AI Ethics in Marketing: Customer Persuasion vs Customer Coercion

William Ammerman, The Invisible Brand, Engaged Media, AI Ethics in Marketing

Listen to “50. The Ethics of AI – Customer Persuasion vs Customer Coercion w/ William Ammerman” on Spreaker.

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“As our interactions with artificially intelligent agents become more humanlike through natural language algorithms, we will begin to have conversations with machines. We will build empathic relationships with those machines in which we are even more vulnerable to their influence.”

These words from the “The Invisible Brand: Marketing in the Age of Automation, Big Data, And Machine Learning” sum up issues with AI ethics in marketing that many businesses – and consumers – are starting to face in a world with ever-evolving technology.

But is human domination by superintelligence really inevitable? The book’s author, William Ammerman, counters this thought in the following video…

A partnership between humans and machines is probably a better way of expressing what I view as the future, but machines are getting smarter and smarter,” he explains. “Machines will continue to do the things that we associate with humanlike intelligence. We are just now starting to experience it.”

The title of his book is a play on a term coined in Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” – the “invisible hand,” which is a feature of the economy operating to create wealth in society. And “The Invisible Brand” is very much about exposing something that is hidden – a new force in the economy, as he describes in the video below…

William is able to show people how the technology they’re using allows businesses to collect information, personalize information delivery back to the consumer to build relationships with them, and ultimately persuade us more effectively over time through AI and machine learning.

In the latest episode of The Customer Experience Podcast, we chat with William about modern tech and its ability to influence and persuade us as human beings. We analyze how this plays out in business, AI ethics in marketing, and the line companies should never cross in this innovative age.

In addition to authoring “The Invisible Brand,” William is the EVP of Digital Media at Engaged Media.

When asked the definition of customer experience, he said it’s all about the interaction between brands and consumers. He explains this further in the video below…

“I think about whether or not the consumer has a positive or negative impression of the brand,” he says. “And I also think about whether or not the relationship feels ethical, transparent and trusted.”

This transparency is essential in the digital age when technology allows us, as businesses, to access customer information at the touch of a button. And William says that CX is about informing the customer decision journey throughout the course of the relationships between brands and buyers.

Continue listening or reading below as he defines key technological components encountered throughout this journey, and how they should be approached in business. We explore the following topics…

Protecting consumer data privacy
 Defining AI (artificial intelligence)
Characterizing machine learning
Driving factors of “psychotechnology”
Ensuring customer persuasion, NOT coercion
Stopping short of “creepy” customer boundaries
Adapting to voice-based interfaces in marketing

AI Ethics in Marketing: Customer Persuasion vs Customer Coercion

Overviews and video clips of The Customer Experience Podcast are available here on the blog, but you can also hear this episode – and many others – on your preferred podcast player.

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You can also listen to the episode right here in this post. Hear the entire conversation about evolving technology in business interactions with customers and AI ethics in marketing here…

Listen to “50. The Ethics of AI – Customer Persuasion vs Customer Coercion w/ William Ammerman” on Spreaker.

The Importance of Protecting Data Privacy

Most consumers have a feeling that they’re being watched and followed, especially since they have advanced devices at their disposal that they talk to and that listen to them. And it’s definitely a valid sensation at a time in which ads on social media almost seem too personalized to our own interests, search history, and online activities.

“They increasingly have this awareness of being surveilled or being spied upon, and there is a fine line between marketing and espionage,” William says. “So, where we are today is that consumers have this sneaking suspicion that they’re being manipulated.”

With his book, William wanted to give people the knowledge to really reflect on the opportunities this technology brings, as well as the risks. He explains this further in the clip below…

He says that consumers give up data willingly in order for businesses to be able to provide them with the product or service they are seeking. They give you this trust because they recognize the value they’re getting in return. But there is a boundary that should not be crossed.

“Where consumers are ready to draw the line is when we move from using the information the way they expect it to be used to doing something else with it,” William says.

This is where the violation of customer trust occurs, and it’s the line most consumers are not OK with companies crossing. But the problem lies in that technological evolution is happening much faster than regulatory agencies can keep up with in a realm of constant consumer data exchange.

“There needs to be a really serious rethinking of who owns our data and who owns information about us,” William says.

AI ethics in marketing are crucial to a great customer experience. Businesses need to ensure that they are protecting the privacy of their customers by collecting and using their information ethically and transparently.

Note: for more on balancing automation, artificial intelligence, and human relationships, you might enjoy Episode 14 of this podcast with Samanta Stone.

Key “Invisible Brand” Terminology Defined

AI – William refers to a joke that he kicks off his book with: “AI is the art of making machines act like they do in the movies.” And the film industry showcases robots that are able to blend into society undetected. But he stresses that we are not at this point yet.

We are at the point where a customer chat bot engine can pass for an actual human. “Are you a human or a bot?” is one of the most popular chat questions humans get per our guest on Episode 41, Nelson Bruton. But William doesn’t believe we have accomplished what many people perceive AI to be because of how narrow AI applications are.

“They offer specific solutions to problems we would normally think of being solved by a human, but they aren’t general in the sense of solving all problems,” he says.

