How AI is revolutionising online retail marketing

By Scott Ivell

Image source: TechCrunch


Artificial Intelligence (AI) has already become part of everyday life. From the chatbot in the contact centre answering your query, to the recommendations and offers you receive from your supermarket, AI is already more ubiquitous than you might think.

But then again, if you’re not really noticing all of the AI around you, then it’s doing its job.

So with the AI revolution underway in business already, how will it impact online retail marketing? Is it destined to become another buzzword amongst the crowded marketing mix, or is it a truly game-changing tool for marketers?

It’s no secret that customer experience has become the marketer’s primary battleground for pulling ahead of the competition. Keen to adopt new methods, new channels and new technologies that will help them drive a more personalised customer experience, online retail marketers are starting to look at how AI can help.

The “why AI” for customer journeys

Online retail customer journeys are more complex than they used to be, and people expect a lot more from their brands when it comes to interactions.

As one of the pillars of marketing communications, personalisation is a crucial element of the online retail marketing mix that is transforming alongside the integration of AI. Recent research from Salesforce shows that 52% of customers are likely to switch brands if a company doesn’t personalise communications to them, with 65% of B2B customers following suit.

However, personalisation itself is evolving. Whilst years ago, the notion of sending personalised newsletters was exciting and new, it’s pretty much standard these days. There’s nothing interesting or engaging about getting a newsletter from a brand that is sending you a selection of products.

The real magic happens when you realise that machine learning is capable of more than just knowing names and addresses, but can offer products and services based on a much deeper level of understanding through the use of complex data matching and intelligent attribution.

In the past, target segments were selected based on the marketer’s goals (such as awareness, retention, sales, etc.) and were essentially an educated guess. With AI, the guesswork is reduced when predictive analytics are able to address certain customer behaviours that can enhance campaigns and create razor-sharp targeting to receptive audiences. Not only will this reach the right people, they are far more likely to respond favourably when the content resonates with them.

Then there’s interaction. The rise of the chatbot has been instrumental to this and whilst they’ve been around for a while, the modern versions are more intuitive thanks to advancements in machine learning. Unlike their predecessors, today’s chatbots have a much more sophisticated vocabulary and more complex context algorithms, meaning that they can better engage customers in conversation and provide more humanised, accurate and useful assistance.

As well as providing more meaningful moments between brands and their customers, AI also makes things more convenient for consumers – consumers no longer need to work so hard to find the products and services they need.

Whilst newsletters, offers and notifications may sometimes be seen as a nuisance, AI provides far more highly targeted communications that engage – rather than annoy – customers, giving them what they want, often before they know it. Recent research from Salesforce’s AI Revolution report reveals that 75% of business buyers expect that by 2020, companies will anticipate their needs and make relevant suggestions before they contact them.

Data-driven insights

Making the customer journey smarter, with more personalised, convenient interactions, depends on knowing your customer. The more relevant the data you have on your customer, the more detailed the insights you can draw on.

If businesses are the engine, data is the oil that keeps them running. As the raw material of any marketing campaign, what used to be an infinitely complex set of data has now become much more manageable.

AI presents an opportunity to take data intelligence yet further for companies of all sizes. Using machine learning, systems can take in millions of data points and analyse them in minutes before recommending the best way to use them. As well as speed, AI can provide greater accuracy and fresh insights, finding correlations that teams may have previously missed.

New innovations

Today, brands don’t just provide services and products – to truly stand out, they need to create interactions that not only satisfy needs, but create real experiences as well. AI is continually evolving and new innovations in the technology can help marketers deliver these experiences.

One example of this is AI-enabled image recognition in social media. Consumers are sharing more photos on social media than ever before. In fact, according to Deloitte, 2.5 trillion photos were predicted to be shared or stored online in 2016. It’s a treasure trove of information, and previously, marketers would have to either manually sort through thousands of images or analyse associated text to gain insight as to how the brand was “playing” on social media.

But using AI technologies that automate the discovery and identification of images, marketers are now quickly able to respond appropriately, even when a post hasn’t specifically mentioned a brand, product or service by name. 

For example, a marketer at a drinks brand can now identify and keep track of when consumers take photos of their product and share on social, enabling them to comment on the images and easily build advocacy and brand loyalty. This level of detail is incredibly useful for developing highly personalised content, coordinated across each channel, ultimately making social deliver better results for marketers.

The shape of marketing teams        

Our fourth annual State of Marketing report, which surveyed 3,500 marketing leaders, discovered that AI is the technology where marketers expect the most growth over the next two years. According to the report, 51% of marketing leaders are already benefitting from AI and its use will grow by 53% within the next twenty-four months.  These figures are unusually high for a technology still in its infancy, reflecting the shift from one-to-many to one-to-one personalised customer journeys.

When we think about the impact of AI on these marketing teams, most of us instantly jump to benefits like increased time for strategic and creative tasks, as machine intelligence speedily crunches through analytics, makes recommendations and automates simple tasks for us.

While this is certainly the case, AI also has a role to play in the structures and processes of marketing teams. Our research found that high-performing marketing teams have a few key attributes in common, including, an ability to push the boundaries of personalisation with AI and a willingness to embrace organisational change to help them deliver on the promise of AI and an improved customer experience.

Embracing AI does, in part, depend on internal processes, structures and systems. These need to reflect the connected, personalised customer journey that AI is enabling. It’s striking, therefore, that the highest performing marketing teams are nearly all (89%) aligning marketing roles to a customer journey strategy vs. traditional roles – almost 2.5 times more than underperforming teams. 

Additionally, 61% of marketers say they’ve become more focused on their progress from a traditional marketing structure to roles aligned with a customer journey strategy in the past year. In fact, if you think of the new C-suite roles that we have seen develop over the past five to ten years, they are nearly all marketing related and customer aligned: chief customer experience officer, chief digital officer, even the role of chief strategy officer is customer aligned.

Shoppers increasingly expect brands to know them inside out. In order to do this, the most successful online retail marketing teams are deploying new technologies like AI and, as part of this deployment, are shifting the way they operate to focus on what matters to customers.

The future starts now

The exciting part is that AI is still a very young field and we’re just at the start of this revolution. When you consider that we’re already using voice-activated assistants and software that ‘learns,’ the future potential for online retail marketers is huge.

Coupled with the fact that consumers have already grown accustomed to the smarter interactions that AI delivers, it’s evident that the technology offers enormous opportunity for brands to drive loyalty, engagement, and sales -- making the role of the marketer even more important in the company of the future.


By Scott Ivell, UK Senior Marketing Director for Salesforce


Download Salesforce's 'State of Marketing' Report here.

Join thousands of other Online Retail professionals

Get unique insights straight to your inbox for free, and improve your understanding of online retail. Subscribe to Online Retail Weekly now.

Webinar Scroll Banner
Join thousands of other Online Retail professionals

Get unique insights straight to your inbox for free, and improve your understanding of online retail. Subscribe to Online Retail Weekly now.

Webinar Scroll Banner