Riding The Razor’s Edge of AI in B2B Marketing

Riding The Razor’s Edge of AI in B2B Marketing

Where can artificial intelligence (AI) play a genuinely helpful role in B2B marketing efforts, and when does it go too far and become a creative liability for marketers?

AI has increasingly crept into our daily lives, and B2B marketers are facing these and other new questions, confronted with keeping a healthy balance between some of the efficiency and time-saving gains AI can deliver, and running the risk of implementing too much AI and not enough of the human touch.

AI has continued its inevitable refinements from the first online customer service help chatbots to today’s software that ostensibly writes many forms of text, to the ever-more-impressive AI-generated digital images of programs such as DALL-E.

Just how much AI is too much in B2B marketing is a machine learning (ML) spectacle that will play out in 2023 and likely never stop being refined, however B2B marketers today can be prepared by knowing some of the key issues at hand and the right questions to ask.

Let’s take a look at three of the major areas of marketing where AI is increasingly at play, and explore the benefits and risks of machine learning in B2B marketing.

It’s no secret that B2B marketers are more frequently being asked to deliver greater efficiency, as our own senior content marketing manager Nick Nelson recently examined in “B2B Content Marketing: Making Small Budgets Do Big Things,” and in this quest for more efficient work it’s little wonder that AI has had an uptick in usage.

With B2B businesses having moved to a digital-first online strategy over the past several years, marketers have found themselves spending more time producing a wider variety of content than ever before.

“Today’s marketers say they spend a significant amount of their time creating content,” Meghan Bazaman, senior content analyst at Gartner recently observed in “Why AI/ML Is a Game Changer for Content Marketing,” adding that, “In fact, 45 percent spend half of their week doing so.”

Faced with growing content creation demands, AI has presented B2B marketers with options for boosting efficiency.

“AI and ML have already been adopted for other marketing functions,” Bazaman noted. “They are most commonly used in email marketing, advertising and data analytics, but only a third of marketing professionals say they use them for content creation,” she added.

With AI’s inevitable refinements in the coming years, it will undoubtedly be able to tackle more than just the relatively simple and easy-to-read content it excels at today.

“AI/ML has a promising future in marketing. As the technology gets better at emulating human behavior, it will play a larger role as a writing assistant, helping marketers work smarter and more efficiently,” Bazaman suggested.

Yet simultaneously, B2B marketers are looking for new ways to personalize content efforts.

Personalized content and offers were listed by global B2B marketers as the top marketing tactic being added in 2022, according to new eMarketer data that Tequia Burt, editor in chief of the LinkedIn* Ads Blog recently explored in, “5 Top Takeaways from eMarketer’s 2022 US B2B Digital Ad Spending Forecast.”

“Emerging digital technologies and tools are giving B2B marketers the ability to find their target audience and personalize content for them more effectively than ever before,” Burt suggested.

While AI can automate the creation of some level of the personalized content B2B marketers are seeking to deliver, it’s important to know when AI personalization can become tone deaf.

AI is also fundamentally unable to deliver when it comes to another area today’s B2B professionals are seeking — real, human-powered insight on current trends.

64 percent of business executives have said they prefer thought leadership content with “a more human, less formal tone of voice,” according to LinkedIn and Edelman’s latest B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study.

Let’s take a look at three of the primary areas where AI is playing an increasingly important role in B2B marketing, working from the most straightforward to the most complicated.

Alan Turing’s 1966 ELIZA was among the first of what today we call chatbots, and they’ve undoubtedly progressed in complexity every year since.

I’ll never forget my first time using an AI-infused chatbot program around 1985 — not because of the initial half hour or so spent interacting with the ELIZA-based Commodore 64 software, but from continuing that conversation some 20 years later.

Around 2005 I converted my old collection of Commodore 64 5.25-inch floppy disks into files that can be used with modern emulation programs, and came across my long-forgotten chatbot disk. Once converted, I booted up the program and was instantly transported back to 1985, as the chatbot picked up just where I’d left off so long ago, asking me if I’d had a good time playing basketball — the last thing I’d mentioned during our previous chat. I felt oddly sorry for the chatbot, having had to wait so long to continue our conversation, and was happy to have picked it up again.

Since then chatbots have progressed by leaps and bounds, and more B2B brands have been offering them among customer support options in recent years.

According to one recently-publishing survey, among small and midsize businesses, 97 percent have said that AI tools reduce the time they spend on marketing tasks, and 92 percent said that AI tools led to decreased costs.

Just how quickly are AI-powered marketing tools proving helpful to businesses? The same survey found that over 80 percent of marketing decision-makers believe that AI marketing tools will have a positive impact on their business over the next two to three years or sooner.

