behavior and appearance of a human without getting all the way there. In this case, the two variables are the humanlike nature of the object and the emotional response to it. This can be experienced with robots and AI assistants, and with 3D animation. Perhaps you know someone who gets illogically angry when Siri or Alexa fails to understand their commands, or maybe you get uncomfortable watching humanoid robots or CGI-animated humans in TV and movies.
Although 78 percent of marketers are adopting or expanding artificial intelligence marketing in 2018, marketers are also uneasy about the uncanny valley. They are concerned that by implementing AI marketing, they will lose control of the customer experience, possibly bewildering or even revolting their customers. While this is a reasonable concern, it could prove to be an unfounded and risky position — because marketers have already forced their customers into the uncanny valley through the use of marketing automation and aggressive personalization. And to quote another truism, when you’re going through hell, keep going. Because you don’t want to stay there.
Your customers are already in the uncanny valley
Could it be true that we’re already subjecting our customers to experiences that create bewilderment and revulsion? You don’t have to have 3D avatars or robots in your customer experience to create these eerie, negative feelings in your customers. The uncanny valley is represented by a sudden decrease in empathy when a human-like being ceases in some way to be human. Here are some specific examples to indicate that your customers may already be in the uncanny valley:
Example: An AI assistant or chatbot initially passes for human but fails to understand the context of a question that would be simple for a human to understand, revealing that it is not human. Here is just one of many anecdotes from Reddit:
In just seconds, this user went from loving their Echo to figuratively (literally?) flipping the table in frustration.
Not quite lookalikes
Example: A cursory read of our example user’s Facebook history could tell you that he is a foodie, a vegetarian and a fan of subscription boxes. Recently, this user got targeted by a new artisanal food subscription service that was relevant in many respects, except for the fact that they exclusively offer cured meats. It’s reasonable in some respects that an artisanal cured meat subscription service would target him. Except that as a vegetarian, this user found their ad bewildering and invasive, causing him to lose interest and scroll quickly past. In his scrolling fervor, he accidentally registered a click on the ad, leading to weeks of cured meats in his feed.
Another example from that same user: Currently, his bank is aggressively targeting him with a competitive mortgage offer. Three weeks ago, there were credit, fund consolidation and other signals that he was preparing for a home purchase. At that point, it was stone cold silence from the bank. But now that he has signed a mortgage with another bank and closed escrow, he is getting targeted after the fact with an offer that he would have considered three weeks ago. Now, it’s just aggravating.
Three ways to ascend from the uncanny valley
Ascending from the uncanny valley is possible, but it takes buy-in from executives and a concerted effort by the entire marketing organization. Fortunately, Artificial Intelligence Marketing (AIM) provides a new approach for interacting with customers, allowing for consistent relevant experiences across all channels and continuous optimization at scale. Marketers shouldn’t fear the uncanny valley. They should focus on crossing through to the other side. Here’s how:
1. Keep context: Match your level of sophistication across channels
Ideally, your website, app and chatbot work together to provide integrated, personalized service. Your customers should be able to access the same contextual features whether in the mobile app, at the brick-and-mortar store or when chatting with Alexa. If a user clicks through to your site from a specific offer email, that offer should automatically persist on the website. While your customers often encounter the same creative elements across your app, social, display, email and website, they’re disappointed when experiences are disjointed and out-of-context.
Unfortunately, many brand experiences can only be delivered to users in a single channel due to the inherent limitations of current marketing clouds, making a promise of sophisticated interaction that can’t be delivered in other channels.
2. Reduce uncertainty: Use visual cues to signal behavior and ability
If you do have varying levels of sophistication for some of your communication channels, you can give your customer cues to set appropriate expectations. If you have created a bot or an app with sophisticated abilities, imbue it with human personality. In contrast, a limited chatbot doesn’t need a name, a highly humanized voice or an avatar. And if your mobile app focuses on a subset of features, be clear about what they are in the app name and description.
3. Responsiveness: Reduce the lag between insight and action
If you gain insight about an individual customer, how quickly can you adjust your interactions to be responsively relevant? A human conversation involves both parties responding in real time to conscious and subconscious cues. If your campaigns and audience segments are static, or if your channels are siloed, it can take too long to move at the speed of the customer. However, with AI marketing that has dynamic decisioning at its core, new data and behavioral signals can immediately be acted upon without human intervention. The result is a more responsive customer interaction that adapts as your customer evolves.
To get to the other side
Helping your customers ascend out of the uncanny valley can seem like a monumental task, but with AI marketing, it is now feasible. Consumer brands that make the leap and move away from the rules will be the first to reap the benefits of consistent, cross-channel interactions that are optimized at scale by AI.