Are We Entering the Era of Millisecond Marketing?

Nowadays, it is a scene you will pretty much see only in movies: Stock traders in brightly colored jackets frantically shouting & flashing symbols on exchange floors. But this was how stocks were bought & sold for most of Wall Street’s history.

Those days, high-frequency trades are powered by increasingly complex algorithms that analyze multiple markets, then transact vast numbers of orders at blinding speeds. The decision to buy & sell is largely out of human hands.

What does all of this mean for the world of marketing? Quite a lot, it turns out.

Marketing’s technology problem

In contrast to the stock market, technology has come slowly & fitfully to marketing. Only in the past decade/so have digital tools to streamline how we promote & sell products become widespread.

Cloud-based customer-relationship-management platforms simplified the process of compiling & tracking prospects & leads. Advanced content-creation software made it easier to churn out designs & graphics. Marketing automation tools let businesses scale campaigns & reach bigger audiences.

But by and large, we were in the “Don Draper” era of marketing. Marketing teams, helped by creative agencies, put their heads together to come up with catchy plans. Data & research might play a part but, just as in Mad Men, efforts rested on a decidedly human process informed by experience, gut & intuition. Art would be generated by a design team. The copy would be scrutinized and finalized by editors. Ads would be placed, blog posts are written & email campaigns launched.

Then, we would wait—fingers crossed. Some campaigns crashed & burned. Others exceeded expectations. But even in an era of Google Analytics, it was hard to predict what would work & what would not.

In some ways, we had not advanced all that far from the days of marketing pioneer John Wanamaker, who back in the late 1800s famously quipped, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I do not know which half.”

Rise of the machines

Since 2011, the handful of tools in the marketing technology marketplace has ballooned to more than 3,800. And they have evolved from simply automating repetitive tasks to generating their own competitive insights. Marketing clouds—from the likes of SAPAdobeIBMOracle and Microsoft—bundle the best of these tools into integrated packages.

At the heart of those clouds are increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence brains powered by, you guessed it, algorithms—from IBM’s Watson to Salesforce’s Einstein. They process vast amounts of raw data in order to better target customers, place and tweak ads, personalize campaigns and measure results—they do it automatically.

Right in front of us, the cycle for creating, distributing & optimizing marketing content is being radically compressed. Instead of relying on human intuition, it is fueled by in-depth consumer data gathered from social media & other sources. Ever more complex algorithms are calling the shots & removing the guesswork about what marketing materials will lead to what results—and they’re doing so nearly in real time.

Suddenly, we are no longer old-fashioned stock traders sweating in the pit, gesturing frantically and hoping for the best. We have entered the era of millisecond marketing.

Millisecond marketing in action

Not long ago, digital ads were largely the domain of specialized ad agencies, which had the design know-how to create ads & the industry connections needed to place them.

The advent of ad-buying options on Google & Facebook democratized the process, but designing & targeting ads remained until recently a time-consuming, trial-&-error process—and one that required significant expertise to get right.

AI-powered tools have emerged that enable anyone to create and test hundreds of ad variations in a matter of minutes—tweaking everything from copy & imagery to the audience & spend in order to get the best results. High-performing advertisements are automatically boosted, while low-performing ones are cut. Real-time reports spit back engagement & click numbers instantly, with results that no human could hope to replicate on his/her own.

This trend is extending even to the creative process itself. Tools from the likes of Adobe have streamlined the job of creating content—from editing photos to creating graphics, building web pages, generating visual effects & managing all of these assets. Adobe’s flagship Creative Cloud now counts more than 9 million paid users.

The latest iteration enables users to pull millions of stock photos & brand assets from a central database. These could then be fed into a compatible social media management platform & posted on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & other platforms, without any specialized design work required. Customer engagement is tracked with Adobe Analytics, which also uses AI to optimize content & discover overlooked opportunities.

Getting ready for the era of millisecond marketing

This is a relatively simple example, but it is not difficult to see where these trends lead. When content could be created instantly, targeted and distributed instantly, then tweaked and optimized instantly, marketing becomes a whole new ballgame. Inference, inspiration & intuition are—for better/worse—on their way out, replaced by an accelerating loop of test-&-optimize.

Ecosystem and compatibility—finding a tech that plays well together so that data could become content & content can be turned back into data—is critical. Access to rich, real-time customer information—the kind of insights shared day in & day out over social networks—is the difference-maker. Without the right data, even the best AI engines sputter & stall.

The end game is far from clear, but one thing is for sure: Marketing, for so long a creative, “human” function, is becoming a technical one. Success—or failure—might soon come down to a matter of milliseconds.