Are We Entering the Era of Millisecond Marketing?

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This post was originally published on Adweek.

Nowadays, it’s a scene you’ll pretty much see only in movies: Stock traders in brightly colored jackets frantically shouting and flashing symbols on exchange floors. But this was how stocks were bought and sold for most of Wall Street’s history.

Then, in the 1990s, electronic exchanges entered the picture. In short order, powerful PCs were making trades in milliseconds, leaving even the fastest floor traders in the dust.

These days, high-frequency trades are powered by increasingly complex algorithms that analyze multiple markets, and then transact vast numbers of orders at blinding speeds. The decision to buy and sell is largely out of human hands. High-frequency trading is not without its critics, but the lucrative payoff has spurred a tech arms race among the industry’s largest players.

What does all of this mean for the world of marketing? Quite a lot, it turns out.

Marketing’s technology problem

In contrast to the stock market, technology has come slowly and fitfully to marketing. Only in the past decade or so have digital tools to streamline how we promote and sell products become widespread.

Cloud-based customer-relationship-management platforms simplified the process of compiling and tracking prospects and leads. Advanced content-creation software made it easier to churn out designs and graphics. Marketing automation tools let businesses scale campaigns and reach bigger audiences.

But by and large, we were still in the “Don Draper” era of marketing. Marketing teams, helped by creative agencies, put their heads together to come up with catchy campaigns. Data and research might play a part but, just as in Mad Men, these efforts rested on a decidedly human process informed by experience, gut and intuition. Art would be generated by a design team. Copy would be scrutinized and finalized by editors. Ads would be placed, blog posts written and email campaigns launched.

Then, we’d wait—fingers crossed. Some campaigns crashed and burned. Others exceeded expectations. But even in an era of Google Analytics, it was hard to predict what would work and what wouldn’t.

In some ways, we hadn’t advanced all that far from the days of marketing pioneer John Wanamaker, who back in the late 1800s famously quipped, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

Rise of the machines

But since 2011, the handful of tools in the marketing technology marketplace has ballooned to more than 3,800. And they’ve evolved from simply automating repetitive tasks to generating their own competitive insights. Marketing clouds—from the likes of Adobe, IBM, SAP, Oracle and Microsoft—bundle the best of these tools into integrated packages.

At the heart of these clouds are increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence brains powered by, you guessed it, algorithms—from IBM’s Watson to Salesforce’s Einstein. They process vast amounts of raw data in order to better target customers, place and tweak ads, personalize campaigns and measure results—and they do it automatically.

Right in front of us, the cycle for creating, distributing and optimizing marketing content is being radically compressed. Instead of relying on human intuition, it’s fueled by in-depth consumer data gathered from social media and other sources. Ever more complex algorithms are calling the shots and removing the guesswork about what marketing materials will lead to what results—and they’re doing so nearly in real time.

Suddenly, we’re no longer old-fashioned stock traders sweating in the pit, gesturing frantically and hoping for the best. We’ve entered the era of millisecond marketing.

Millisecond marketing in action

The ad space offers some of the clearest illustration of the potential here. Not long ago, digital ads were largely the domain of specialized ad agencies, which had the design know-how to create ads and the industry connections needed to place them.

The advent of ad-buying options on Google and Facebook democratized the process, but designing and targeting ads remained until recently a time-consuming, trial-and-error process—and one that required significant expertise to get right.

But in the last several years, AI-powered tools have emerged that enable anyone to create and test hundreds of ad variations in a matter of minutes—tweaking everything from copy and imagery to audience and spend in order to get the best results. High-performing ads are automatically boosted, while low-performing ones are cut. Real-time reports spit back engagement and click numbers instantly, with results that no human could hope to replicate on his or her own.

This trend is extending even to the creative process itself. For decades now, tools from the likes of Adobe have progressively streamlined the job of creating content—from editing photos to creating graphics, building web pages, generating visual effects and managing all of these assets. In fact, Adobe’s flagship Creative Cloud now counts more than 9 million paid users.

The latest iteration enables users to instantly pull millions of stock photos and brand assets from a central database. These can then be fed into a compatible social media management platform and posted on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other platforms, without any specialized design work required. Customer engagement is automatically tracked with Adobe Analytics, which also uses AI to optimize content and discover overlooked opportunities.

The next step in this process: Tools that take over the role of designer altogether—creating the content all by themselves.

Interestingly, this futuristic scenario is already playing out. Case in point: Nutella recently used an algorithm to design labels for 7 million “one-of-a-kind” jars. The algorithm pulled from dozens of patterns and thousands of colors to create millions of eye-pleasing graphics, all in a matter of seconds. Tellingly, the jars were gorgeous: They sold out almost as soon as they were stocked on store shelves.

Getting ready for the era of millisecond marketing

This is a relatively simple example, but it’s not difficult to see where these trends lead. When content can be created instantly, targeted and distributed instantly, and then tweaked and optimized instantly, marketing becomes a whole new ballgame. Inference, inspiration and intuition are—for better or worse—on their way out, replaced by an accelerating loop of test-and-optimize.

For companies, keeping pace requires investing not just in the right people, but in the right tools. Ecosystem and compatibility—finding tech that plays well together so that data can become content and content can be turned back into data—is critical. Above all, access to rich, real-time customer information—the kind of insights shared day in and day out over social networks—is the difference-maker. Without the right data, even the best AI engines sputter and stall.

The end game is far from clear, but one thing’s for sure: Marketing, for so long a creative, “human” function, is fast becoming a technical one. Success—or failure—may soon come down to a matter of milliseconds.