The role of judgment in an increasingly automated world of Digital Marketing

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One of the key developments in the field of Digital Marketing in recent times has been the rise of Machine Learning led automated tools and processes to simplify the increasingly complex world of Digital Marketing. These automated processes enable marketers to simplify the process of creating, targeting, publishing and optimising their digital ads.

I have been working in this field for over 15 years now and have seen the evolution of this marketing channel at fairly close quarters. This is how I have seen the skills required to be successful evolve:

  • Technical skills – In the early days when the tools were not so sophisticated, it was a great advantage to have some understanding of the technology. Which is why, in my experience, some of the earliest digital marketers came from a technical background.
  • Analytical skills – As the tools become simpler to use, and digital marketing became more widespread, people who had a talent (and interest) in working with numbers started dominating this field. The ability to analyse and interpret data became a source of competitive advantage.
  • Creative skills – It’s safe to say that, for a long time, digital marketers weren’t necessarily the most creative. Creativity was seen as the domain of the ‘brand’ marketer, while ‘digital’ marketers were more analytical. However, with the rise of social media which is typically more visually oriented, we are seeing a change. Digital marketers increasingly need to have good creative skills as well. I am not saying that they need to be good at creating ads, but they need to have an eye for what is likely to be a good ad.

Skills for the Future?

The machine- learning led ‘automated’ tools and processes even today means that users with little technical, analytical or even creative skills can create and run digital marketing campaigns in a matter of hours (if not minutes). So what are the skills that are likely to matter most for the digital marketer of today (and the future)?

This is a topic that I have been ruminating about for a while. And a recent article I came about provided a strong perspective.The article is called “The Simple Economics of Machine Intelligence” and is written by Ajay Agrawal, Avi Goldfarb and Joshua Gans. The article basically postulates that as machine intelligence improves, the value of human prediction will decrease, but the value of human judgment would increase. And I agree with this.

My experience with the automated strategies in Digital Marketing is that while they can definitely save time and effort, they are not yet at the stage where it can be guaranteed that they will deliver better performance that human judgment led campaigns. One of the reasons for this is that all of the machine learning models rely on data. The more relevant data points, the better. And even though the volume of data points is going up exponentially, most businesses still struggle with quality of data. The data might not be sufficient for the specific use case that the marketer is targeting leading to the models extrapolating from the existing data or relying on ‘similar’ data, neither of which might accurately predict what is likely to happen next.

This is where human judgment comes in. An experienced digital marketer might be able to spot trends, or come up with hypotheses for testing that the machine learning models of today might struggle to do. A good marketer should have an innate understanding of their customer’s behaviour which can be translated into campaigns and ads. They would definitely have more information of their overall objectives which would enable them to take certain calls around campaign optimisation that automated models of today are not equipped to do.

The value of judgment also extends to hiring. While the process of hiring is also getting digitised and partly automated, I would argue that, at the end of the day, the hiring team would be able to judge the softer skills far better than any machine. What is the attitude of the candidate? Would the candidate and the hiring manager get along? Would he or she fit in with their immediate (and extended) team members? These are factors that are increasingly going to lead to stronger performances, than the typical ‘skills’ that people have been hiring for. As I am sure you would agree by now, a majority of these ‘traditional skills’ can be better performed by machines, if not today, then in the very near future.

So what are the skills that I would recommend digital marketers to develop?

  • Customer empathy – An ability to really understand your customers, how they behave, how they consume media, etc.
  • Curiousity – Always be asking questions. Why does the customer exhibit a particular type of behaviour? How does this latest machine learning model work?
  • Insights – What is the data really telling me about my customers and how they behave?
  • Ability to unlearn and relearn – The world is changing so rapidly that we need to regularly question whether what we believe to be facts still holds true. Do not let ego blind you.

What are the other skills you would recommend? Please do send in your comments!


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