ITL #286  - AI: can it tell stories that touch our hearts?

1 year, 11 months ago


When marketers partner with machines, they can tell stories that are more effective, engaging, and even empathetic. By Lee Nugent.


For many marketers in Asia, understanding how artificial intelligence can help them do business better has become a priority. Nearly two-thirds of Asian marketers see a need for AI within their business models, compared to just half of their North American counterparts. For many, AI will play a critical role in how they create more personalised experiences for their customers. But how much of a human touch can a machine really deliver?


Marketing works best when it tells a human story, the sort that can directly change the way we think and feel. The most effective marketers understand their audience on a level that transcends data in favour of empathy. That’s something no AI can replicate on its own, no matter how sophisticated its algorithms or voluminous its data.


However, AI can – and should – play a role in corporate storytelling. When marketers partner with machines, they can in fact tell stories that are more effective, engaging, and even empathetic. For these partnerships to work, marketers must trust AI to help them better comprehend what their customers want and need, and sometimes even point them in a more relevant creative direction. AI can indeed help to tell stories that touch our hearts – but not without human craftspeople ultimately directing the narrative.


Seeing what humans can’t

For corporate storytellers, AI’s strength lies in its perceptiveness. 44% of all enterprise leaders globally say that AI helps them make better decisions – typically because of its ability to sort through and make sense of far more data than we as humans can. We’ve already started to see this play out in developments like Alibaba’s FashionAI, which uses a combination of smart mirrors and sensors to serve up personalised recommendations on outfits, sizes, and colours to customers at its Hong Kong test store. AI can also spot points of friction that we as humans may overlook, like when Nissan’s machine-learning technology boosted conversion rates by 900% in one Asian market after highlighting usability issues in one specific test-drive form.


In these examples – and most other marketing applications of AI so far – the technology provides suggestions or recommendations that can improve the customer experience in some way. Could the same apply to how marketers develop the messages and narratives that underpin their work?


For that to happen, today’s AI will need to make at least one major leap: from simply understanding behaviours into understanding emotions. That shift may come sooner rather than later. Some companies are rolling out AI that can identify human feelings with some degree of accuracy; other experiments suggest that machine learning can decipher emotional trends in how audiences comment on digital content. And if an AI can start to assess en masse the sorts of narrative themes or subject areas that resonate most with a marketer’s target audience, that marketer can potentially craft far more relevant stories that connect with that audience’s interests and emotions.


Even today, AI can reveal a lot about our emotional state. High opt-out rates at a certain point of a digital experience – like that of Nissan’s test-drive form – point to widespread frustration. A purchase of one of FashionAI’s recommendations can translate into happiness, or at least a sense of some emotional fulfilment, that the AI in turn learns from for future engagements. These emotional readings are rudimentary, for sure, but they can give marketers valuable clues into how to not only improve the customer experience, but tailor the stories and narratives that surround it.


I’m not a robot

In other words, AI already works well as a marketer’s amanuensis – the term given to artists’ assistants who not only performed rote tasks like copying manuscripts or taking dictation, but often also provided critical feedback on the work being produced. Could it also function as an actual co-creator of the human stories that marketers strive to tell? If a novel co-authored by an AI can make it past the first round in a Japanese national literary competition, anything is possible. But if anything, AI will make the human touch in corporate storytelling even more important, for three main reasons.


First, AI’s “creativity” ultimately derives from understanding what has succeeded before. That serves steady, incremental improvements in a brand’s customer experience or messaging – but not the major breaks with tradition that transform entire industries or public discourses. The iPhone, and the narrative around it, could not have been derived from analysis of past data. Neither could a commercially successful yet convention-breaking story like that of Inception. Often, the most powerful and human stories come from radical leaps in how we think about a certain issue – leaps that AI, despite its abilities, cannot yet make.


Conversely, relying too much on AI and data in storytelling can lead to those stories losing their originality and their ‘human-ness’. One of the risks of using AI for marketing comes from confirmation bias, leading brands to focus only on stories that generate a certain reaction at the expense of others that might be equally, if not even more valuable. It’s up to marketers to challenge the recommendations that AI makes about tone, mood, and voice – remembering that directly going against audience expectations, as this “inspirational” Thai advertisement did, often amplifies your message’s impact.


Finally, marketers can gauge how their audience responds to their stories in ways that AI can’t. All the facial tracking data and social media analytics in the world won’t provide the same level of deep insight that a skilled interviewer can draw out from a face-to-face customer conversation. And while AI may be able to identify what narrative decisions might work in a certain situation, it still struggles to weave them together in a seamless way. For now, at least, AI’s role in telling compellingly human stories will remain one of advisor rather than author. To truly touch human hearts, and turn audiences into loyal customers, you have to “think human” – and that requires an empathy and creativity that only flesh-and-bone marketers can muster.


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The Author

Lee Nugent

Lee Nugent is Asia Pacific Regional Director at Text100, the global marketing communications agency, where he leads more than 300 consultants across six countries in the region. Prior to his current role, he was CEO of Nelson Bostock Group in London, where he worked for almost 20 years. Lee is a member of the CIPR in the UK, a founder member of the Commonwealth Communicators Association, and is now The Chairman of PRCA Southeast Asia .

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