What can marketers bring to the mix when AI is so powerful?

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Passion, for one thing, says Peter Prodromou of Boathouse.

"If you're in the upper right-hand corner with passion, chances are people are going to want to work with you or buy your product," he says on the latest episode of Marketing Smarts. "Think about Apple and Tesla; those are two brands that are very much about passion. Your ability to convey that is critically important."

AI is just an algorithm, after all. "Everybody is going to shop at Amazon because they have the best algorithm, and there may or may not be passion for it," Peter says. "If we can...understand things like passion and sentiment, then we're better positioned to help our clients establish narrative structures that are going to help them to create value."

Peter also emphasizes the importance of AI in social listening and sentiment, which is vital to marketing strategy: "What I look at is AI tools that can help me to gather scads of information from virtually everywhere...and then being able to collate that data into something that makes sense in a snap of a finger."

For more on how AI can streamline communication and strategy, check out Episode 527 of Marketing Smarts. You can listen to the entire show from the link above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode.

"Marketing Smarts" theme music composed by Juanito Pascual of Signature Tones.

Full Transcript: B2B Marketing and AI for Streamlined and Strategic Communication

George B. Thomas: Are you ready for something that is zero artificial but completely intelligent? That's a bad dad joke. We're talking about B2B marketers and AI for streamlined and strategic communication. That's right, today we're going to talk about what the heck do we even mean when we're talking about AI for streamlined and strategic communication. We're going to talk about what keeps the president of Boathouse (Peter Prodromou) up at night around this conversation, we're going to talk about communication, the good, the bad, the ugly, the hurdles, words of wisdom, you know all the things that we're going to talk about.

Before we get into that, Peter Prodromou spent more than 15 years helping to build and lead Racepoint, a global digital marketing, strategic communications, and PR firm. He held several roles there, including head of global accounts, head of public affairs, and president and CEO of a wholly-owned network with offices on four continents. Over his career, he has worked with some of the world's best-known brands, like Samsung, AT&T, Dassault Systems, IBM, Kaiser Permanente, and Glidden Paints, hot startups defining the next generation of innovation, and government leaders in the US, Indonesia, the Middle East, and Africa. Peter has been around, he knows some things, and, as you can tell, has probably been a super busy guy trying to streamline his day and have strategic communications.

Marketing Smarts listeners, today is going to be interesting. I love the topic. I think I'm going to actually really enjoy Peter along the way. We're talking about B2B marketers and AI for streamlined and strategic communications with Peter Prodromou. Today, it's going to be really exciting. We have a journey. Of course, you know where I start with this conversation always, with what keeps Peter up at night.

As the president of Boathouse, Peter, what keeps you up at night?

Peter Prodromou: These days, worrying about whether or not we're going to find our way through the mess that I think social media has created from a political policy standpoint. I go back to the earliest days of social media and preached for the longest time that it was an opportunity to democratize access to information and give everybody an equal opportunity to have a voice. I used to joke when I was in Washington that what was great for marketing might not be awesome for democracy. Now I look at the quality of dialogue, and that was a decade ago, and it really worries me. We'll see where that goes.

George: That's definitely some interesting stuff right there, for sure. Let's dive into this AI conversation. When we talk about AI for marketing, this could mean a bazillion different things. I always love to do, here's the road that we're traveling down today for the listeners. When we talk about AI for marketing, what do you think this really means, where does your mind go, where should the listener be directing their attention to for the rest of this conversation?

Peter: I think about it in terms of media and access to media, understanding and getting closer to media and influencers. My background is in PR and communications, so I've always come at it from that perspective, as opposed to people thinking about it as purely behavioral or replacing people in the creative sphere, for example.

George: Because with marketers, that is a large portion of the conversation, "Am I going to lose my job? Will AI be able to replace me as a designer or writer?" Things like that. Let's go a level deeper, though. Let's go off the beaten path for a second. When we're talking about this for streamlining or being strategic, or what you've said as far as connecting, what are some things that you've seen, or how do we paint the picture of what we really mean by that?

Peter: We at Boathouse, and I in particular, think about marketing through the lens of how we communicate in narrative. The economist Robert Shiller published a book a few years ago that basically used Google Ngrams to go back and evaluate conversations and data over the last 200 years across various industries, movements, and so forth. What he found was remarkable consistency with respect to how if you can control a narrative, you can create value for your organization, either perceptual or economic value, or both.