Chatbots are just one of the AI-infused technologies that are being used by B2B brands, so let’s look at a few more.

A rising number of B2B marketers have been testing the waters with AI-powered image generation applications including DALL-E, Jasper.ai, Meta AI’s Make-A-Scene, Stability AI, and others that are making waves by turning plain text descriptions of anything imaginable into digital images.

DALL-E — which bills itself as “your creative copilot,” uses machine learning models to not only create images from natural language descriptions but to alter and re-create existing images.

Jasper.ai — which bills itself as a top AI content platform for business, offers an array of social media content generation features from image creation to written content, which we’ll look at separately in a moment.

The slightly disconcerting images created by these and similar AI-based programs have been increasingly popping up in our social media feeds, and they point to a fascinating road ahead as their use in B2B marketing finds a niche.

As an example of the current state of AI-based image generation, I asked DALL-E to make images showing, “A group of B2B marketing professional business-people attending a networking conference event,” and among the four images it provided after a short wait, one — the only image not showing a face, tellingly — could likely work in certain B2B marketing campaigns. The others — not so much.

As the technology rolls ever along, the images these tools create will only improve and become less off-putting, however even today their use has raised concerns in several areas — from fundamental questions of what is genuine and what isn’t, to copyright concerns and more.

Last month stock photography giant Getty Images announced that it was taking a stand against AI-generated imagery, due to the unsettled nature of the various copyright laws that protect stock photos and the artists who created them.

“There are real concerns with respect to the copyright of outputs from these models and unaddressed rights issues with respect to the imagery, the image metadata and those individuals contained within the imagery,” Craig Peters, chief executive at Getty Images, explained.

Another player in the stock photography business has taken quite a different approach to AI-generated images, as Shutterstock recently announced an expanded partnership with OpenAI — the AI research organization founded in part by Elon Musk — that will see Shutterstock offering AI image generation from natural language text prompts.

The expanded Shutterstock partnership with OpenAI will use the DALL-E application programming interface (API), and even allow its users to manipulate certain existing images within its vast database, while also implementing a new framework to provide compensation to those photographers and artists who have played a part in helping develop the AI models.

As has been the case with numerous area of technology, legislation lags behind today’s swift progress in AI-generated images, and much remains to be clarified when it comes to copyright, the use of training AI image generation programs with millions of existing images taken by real photographers, and deeper questions about authenticity in marketing and life.

The AI-powered video creation industry has also seen growth — although not as established as the still image market, and is likely to be another area that sees increased usage among B2B marketers and other digital creators in 2023.

While more B2B marketers than ever have turned to testing or implementing AI-based software to write content, several serious hurdles remain. Notably, the public’s perception and trust of the advertising and public relations industry has fallen to new lows according to one recent Gallup poll.

A scant 26 percent of U.S. adults see PR and advertising in a somewhat or very position light, bottoming out even more than the previous low of 27 percent in 2008, with net-positive ratings now even lower than during 2003’s previous record low.

In light of this, B2B marketers need to ask themselves whether increasing the use of AI-powered technology will help or hurt the public’s all-time-low perception of the marketing industry — and no area runs a greater risk than when it comes to writing.

B2B marketers have already had to walk a razor’s edge when it comes to the use of AI, however that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of areas where AI can be used successfully, including writing with the assistance of tools such as ContentBot and Jasper.ai.

As with AI-generated images, writing generated by AI copy-writing tools face both audience acceptance and legal issues.

Questions remain, such as when a piece of writing reaches a certain threshold percentage of content created by AI, does it need to be disclosed to the reader? If — or more likely, when — AI copy-writing tools are able to progress to the point where they can take more humans out of the marketing loop, is that always a good thing, or are there serious risks that threaten the very heart of what marketing is.

Whether using AI-powered chatbots, machine-learning-powered image, video, and copy-writing tools — or a mixture of them all — today’s B2B marketers live in an interesting and foundational time, and in a digital landscape that is certain to look vastly different in just a few short years.

Careful and considered implementation of AI-powered technologies can pay dividends for savvy B2B marketers and become part of a modern digital-first super-stack of marketing technology skills, and we hope that some of the AI information we’ve explored here will help your own efforts as we push ahead into 2023 and beyond.

More than ever before, creating award-winning B2B marketing that elevates, gives voice to talent, and humanizes with authenticity takes considerable time and effort, which is why more brands are choosing to work with a top digital marketing agency such as TopRank Marketing.Reach out to learn how we can help, as we’ve done for over 20 years for businesses ranging from LinkedIn, Dell and 3M to Adobe, Oracle, monday.com and many others.

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