See the following video for how he perceives what AI consists of …

Algorithm – William describes algorithms as “a set of instructions you follow.” Algorithms can be grouped or paired into larger algorithms to solve problems.

And they are an important part of machine learning, which is the capability for machines to identify patterns in data and change outcomes. Businesses can use this to shape CX outcomes. He details this in the video below…

Neural network – This is the idea of an organized computer network in the way a human brain is organized, instead of following a linear path. Essentially, there are various processes occurring simultaneously that are generating answers and outcomes from the data compiled.

“When we start stacking neural networks, we can start to create what we think of as deep learning, and start to recognize new benefits from the complexity of the systems that we’re leveraging and that gives us some really powerful outcomes,” William says.

The 4 Factors of Psychotechnology

An important concept of William’s book is psychotechnology – or technology functioning on a psychological level. He details the four factors it consists of in the following clip…

These factors are:

1. Personalization of information

2. The science of persuasion

3. Natural language processing

4. Machine learning

All of these factors combined develop the technology we interact with on a daily basis.

“This is truly something new and unique that I need to be out there explaining because people deserve to know how it’s impacting them already. It’s already at work changing you and me,” William says. “We have to be aware that the machine that we are talking to is listening and learning about us in order to persuade us using our own personal information.”

Ethical Considerations of Technology for Businesses

With all of this in mind, it is the ethical responsibility of companies to think carefully of the consumer data they acquire via technology in order to provide the ideal customer experience when marketing to customers.

It’s about persuasion, not coercion or deception,” William asserts in the clip below…

This formula for AI ethics in marketing keeps you on the correct side of the ethical or “creepy” line. Because the reality is that many consumers are actually willing to be persuaded and convinced. What they don’t like is being tricked or coerced into buying into a product or service.

William details an example of this line being crossed by Target, who gathered enough data to discover which of their customers were pregnant based only on their buying habits. Their thought process was that by doing this they would be able to target consumers who are making long-term brand choices for their families, such as toothpaste, laundry detergent, etc.

But when they did this, they sent our mailers to customers they identified as most likely to be pregnant, and sent it to a 16-year-old girl. Her father was upset, but the teenager was in fact pregnant, and Target knew before he did.

“Target realized that with that consumer they had crossed the creepy line,” William says. “The learning Target took away from this is to not be so obvious.”

William Ammerman, The Invisible Brand, Engaged Media, AI Ethics in Marketing, customer persuasion, marketing

As a company you need to ensure this does not happen by always considering AI ethics in marketing because “Google-noia” is a real thing among consumers. Customers are suspicious they are being stalked or preyed upon, and that corporations are hiding what they do with their information.

To give them that great customer experience, you need to ensure that are persuading and offering a fair value exchange. But do not cross the creepy boundary that Target did.

How to Market Ethically as Technology Evolves

William says marketing is all about anticipating the demand of consumers and finding the right products that are able to deliver on that demand profitably. And he does not anticipate this changing.

William Ammerman, marketing tools, The Invisible Brand, Engaged Media, marketing tactics, marketing strategy

But the tools and tactics we use as marketers will change. An essential component of this will be voice-based interfaces. There are so many devices sold with voice capabilities – whether that be Siri, Alexa, or Cortana.

So, businesses really need to decide if this is a space worth investing in. And with so many products being sold with voice, this would be a wise decision. William explains why in the clip below…

“Increasingly, we are spending money with our mouths instead of fingers at this point,” William says. “This is an opportunity for you to capture market share or get left behind. Voice is the consumer facing edge of AI at some of our world’s largest and most valuable companies. Marketers need to be on top of these changes.”

William Ammerman, The Invisible Brand, Engaged Media, voice technology, marketing

This post is based on an interview with William Ammerman, EVP of Digital Media at Engaged Media and author of “The Invisible Brand (Marketing in the Age of Automation, Big Data, and Machine Learning),” which was recently named to the 2019 Porchlight Business Book Awards long list in the Marketing & Sales category.

IF you’ve listened to the show to completion, you know that every conversation ends with the chance for our guest to thank or mention someone who’s had a positive impact on her or his life and a chance to give a nod to a company that delivers a great customer experience. William gave that nod – along with points of caution – to Amazon, a company previous guests have also mentioned here.

Here’s what he had to share …

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Improve Transparency, Authenticity, and Relationships with Video

When you leverage tools and tactics to persuade and not coerce, you need to look for tools that build trust. In other words, you need video. When you replace some of your plain, typed-out text with simple, personal videos, you’re getting face to face with more people more often.

Video can also be a key element is highlighting your authenticity and differentiation as you work to brand yourself, and show your current and future clients who you really are and why they should work with you — instead of creeping them out.

Rehumanize Your Business” helps you get started in adding video to your business communication and drop the cloak of digital anonymity behind which you and your team intentionally or unintentionally hides behind daily.

The book is an Amazon #1 bestseller in Business Sales, Business Communication, and Customer Relations, the Porchlight Books #1 bestseller in its opening month of release, and a Barnes & Noble bestseller in its opening week of release.

Find out what it’s all about and if it’s the right tool you need for your business to thrive here.

customer experience, sales acceleration, rehumanize your business


Ethan Beute

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