The case against too much marketing automation

As marketers become overwhelmed by the increasing number of digital tools at their disposal, there’s a growing demand for automation. Wouldn’t it be great if the software could just figure out who the audience was, create a targeted message just for them, record the results and tweak the messaging accordingly?

Vendors are well aware of this desire, and with each new update to their marketing platforms, they’re touting more intelligence and more automation, promising marketers to take the guesswork out of their efforts. A few months ago, Adobe introduced machine learning capabilities to its Target platform, which it says will automatically figure out what type of content works best for each specific audience segment. Advertising is increasingly programmatic, instantly targeting people based on their browsing behavior, geo location and search term history. Tweets are scheduled in advance, and mass emails are automatically delivered with clockwork precision to highly segmented audiences. 

There’s no doubt that all these advancements have made digital marketing efforts more effective. And arguably they’ve made most marketers’ lives easier. But could we be reaching a point where all this automation could actually be harmful?

A New Yorker article titled, “The Hazards of Going On Auto-Pilot” by Maria Konnikova talks about how the increased automation in aircraft controls has led to more pilots making mistakes. While the piece is talking about flying an aircraft, it’s hard to ignore the parallels to marketing automation, and its potential pitfalls. 

Konnikova writes:

The supporting logic was the same in aviation as it was in other fields: humans are highly fallible; systems, much less so. Automation would prevent mistakes caused by inattention, fatigue, and other human shortcomings, and free people to think about big-picture issues and, therefore, make better strategic decisions. Yet, as automation has increased, human error has not gone away: it remains the leading cause of aviation accidents.

It’s a familiar pitch, if you automate the small mundane stuff, you can free your brain up to think about strategy. However, clearing brain space doesn’t necessarily lead to more high-level thinking. In fact, it leaves operators more prone to drifting.

Konnikova writes:

When Casner and Schooler ran tests using a Boeing 747-400 flight simulator, they confirmed that the degree of automation a pilot relied on during a flight directly impacted how closely he paid attention to his work. It was true, as automation proponents argued, that pilots spent less time worrying about the minutiae of flying when they were using more highly automated systems. But they weren’t necessarily using the newfound mental space to perform higher-order computations. Instead, a full twenty-one per cent of the pilots surveyed reported thinking about inconsequential topics, just as Shaw and Renslow had done.

Of course it’s a different scenario when it comes to marketing automation. Automating much of your campaign actions doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to spend your time thinking about useless things. But as Konnikova argues, it could mean your ability to respond in real-time and make intuitive, critical decisions could slowly become worse.

Surprisingly, the pilots’ technical skills, notably their ability to scan instruments and operate manual controls, had remained largely intact. These were the skills that pilots and industry experts had been most concerned about losing, but it seemed that flying an airplane was much like riding a bike. The pilots’ ability to make complex cognitive decisions, however—what Casner calls their “manual thinking” skills—had suffered a palpable hit. They were less able to visualize their plane’s position, to decide what navigational step should come next, and to diagnose abnormal situations. “The things you do with your hands are good,” Casner told me. “It’s the things you do with your mind and brain that we really need to practice.”

With so many of their decisions becoming automated, marketers will begin to lose the very strategic thinking skills they now have more time to use. Marketing automation works great when it’s working fine. But the more you use it, the more you rely on the software and not your own judgement, which is when mistakes happen. For pilots, that loss of critical thinking can be fatal. While no one is going to die from an error in marketing automation, the consequences can be pretty costly.

Most recently, photo-printing service Shutterfly got in trouble for sending a promotional email to new parents, offering them a discount on printing pictures of their newborn. The problem was that email also went out to people who didn’t have children, and in worse cases, had lost a child or were struggling with infertility. It was a clear error in targeting the right segment and it resulted in the brand having to apologize for the unintentional offense. It’s what happens when you trust the software to get it right all the time.

Similarly, there are plenty of stories of brands who tweeted out something that many people saw as offensive, but were unable to respond in time since the tweet was scheduled and no one was manning the account. That’s the sort of mistake that could have been avoided by someone manually handling the Twitter account, responding in real-time rather than scheduling in advance.

In these cases, it isn’t enough to blame the software (or the intern.) Complacency is a very real result of automation, and it’s up to marketers to make a conscious effort to avoid it. There’s no doubt that automated content delivery systems can cut down on time, enable high level planning and achieve more efficiency. But it’s important for brands to realize that manual experience, critical thinking and the ability to think on your feet are skills that will always remain crucial when operating any piece of equipment, no matter how much more advanced it may be.

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