Thinking about that as an underpinning, what you really need to know is what people are thinking and what they're saying, how they think about things, not just from a sentiment perspective but a passion perspective. What are the individual remarks they're making at any given time that could hurt or help your reputation? What do key stakeholder groups think about? Like your employee, not just your investors and customers. It's a massive amount of data to collect, if you think about the way that we are communicating using tools like Twitter and Facebook every day.

From my perspective, what I look at is AI tools that can help me to gather scads of information from virtually everywhere using things like Twitter as a clearinghouse, because I think Twitter is very much like a modern media clearinghouse, and then other sources as well, of course, and then being able to collate that data into something that makes sense in a snap of a finger. If we can get to the bottom of that and understand things like passion and sentiment, then we're better positioned to help our clients establish narrative structures that are going to help them to create value.

There were two fascinating things from my perspective with respect to the AI that we're putting together. The first was this passion indicator. If you're in the upper right-hand corner with passion, chances are people are going to want to work with you or buy your product. Think about Apple and Tesla, those are two brands that are very much about passion. Your ability to convey that is critically important.

The second thing is our AI looks at employee engagement. During the pandemic, post-pandemic, and we're seeing it right now with how Twitter employees are behaving and taking the power over. What your employees have to say about your brand completely defines it. The tools that we're looking at factor that in as well.

George: It's interesting. For me, I'm like there's the narrative that you want to kind of control, we talked about that. I heard you there and my brain went to internal narrative and external narrative as far as potential prospects and things like that. Then you really got me when you started to talk about passion and this passion index, because at the end of the day, we're talking about AI, but we're all dealing with humans. As marketers, we're dealing with humans.

Right now, where we sit, I know there's probably two groups. Maybe more, but I'll break it down into two groups. There's the group that is heck yes, give me more, I need to leverage AI, I want to know this passion index, I want to know what the next steps I should do to get started to make this happen. Then there's the other group that might be sitting here going no, it's not for me. I want to circle back around and just ask the question, is it all marketers, is it some marketers, should marketers be focused on leveraging AI right now in 2023 and beyond? Give me who you think a good fit might be, maybe what a bad fit is, and why they need to lean into this modern technology for today's marketing efforts.

Peter: It's a great question. I honestly think it has to be everybody. To your point, the uptake is going to be variable across organizations. The thing is marketers are not trained as technologists, so number one, we're really bad at selling technology, and number two, we're technology resistant. We got into this profession because we can do things like take a story and humanize it and get a journalist to talk to us, or we can do tremendous creative and create emotive stories that way.

Those are very much human things, they are not about the machine, but the reality is the machine is informing everything at this point. If we don't understand it, if we're not ready to embrace it, then we're going to lose because somebody out there is going to be doing that. I think the perfect combination is the ability to find the cross-section around AI and human intelligence and human emotion as well.

Everybody talks about the algorithm and its ability to identify behaviors and move transactions based upon that or move relationships based upon that. The problem with that is this; by stripping out all of the humanity, we turn every relationship into something that is purely transactional. Ultimately, everybody is going to shop at Amazon because they have the best algorithm, and there may or may not be passion for it. What we have to do is basically find out how to take that information and apply a human overlay to it so that we can create a piece of marketing or communications that is going to speak to people based on that information.

George: I love this so much. One of the things that I like to focus on is that with our marketing it should be less transactional, more transformational. When you do that, you are tying into those emotions, you are tying into being human, you are tying into that passion index. It's interesting because we're talking about strategic communications with AI, but as I listen to you, it's the same conversation back on the creative of AI is a great way to get to a good starting point that then you layer on a human element over it to take it to the touchdown zone, or to hit the homerun, or to use whatever sports analogy you want to use as you're listening to the podcast.

Where I go back to on this then is if we're talking about strategic communications in the understanding that the AI machine is giving us all of this information, it's helping us understand it at the click of a finger, when we talk about strategic communication, what the heck do we mean? We get the information. Now what do we do with it? What is that human layer or do we mean by having a strategic conversation or communication? Because, by the way, it's going to be completely different that what we once would have called a strategic level of communication as just a pure human to now what that means with human and AI working together.

Peter: That's a great question. There's a tremendous episode of The Office, the old television show, where Michael and Dwight are out driving and they're using their nav system, and they drive into a lake. Michael is like, "It says to turn," and they literally drive into a lake. I think there's a danger of infecting what we do from a marketing and communications perspective.

