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Marketing AI products: When advertising a robot, think like a human

This should come as shock to exactly no one, but tech companies have a trust problem and an empathy problem. As companies start advertising AI, they should do so knowing that 70 percent of the U.S. fears robots taking over their lives.

We could blame it on popular culture (try naming one movie where a robot revolution went well) but, let’s be honest, we as tech marketers aren’t exactly doing ourselves any favors.

The word most associated with Google’s Duplex Demo was “creepy.” Microsoft’s attempts have swung between Common hyperbolically proclaiming “AAA-EYE!,” to being called “helpful and intrusive” (sorta like everyone’s mother-in-law), to inadvertently creating a  “Hitler-loving sex robot.” None of these are great looks.

If you’re planning to market your newest AI product in 2019, first answer these three questions:

1. Are you being user-centric?

The technology community has a smugness about it—we believe new technology is always a good thing, and we expect the rest of the world to take our word for it because we’re smart and innovative and, well, why wouldn’t you trust someone in a Patagonia vest?

As a result, AI marketing campaigns are often focused on showcasing what we perceive to be the futuristic cool factor: the driverless car, driverless grain harvester, or agentless call center. We think we’re giving people a glimpse into a brave, new, avocado-toast-filled world, but in reality, all they’re getting from us is, “see you in the unemployment line.”

Marketers need to get real about who they’re speaking to and what messages will actually resonate with them. Most academics believe that AI will only create jobs, so instead of advertising an autonomous utopia, perhaps focus on how AI enables people to do their jobs better and get more time for the things they love.

The refreshed Microsoft/Common “Empowering Innovators” spot takes us slightly closer to this goal, showing Ros Harvey, a real AgTech founder, and proclaiming “artificial intelligence helps farmers grow more food with fewer resources; she’s not collecting information, she’s feeding a growing population.”

What would be even better? Showing the farmer benefiting from this resource.

2. Are you being honest?

The hype cycle is alive and well in AI. Thanks to lofty marketing and pop culture, we’re quickly rolling down the Peak of Inflated Expectations into the Trough of Disillusionment, and we’re dragging everyone along with us. If we want people to buy into a future of work powered by AI, shouldn’t we be realistic about what that future looks like?

Adobe’s “Make a Masterpiece” campaign is a great example of how marketers can effectively balance imagination and creativity with trust and technical realness. While not AI-focused, the 2-minute video shows real artists using the software to recreate classic, but lost, artwork, bringing the tools to life in a beautiful and captivating—but not overstated—way.

Marketers touting their AI tools should think long and hard about what their technology actually makes possible today and lean into that.

3. Are you connecting emotionally?

Blame my Southern upbringing, but I’ve always been a big fan of using marketing to create connection and community. That idea means making customers feel something.

Unfortunately, many AI brands today are choosing “aspiration.” What they don’t understand (remember our empathy problem?) is that aspiration means different things to different people. One brand’s aspiration could be a consumer’s fear.

I’d encourage marketers to instead consider surprise, belonging, sorrow or joy; these feelings help bring brands and customers together in a way that blind, pie-in-the-sky aspiration just can’t. Take humor for example. Everyone laughs.

Maybe not at the same things, but it’s universally relatable—kind of like how Crystal Hot Sauce is universally delicious (fight me).

When we launched our own AI marketing campaign this year, we took this approach by poking fun at the absurdity of robots in the workplace, bringing them to life as back-talking, idiotic and sometimes completely useless characters trying out for a job as a voice assistant. And guess what? People got it.

Ultimately, as marketers, we need to remember that we sell to people, not companies. Emotional connection, honesty and a focus on the customer cannot, and will never be, overshadowed by technology’s “cool factor.”

Keith Messick is CMO at Dialpad. Previously, he served as the CMO at Lucidworks and also held senior leadership roles at Topsy (Apple), Get Satisfaction, and Successfactors.

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