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The Future of Marketing is Digital – and Very Human

Artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation are coming, and coming soon. While all the technological advances are exciting, there is also a very real concern about job security and the role that modern professionals will – or will not – play in the future of work. From chatbots to Big Data, what role will humans play? A very vital one, according to digital strategy expert Paul Sanders.

Behind Every AI System…

Is a smart digital marketer ready to interpret the data and activate a strategy. “More than anything,” Sanders says, “digital marketers help people move along the customer journey.” Rather than focusing on mastering a particular tool, or being an expert in a particular channel, the best marketers are asking what gaps exist in the user’s life, and how their solution can help fill that gap. The human intelligence of understanding need, want, attraction, and insight are things that computers just aren’t built to handle.

“Hacking people is the hardest thing in the world.”

“Nobody can look at numbers and come up with a content strategy. With technology, you can get very quantitative, but you need to understand human behaviors and empathy,” says Sanders. Two things that are very difficult to program.

New AI technology can help test content, even do predictive topic mapping through Monte Carlo simulations, but even the most sophisticated of systems need humans feeding the system, establishing baselines, developing strategy, and ultimately creating the stand-out content that the whole system is measuring. Even the future of automated bidding for search – an exciting and complicated development – all has to come back to engaging content, created by rock-star marketers who understand what people do, what people like, and what can grab attention. The articles, landing pages, emails, display ads – these are the foundation of every good digital strategy, and we still need creative individuals who can understand what people respond to and what they want now.

“You need people to feed and manage any AI system.”

How to Get Ahead

Sanders stresses that not enough people are working in data. There is a lot of untapped potential for people to be trained in digital marketing and data analytics. “Remember, nobody was born with this knowledge. We’ve all had to learn.” There are two ways to get noticed in this field and really advance your career:

1. Get certified

There are lots of programs out there, but some of the big ones, like Google Analytics, are getting tougher and tougher – which makes them more valuable and differentiating. Being able to point to formal training will make you stand out, and give you the resources to bring unique value to a marketing team. “A lot of people think that certifications don’t matter, but they really do. If I’m looking at a bunch of similar resumes, someone certified with Google Analytics or something similar will really jump to the top of the pile.”

2. Find someone to take a chance on you, learn as you go

Because this field is emerging so quickly, it can be hard to know what trainings to invest in. Sometimes, your best bet is to find someone who sees what you’re capable of and is willing to train you on the job. A great example of this is structured internships: your intellect, creativity, and work ethic may be all you need to land the job, and from there supportive mentors and managers build your specific skills through on-the-job projects. The best case scenario, for both intern and employer, is when these are set up with the possibility to hire at the end.

Ask the Right Questions

Whether you’re working in digital marketing or looking to improve your brand’s digital marketing – “Not enough people understand the whole picture. They don’t know what they need,” says Sanders.

Questions to ask the client:

Savvy marketers should be asking potential clients questions like, “How did you decide this is what you need? What is the biggest problem you’re trying to solve?” Sanders likened this to a person complaining to a doctor of back pain: the patient may want painkillers or an immediate solution, but the doctor really wants to suggest losing weight, trying yoga, or some physical therapy. If your client is asking for ibuprofen, see if you can get to the underlying issues they’re having along the customer journey before jumping immediately into the solution. You may arrive at the same conclusion, or you may have already proven your value by helping them address the real problems.

Most companies either have a lack of alignment around goals and an ill-defined customer journey, or too much attachment to their customer journey and have wound up with overlapping, conflicting, siloed tactics. In the interview, ask questions about how their teams are functioning and see which end of this spectrum they’re on. Do they need help with tactical, actionable, coordinated implementation? Or do they need a critical unifying eye to bring the whole strategy together so the team can move as one? Again, marketers’ primary role is to move people along the customer journey – start with the people, start with the journey, focus on movement. Things like channels (like YouTube vs. Snapchat) and even budgets (how much to spend on SEO vs display) will follow a cohesive, customer-focused plan.

Questions to ask talent:

Companies looking to hire digital marketers first need to decide if they need to add to their headcount with a team of employees, or if they need highly specialized short-term project support. Many operations in digital marketing are ongoing and having a dedicated team can be invaluable. On the other hand, many digital marketing efforts are short bursts, like a launch or strategy overhaul, in which case being able to hire an expert consultant for a defined scope of work will bring the biggest benefit. The skills you need to get started are not the same as you need to maintain and evolve.

In the interview, it’s important to ask specific questions. “How do you know that what you did worked? Has determining or maintaining ROI been a challenge?” The best marketers will admit that it’s always difficult to know – but it’s the follow-up that you’re interested in. “Honest digital marketers will say that determining ROI is tough – but it’s the why that’s important,” offers Sanders. Whether it’s technology limits, teamwork, company investment, or something else all together, you’re looking for someone who can see the whole picture and is always looking to improve.

There’s much we don’t yet know about the future of digital marketing, but one thing is for sure: the need for bright, curious, strategic, empathetic humans is not going anywhere.

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Antenna is a leader in delivering top marketing professionals to corporations of all sizes for project-based consulting, interim leadership assignments, and contract staffing engagements. With headquarters in Minneapolis, Antenna draws from its private community of experienced marketing talent to help clients balance the flexibility and expertise modern marketing organizations demand.