Grant Coleman
Grant Coleman 30 April 2018

How retailers can activate tomorrow’s AI marketing technology - today

Today, customers enjoy more purchasing options and control than ever before. A shift in the balance of power from brand to customer has triggered a period of transformation in the retail sector. Ambitious retailers must give customers what they want, and how and when they want it, or risk losing them to more agile competitors. The question is how can they scale to get in front of so many market segments?

That’s where AI can be the hero, making it possible for retailers to create efficient and consistent customer experiences (CX). AI can automate time-consuming tasks, freeing up precious resource for strategy and creativity. So, how can retail marketers make the most of available AI marketing (AIM) technology and avoid any pitfalls to survive – and thrive?

Research from Forrester and Emarsys reveals there a series of obstacles that stand in the way of AIM execution. Respondents’ concerns include a dual-level skills gap, incorporating both a lack of technical competency in the workforce, and business stakeholders lacking necessary product management know-how for managing incremental and ongoing AIM innovation. Overly complex and inflexible business processes risk slowing the pace of AIM progress. There is a feeling that AI tools are designed for data scientists and cannot offer a marketer-friendly user experience (UX). Marketers are struggling to find the desired technology and service providers to support AIM strategy. But, the good news is that, with a smart approach, these issues can absolutely be overcome.

Obtain C-level buy-in

Experienced retail marketers understand the importance of executive support in driving a company-wide culture obsessed with delivering the best possible CX. Marketers should prepare to articulate how AI marketing investment supports their CX strategy and aligns with overall business objectives. Misconceptions among both users and decision-makers regarding skills and resources required to gain value from AI marketing should be addressed as soon as possible. This will ensure the business is not left behind.

Set the stage

AI-powered marketing offers retailers increased efficiency across cross-functional processes, from data management and analytics, to real-time customer interaction. Marketers should collaborate with other customer-facing colleagues from across the organisation to ensure AI marketing readiness. AI solutions should initially be tested on specific problems and its impact monitored, as positive proof of AI-enabled use cases.

Technology vendors become business partners

With sophisticated AIM tools becoming increasingly intuitive, retail and e-commerce marketers soon will not require any special skills to use them. For now, AI technology vendors have a key role to play in guiding marketers through any initial questions, concerns or training, using their expertise to ensure the smoothest possible running of retailers’ AIM strategies. Early AIM adopters can work directly with vendors to influence development of AIM solutions, helping maximise long-term business value.

Skills focus

There is a common misconception regarding technical skills required for AIM, that risks hindering mainstream adoption. Users are advised to get their hands-on AI-powered marketing tools in advance of implementation to control, understand and teach them to get the best results. Not all marketers will have the required skills and, bearing in mind the industry’s talent shortage, retail businesses are unlikely to be able to rely on external recruitment to fill any gaps. Decision-makers should educate themselves in all things AI, ensuring excellent data stewardship as a priority and de-prioritising the desire for marketers with especially strong technology skills.

Global online action sports retailer FreestyleXtreme is one business successfully using an AI-enabled cloud marketing platform to increase revenues and engage more effectively with its half a million customers across 60 markets and 14 different languages. Since implementing automation, smart insight, predictive and smart content AIM solutions just under a year ago, it has experienced an eight per cent boost in web revenues, and increased the agility of its marketing team by reducing campaign execution time from two days to two hours.

Here are four steps to ensure your business is AI-ready:

  1. Ensure marketer, C-suite and wider business readiness: Identify any gaps, and create a custom roadmap to bridge them. Marketers and business leaders should ask themselves: “Are we ready for AIM?”
  2. Clean-up existing data: Invest time in organising available data. Ensure it is clean and usable across platforms, throughout the entire digital ecosystem. A framework that supports different data streams is essential.
  3. Squeeze value from existing data: Analyse data to identify any actionable insights. Keep a data archive that AIM technology can draw and learn from ongoing.
  4. Never mind the ‘skills gap’: Retail and e-commerce business decision makers worry their marketing teams lack necessary skills to adequately deploy and manage AIM. However, this is a common misconception. Marketers themselves report confidence in handling this technology.

In order to realise the benefits of AIM, a retail business must understand exactly where it is today. The gap between the readiness of AI solutions to enable and optimise real-time consumer marketing campaigns, and that of marketers and business leaders adopting this technology is closing – but an impressive end-result requires solid foundations. Once a few basic steps have been taken, AI has the potential to propel retail businesses forward as industry leaders and champions of customer centricity.

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