For many business undergoing digital transformation, AI is a subject which is never very far from the table, but not often permitted to draw up a chair. A reluctance to replace human interaction with machine is one of the key arguments, fears around job security another. But Raj Balasundaram, Global Head of Solutions at Emarsys is on a mission to allay marketers’ fears about the rise of AI, and explain why it might well be the natural progression your company needs to boost your product offering one step further. Heading up Emarsys’ innovation division, and with a remit encompassing solutions, strategy and tech, Balasundaram is keen to introduce marketers to the many benefits of AI, and explain why all brands, from global enterprise to small start-up, will be able to benefit from this next technological revolution. Figaro Digital caught up with him to discuss what the travel industry stands to gain from adopting AI within its strategy.
How would you describe the travel industry’s current relationship with data? What are some of the main challenges that marketers are facing in this sector?
RB: “One of the patterns we’re seeing is that marketers concentrate on customer lifecycle. They do all the marketing messages, newsletters, cross sell upsell, ancillary, whatever you want to call it. But the booking lifecycle, as I like to call it, is usually managed by the IT team. A customer doesn’t see these things as separate. Let’s say you’re travelling to London, and then you get an email with an offer on flights to Spain. That’s because two different systems are looking at the prospect in completely different ways.
“It’s no one’s fault; if you put the customer in the centre you’ll have a customer lifecycle, if you put the booking in the centre you’ll have a booking lifecycle. But since it’s done by two different teams, it can be problematic. What you need is a singular system that manages these two different life cycles separately, but puts the customer in the middle. This means marketers will know when to sell to the customers, and once they’ve made a booking, respect that and let them do their own thing. Later, they can ask the consumer for their opinion, and bring them back into the marketing lifecycle. Essentially, a marketing system and an IT system cannot be separate, and that’s one of the biggest issues the customer and the travel industry are facing. That’s where we see AI and machine learning coming into play; one system that recognises customers going through different lifecycles, understands where they are contextually, and applies the right form of messaging for them.”
Do you think that any industry in particular has a responsibility to communicate with customers at a more personal level? How can marketers use tech to accomplish this?
RB: “Travel has become so commercialised, we actually forget that these are real people travelling. They are just one in a number in a big database. You want to acquire them, get more out of them, but fundamentally you need to make sure that your communication is contextual to what they’re doing. Tap into the emotional content. This could be an article about the place they’re travelling to, or a reminder that makes their travel experience better.
“It also depends on the age group. My parents might like to receive more news and highlights, information about the airport for example, whereas millennials want to know about the city they’re travelling to, things to do, events, bars, and stuff like that. It’s being emotionally contextual. It is very difficult to do at a one-to-one level, but the cool thing is that everyone actually already has the necessary data, they just need to tap into it.”
So what is the key to implementing this emotional, contextual communication within the strategy?
“There is no wax on/wax off for this- no silver bullet. Start with the macros, the big segments that the brand already has. We help to fine tune what they’re currently doing; ten segments become five segments, and then eventually down to a singular level. The biggest takeaway is that there’s a framework to your segmentation. If you’re a millennial traveller, your framework of experience is different to travellers in their 60s. That’s what we’re helping brands to create, and the majority of the heavy lifting can be done by tech. We believe that AI will revolutionise the marketer`s role. Marketers will create content, they will optimise their work. They will be more involved in the business logic of the marketing strategy, rather than the technical execution.”
It’s clear that there has been a reluctance towards the introduction of AI into the wider marketing strategy. What are some key points to make that transition smoother?
RB: “When people start putting AI into play, it’s important that they don’t lose track of what they’re trying to do. Hyper personalisation is great, but we don’t want to reach a stage where you’re putting clutter in your mobile, email or push messages. It can easily reach a point where it’s overwhelming. As a marketer, you need to think the types of content you want to put in front of the customer, and create personas for each of the segments. Millennials want to see one kind of content, senior travellers another, business travellers another kind of content. The end goal is to understand the sentimental conflict of your audience, and then help the machine find that kind of person, and this kind of content, and distribute it within this network. In a nutshell, it’s clusters of content, clusters of people, matched by AI. As easy as that!”
Is there a chance that AI might further widen that divide between marketing and IT departments?
RB: “IT and marketing are incentivised completely differently. IT are service oriented. They don’t want more work. Marketing are consumer orientated, and leads oriented, so their perspective is completely different. When you have two different departments with a completely different way of looking at things, there’s going to be friction. So align these two departments and try to identify the bottlenecks. What is causing the friction between your teams? It can be as simple as a communication problem. IT doesn’t understand marketing language, and vice versa. So we help them put together a common taxonomy, so they both understand what a segment means, for example. Remember, for IT a segment is just a group of people. For marketing, that’s the core of their business, segments represent individuals. Sit them together and explain. Solve the human issue first, and then you can bridge the gaps.”
Many people only see AI as a device that will “replace jobs”. What would you say to those who are sceptical about its feasibility within their marketing stack?
RB: “I was fortunate enough to be born during the IT revolution, and people said IT would take our jobs. Guess what happened? It doubled and tripled employment rates. AI is the next revolution. Essentially what it’s going to take away are the laborious tasks that are stopping marketers from connecting with the customers. Marketers love to get out of their chairs and speak to customers, but now they cannot; they’re chained to the desk, they analysing data or sending emails. AI will be a friend to a CMO as well as a CTO.
“Small start-ups don`t have the resources to hire enough people to crunch numbers and run campaigns . That’s where AI comes in. It’s going to be so useful for small start-ups, and for people who are nimble and agile and want to make a difference to the customer. And we know that AI is going to help marketers, but most importantly, AI is going to be the next best friend for the consumer. We always think about it from a marketer’s perspective, or a brand’s perspective. It’s time we start thinking about it from the point of view of the consumer, and what is best for them. AI will provide the right content to the right person at the right time. We’ve been talking about it all along, but now we have the chance to actually do it!”