All systems go for big data/automation?

Not half way through and already 2016 is shaping up as a bad one for the humans in the ongoing battle of man versus machine. Earlier this year, it was widely reported, another bastion of mind-over-megabytes fell when Google’s go-playing computer AlphaGo defeated world no. 1, Lee Sedol, 4-1.

It’s a game that has hitherto resisted all attempts to produce a machine capable of beating a human, due mainly to its astronomical number of possible permutations. So many in fact that the ability to perform a zajillion calculations a second still came up short against human intuition. Until now.

imageIn the year when so-called big data became mainstream, go finally went the way of backgammon and chess in the 90’s – a computer became the best player on the planet.

So what of big data? In truth, we’re always surrounded by oodles of it, only now we have the ability to capture, analyse, and act upon it. Groceries will arrive courtesy of orders submitted by the fridge, doubtless after consultation with the bathroom scales. Everything will connect to everything.

Which is, of course, the marketer’s dream. By connecting all of the dots in real time, the intention and most definitely the hope is to get inside our heads, to infer our thoughts, basically to discover what motivates us to buy.

But how realistic is that aim? Certainly there is room for improvement. Google anything purchasable currently and it’s not unlikely you’ll be bombarded for days by programmatic ads following up. Yet your reason for googling may have had very little to do with actually wanting to buy the thing. It just comes across as technology that’s too clever for its own good – ham-fisted and self-serving.

With big data, these kinds of disconnect will supposedly become a thing of the past. By combining all of our interactions with technology, ad servers et al will infer exactly what we’re about, will know how far through the funnel we are – indeed, whether we’re even in it at all. But will they ever really reach the point of knowing our thoughts and intentions even before we act upon them?

imageSome think not, that there’s a limit to how far brute force computing power can take us. Imagine, for example, that we can calculate the outcome of the coin toss before a football match, given the coin, the environment, and the myriad features of the pitch. Given the technology we have these days that may even be possible now … Yet calculating – not predicting – the outcome of the match itself, that still remains a challenge of a different magnitude altogether.

The sheer fact is that despite the hype, no matter how much technology we bring to bear – and we’re already seeing data management tools capable of tracking millions of marketing touchpoints across literally billions of attributes – there will always be a limit to what is and isn’t deducible. At some point, unavoidably, the Law of Diminishing Returns kicks in.

In truth the main issue with big data is not so much the expectation that currently surrounds it but that it will lead inevitably to the continued growth of sales ‘machinery’.

From the humble Twitter auto DM to the dreaded boilerplate autoresponder to the explosion in recent years of marketing automation, it seems there’s no end to what’s possible to automate. Yet if the end goal remains personalisation of the buying experience, is this really the way to go?

imageWhile there’s a balance to be drawn between automating dialogue and keeping it personal, there are many who believe that things have already tilted too far in the auto direction. Some even go so far as to put the growth in marketing automation more down to the ‘boiler room’ methods being used to sell it than any inherent value in the product. They argue that too much automation is a poor replacement for real person-to-person communication.

And therein lies the crux. Ultimately, and despite the ongoing march towards techno this and auto that, there will always be some things at which people simply outshine the bots. Okay so we’ve lost at go. We still hold the upper hand at poker. And don’t expect to see a machine winning Wimbledon any time soon. To that list, add holding a conversation, establishing rapport, making a sale. Because when it all comes down to it, people just do them better.

CWB