The human in the automation wheel
JOHANNESBURG – Not so long ago, I completed a customer experience survey online for a major retailer about their womenswear section. I probably overshared.
They asked me if the fitting rooms were clean, and I wrote a short paragraph about how bad lighting and unflattering mirror angles are the enemy of feeling good in any attire, and consequent behaviours include walking out of said retailer with no new clothes and a four dimensional view of your recently acquired five kilograms in the midsection.
I am a customer in this messy digi-real world, but I am also a marketer who understands the value of acknowledging how your customer feels in their experience with you. Customers are noisier than ever, especially when you don’t ask them to be.
In a world dominated by the race to close the human-machine gap, finding the blind spots within the digital journey is imperative for marketers. With 40 percent of CMO’s stating that they spent most of their budgets on digital and social media (Cinman, 2018), the battle to meet the customer online, in time, is in full force. In just one year, customers’ likelihood to use digital channels for a service enquiry has increased almost 20 percent (Gardiner, 2019), making digital channels an expectation nexus for problem-solving and service for brands.
Our customer is the only one who owns the experience, and they will remind you as soon as you fail to meet their nascent need. As broken digital journeys and non-delivery exposes brands to unfettered critique on social media, the increased sense of hypervigilance amongst brand and sales teams is almost palpable. They are too afraid to make functional promises to their customers, and too cynical to make emotional connections with their prospects.
Automation journeys in the B2B world are no different in their expectation to serve the customer the right knowledge at the right time. To help support lower operating costs, increasingly brands turn to online channels to help them create support services. But even before the customer has purchased, it is possible for a decision-maker to go on a journey with a brand without them even knowing it.
As creators of content, copywriters and designers know that their piece must serve a multitude of different functions as it floats around the digital ecosystem pre- or during purchase. It must make the brand look knowledgeable, but not preachy. It must resonate with the audience, but not talk down to them. It must talk to their pain points, but always be positive. It must solve their problems, but not give too much away to the reader. It must make the brand look ‘good’, but it must be for the consumer.
In trying to ‘act real’ online, brands either form a unique, outspoken voice that can comment on topical events (think Nandos), or they can become mockeries of themselves… trying to show a little ‘real’ human vulnerability and ending up making themselves brightly coloured targets for every woke and intersectional Millennial and their now duly informed parents out there (see Absa).
These days, there is more than posturing and ‘fronting’ going on as brands try to behave like people online. There is also a subtle power dynamic that sits behind automation that advertising is only just getting its head around. When we design marketing automation campaigns there is a list of criteria that dictates which kinds of people will be moved along the purchase journey with supporting content along each touchpoint.
For example, if you are a CFO employed in a large construction company, and we are aiming to sell you a business banking offering, our automation system will score you on your eligibility to receive follow-up content. Subtlety entrenched within this scoring system and content framework are often a lot of assumptions. In part, this is because we don’t want to send content about “the ‘S’ curve in construction and the flailing economy” to the Head of Distribution in a Food and Beverage company. For them, the content really isn’t relevant.
However, this criterion also serves to weed out the ‘non buyers’ from the purchase journey. These exclusions could be anything from having the wrong designation to the wrong size of company. Understanding the people you are engaging with (not just ones you think you are) is at the core here. Without the right research, we may believe the CFO is the person we want to target, potentially ignoring the financial manager; the CFO’s personal assistant; and the personal accountant who heavily influences the CFO.
Moreover, without understanding the real power dynamics at play within the company, and the deeply embedded emotional drivers of our target audience, our assumptions can create a lot of pointless content that resonates with no one. Our list of criteria needs to exclusive enough to be relevant, but inclusive enough to understand that very few companies make the buying decision alone or on a purely rational basis.
In excluding the ‘silent buyers’ in the decision-making unit (DMU), we also eliminate our own ability to resonate with the key influencers, the buyers of the future and their latent challenges. To know the deep-seated fears and aspirations of our multitudinous target audience is to understand their humanity, their mercurial emotional landscape and their earnest ambitions.
Rather than taking advantage of these deeply rooted truths, it is the job of marketers to become empaths (yes, I said it) and truth-tellers for their brand. B2B marketers looking to automation need to be enabling the DMU to be better business people. If helping your clients become better CFO’s, better line managers or better users is what you are aiming to do with your content – you are on the right track, and they will reward you for it.
In ‘Automating Inequality’ by Virginia Eubanks, automation is explored from the other side of the spectrum. Though it is often lauded as the efficiency silver-bullet, Eubanks shows that it can increase invisible divisions between the rich and poor, the privileged and the targeted. In our giddy haze, we cannot risk forgetting that in automating a journey, your function as a marketer changes to that of a surveillance tool.
Eubanks’ book reminds us that we are responsible for human experiences through automated channels. Increasingly automation is used to program heavily administrated social services, such as the screening processes for children at risk for abuse. Many of the criteria are so systematised they have become rigid, and rather than reduce the amount of admin for social workers, it strips them of their agency and ability to diagnose cases, leaving it up to system to decide. Eubanks notions that this works against the receiver of these services, who are at the mercy of the machinations of a non-human.
While the intent may be pure, outsourcing decision-making to a machine can prioritise machine input at the expense of humane output. Thus, we need to be mindful that the rules and regulating effects of automation do exist in the real world, where ‘embodied intelligence’ (Roberts, 2018) is realised and experienced – not just in the online universe of good intentions.
As Eubanks notions, the first step towards creating more meaningfully automated experiences for people is realising that they come with your set of values, assumptions and beliefs locked in them. Automation is a repeated and adapted blueprint of boundaries and portals set up for engagement, which strongly mirrors culture. Thus, to respectfully and dynamically engage with the real buyer cultures at hand is an ethical responsibility of marketers today. In speaking to the human in the automation wheel – we must remember to bring our humanity with us, in order to resonate with theirs.
Claire Denham-Dyson is the head anthropologist at Demographica.
BUSINESS REPORT ONLINE