Are We Losing What It Means To Be Human In Our Quest For Programmatic Efficiency?

will-dohertyData-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Will Doherty, vice president of business development at Index Exchange.

As part of its recent Artificial Intelligence work, Google has been having conversations with its machines.

Human: What is the purpose of life?
Machine: To serve the greater good.
Human: What is the purpose of dying?
Machine: To have a life.

Why does this seem so profound – and slightly creepy? Because it sounds almost human. We’re living in an Uncanny Valley, where machines can provoke and simulate emotional reactions. Clearly this offers whole new vistas of opportunity for advertising, along with some unsettling possibilities.

Digital advertising has actually used digital simulations of people for years, although they’re commonly called bots. We all hate them. On that we can agree. They rob publishers and marketers. They funnel media dollars into the hands of digital syndicates by masking themselves as content consumers. As we see above, they’re becoming more proficient.

If you can move past the theft, however, bots are providing a tangible service to marketers and publishers alike. Their ability to look and behave like real humans can provide a moment of clarity and real self-awareness to all sides of the digital ecosystem.

While bots can simulate audience behaviors, they can’t simulate audience experiences and emotions. That means marketers can observe what bots do to learn more about their audiences, and publishers can look at what they don’t do, to learn more about how to make emotional connections to theirs.

Bots are pathological in their ability to simulate human behavior. And they should be: It’s the core of their programming. They learn. They act the way we like to think people act. Short of actually buying, they are becoming a digital facsimile of us, a mirror to our consumerist digital souls. That mirror shows that we spend so much time trying to teach machines to be like consumers, that we’ve forgotten what it is we are trying to do with the consumers in the first place.

We are not just trying to sell more widgets or push more page views. That kind of narrow thinking is what fueled the rise of bots. At the heart of all advertising is a narrative that builds the brand’s overall story. An impression should be a thread in a larger collection, within a coherent emotional framework. An impression, by definition, should have an impact.

The best advertising rises above its stated purpose to sell and can be woven into, and even become, a larger cultural moment. “Mad Men” ended its historic run with a call back to the iconic “Buy the World a Coke” commercial; Wendy’s created a catchphrase that entered into American slang with its “Where’s The Beef?” ad in 1984; Budweiser’s “Wasssup” was an inescapable cultural meme; and one of the most beloved, and often spoofed, commercials is another by Coke, where “Mean Joe” Greene tosses his towel to a boy for giving him a bottle.

This doesn’t mean ads need to be high art. “Where’s the Beef?” and “Wasssup” have arguably more importance as cultural signifiers than the lofty idealism of a beer or hamburger restaurant. The common thread here is that consumers related to the messages well beyond awareness and sales for their benefactors. So as we find more ways to harness the incalculable speeds and size of the modern day digital ecosystem, we need to take a big step back to make sure we haven’t forgotten to tell our stories.

Programmatic offers the biggest challenge and opportunity for marketers and publishers, because audiences have never been so accessible while being diverse and capricious. The immense computing power of the industry, the ability to identify a user, price and source an ad in microseconds, over tens of millions of pages of content, is an awesome achievement. We should be proud, but up to a point.

There are two seemingly paradoxical advantages of programmatic: intimacy at scale, and customization with speed. Bots offer only scale and speed, and rob us of intimacy and personalization. They offer the letter of the law, while removing its spirit. It is only when we marry these opposing notions – speed and intimacy – that marketers truly reap all the benefits programmatic has to offer. Bots don’t reward emotional connection. They don’t even respond to it. That’s the difference between them and real people … so far.

Folks in the industry call back to the age-old aphorism: “I know 50% of my advertising works, I just don’t know which 50%.” Since the first pixels lit up, digital marketers have been puffing their chests trying to solve for this conundrum, bellowing to anyone who will listen that we can finally track, solve (to the decimal point) and stop wasteful ad spending, but in doing so, we lose the art. The “measurable” that is so easily gamed by non-humans comes to redefine what it means to miss the mark.

Bots have shown us the next frontier in digital advertising is re-establishing emotional connections with our audiences. Advertising is effective when it changes how people feel. Period.

Any of the tools of the trade in digital, print, broadcast or otherwise are simply a means to that end. Publishers need to improve not just their storytelling tools, but the stories themselves. The next frontier will be an age of “programmatic creative,” where marrying the speed and efficiency of programmatic with the irresistible storytelling power of humans will be the key to powering success and harmony in digital advertising.

Follow Index Exchange (@indexexchange) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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