Step back a minute and you had two great questions in there. One was about creative and how things are affected from a creative perspective. I was having a conversation with an analyst at Forrester a couple of years back, and he asked me what I saw as the next generation of great advertising. I said it's the return of creative. He agreed with me, which I love because even this far into my career, I'm looking for validation and affirmation from other people, that's the client service business. The reason we both agreed on it was this notion of so much AI has completely transactionalized relationships, there is no way to stand out, so the ability to stand out is the re-establishment of narrative or brand visually. I think that's going to be increasingly important in social and digital marketing this year, next year, and the year after.

The second thing is with respect to strategic communications, the ability to figure out very quickly what the key messages are and what the key passion points are has to be done by an individual or a group of individuals pulling that data. When you get that a-ha moment, you can then figure out what to do with respect to your messaging and very quickly get it out to market.

The things I'm looking for in that context are what are the channels that my audiences are focused on and what are the ways they like to consume information, because ultimately what I want to do is use AI to find the 10, 15, 20 most important distributed influencers around a subject or a topic matter, the channels that they prefer to engage in, the channels that my clients are most able to communicate in, and then match those things up. If I can do that based on the AI, I'm going to deliver more value on every piece of information that I'm engaging on and every account is going to get more value.

George: It's interesting. My brain goes to this thing of time is money. As I heard you talking about that last segment, it really came down to, you even said it in a couple of different words and ways of speed, the speed at which you can complete the things or understand the things that you need to know and can complete. If you can do it faster, then there is a better return on the investment for the things that you're about to do. I think that's interesting for us to sit back and think about. The bonus to us as humans is the rate in which we can understand and complete the tasks, which if you're a human, that makes you realize you can golf more or spend more time with your family or do the things that you love because you've embraced that AI machine.

Let's get down to brass tacks. If somebody has gotten to this portion of the podcast episode and they're like, "How do I get started? What do I need to know?" I guess that's the question. How in the world, when it comes to this AI for streamlined and strategic communication, do we get started?

Peter: I would say take a step back and, this is going to sound very cliché, but talk about the three to five things that the CEO, the CMO, and CCO want to accomplish from a business perspective. From there, there are a host of fantastic tools out there that you can either use alone or in a best-of-breed mix that identify things like natural language, machine-learning, the ability to match key phrases and really source information from all different kinds of places.

That's going to inform the terms that you're going to want to feed into your AI, the things you're going to want to be searching for. Ultimately, what you need to do is identify the four to five outputs from the AI that are going to tie back to those business objectives. Then you have a campaign that you can get up and running fast.

I'll give you a quick example. I was doing work for a large healthcare services company back in 2014, and they were getting a ton of information from a social learning tool that they were feeding up to their CEO. The CEO was trying to figure out how to move into different states after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and the assignment was this: "Our CEO cannot, using this data, figure out where we need to be, it's just too much." The client literally said, "Can you just give me the four screens I need that I can show him every day that are going to tell him what he needs to know."

We walked in, spent a few minutes with the CEO, understood better the business objectives, "We want to XYZ in Maryland, ABC in Florida," and we were able to identify where we wanted to pull data from, what key searches we wanted to do, and then based on that data we put together a meaningful dashboard and a report to the CEO so that he could make informed decisions.

Fast-forward eight years, and now the tools are so much more sophisticated and the ability to get that information is so much better that if you take that approach every time, you're going to be locked into a client relationship forever, or you're going to be a CMO or CCO who is not going to worry much about your job security.

George: God knows that there's a lot of us out there that don't want to worry about our job security right now, for sure. It's funny though, because when I'm listening to you talk about this, I was like not only are we talking about streamlined communication, but we're talking about simplifying the ability to measure and report on the success or even measure, report, and show the things that those above us in the C-suite might need to know to make decisions as we move forward. It's very interesting how this all kind of collides together in a little bit of an AI spiderweb, if you will.

One of the things that I like to do on the podcast is to get everybody aware of the potential potholes or hurdles that they might run into. Goodness gracious, you know and I know that when it comes to AI we can jack it up real quick. What are some of the potholes or hurdles that you've seen marketers fall prey to that you would want to be like pay attention to these things, don't do these things?

Peter: It's two things. One is we fall in love with the toy and there are just way too many screens. As marketers, our new competition is these people, these technologists who are creating these tools. They're coming in and saying to CEOs, "We can completely automate the process, you don't even need humans anymore." Our reaction can't be they don't need humans anymore and we have to match them. Instead, we have to go in and say you need the human interaction to understand and interpret this data and then put out something off the back of it that is valuable to you.

The second thing is don't get completely mired in the data just for data's sake. I'm a huge sports fan, and even to this day I'll spend tie on my phone looking at somebody's scoring average, somebody's batting average, and all the advanced data that half of it I can't process or understand what it means anymore. That's the point, you can't process or understand what it means. Everybody is throwing these statistics at you, and in the end, you want to go back to batting average, homeruns, and RBIs. What's the equivalent of it in our business?

George: I love that. So good. I don't know why, maybe because it's around statistics and sports, but Moneyball came up. The way that they hacked a way to figure things out, most humans can't do that. Almost every human could probably do that with a little help from their friend the AI machine, on the conversation that we're having today.

You shared an example, which then led my brain to "it's great that we have a good example," but one of the things that I love to paint on the podcast episodes, too, is what is the Zen mountain moment, or if you're on the Olympics number one podium with the gold medal around your neck. Talking about streamlined and strategic communication and using AI to be a large portion of that, and the things we've talked about as far as emotions and passion and the human layer, what the heck does AI success look like when we're talking about this conversation?

Peter: More generally, for me, it means I've found the ten most important influencers in a category and I'm talking to them over and over again, and they're talking about my client over and over again, so I'm capitalizing on their distributed influence and the power of them as a masthead, as opposed to worrying about The Wall Street Journal and TechCrunch or whatever.

There are other instances that are even cooler than that. I was working with a large company in Washington on trying to affect a piece of legislation, and they really needed to get to the chairman of the FCC at that point, and they had no way in. We were able to use our AI to identify which channels he was engaged in on social media and then map relationships in our client organization back to it so that they were able to make contact with him around a key piece of information, and that very much helped with their point of view being factored into consideration.

To me, that's the Holy Grail of AI. If you can scale things down to a single individual relationship and get that close to a key decision-maker, then you're really delivering.

George: I love that. Before I ask the final question, I do want to go off the beaten path one more time. Through this interview, you've actually mentioned three or four times the specificity around what you do as far as influencers and finding those influencers and talking to those influencers. I fully know in asking this question that it could probably be a completely other podcast episode, but I feel like because we're talking about communication and streamlining, and some of this communication will be trying to bring in external people into your marketing efforts or whatnot. When you think of the power of connecting and empowering influencers around your brand, where does your brain go?

Peter: That's such a great question. A lot of times, it goes to how we can communicate social good. Some of the most fun that I've had in my career is building influencer networks to help with things like regional economic development in impoverished countries or communicating the power of something that somebody is doing in a developing nation and helping them bring that product to market in the West. Those were instances of creating networks of influencers, but also bringing people together in communities and in social media communities. When I can do that, that's when I feel at my best.

I think as we're thinking about where things are going with respect to influence and the power that the individual has, and the fact that Gen X values very much social good ahead of economic gain, our ability to construct those networks and use AI in social and digital to bring people together could be critical. That goes back to the first question you asked me about what keeps me up at night. This is where my mind goes when I think about the good of what social media and AI can do, so that's what keeps me optimistic.

George: I like that, what keeps you up at night and what keeps you optimistic. That's a good tie-in. Speaking of that optimism and looking in the future, one of the things that I realize about myself and many of the guests that we have on the Marketing Smarts Podcast is that we've all been through a journey. Most of us aren't spring chickens, we've probably accumulated some wisdom along the way.

As we end this podcast episode, what are some words of wisdom that you would want to share with the Marketing Smarts audience? This can be on the conversation and topic that we've had today, or this might be just some guru Zen moment for you. What are your final words of wisdom?

Peter: Be a critical thinker, read a lot, and don't be afraid to challenge the status quo. I was educated in communications and marketing, and I didn't really get smart until I started to read a lot and be a critical thinker. I'm always impressed by people who can come straight at me with a great idea, regardless of their age.

George: Marketing Smarts listeners, did you take lots of notes? I sure hope so. I have to ask, what is your one thing, your number one execution opportunity after this podcast episode? Make sure you reach out and let us know in my inbox or on Twitter using the hashtag #MPB2B.

I also have to ask are you a free member of the MarketingProfs community yet? If not, head over to Mprofs.com/mptoday. You won't regret the additional B2B marketing education that you'll be adding to your life.

We'd like it if you could leave us a rating or review on your favorite podcast app, but we'd love it if you would share this episode with a coworker or friend. Until we meet in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast where we talk to Sydni Craig-Hart about inclusive B2B marketing strategy techniques you can't afford to ignore, I hope you do just a couple of things. One, reach out and let us know what conversation you'd like to listen in on next. Two, focus on getting 1% better at your craft each and every day. Finally, remember to be a happy, helpful, humble B2B marketing human. We'll see you in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast.

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