This story is part of Contently’s Accountable Content Series, a collection of articles, webinars, case studies, and events we’ve designed to help marketers deliver measurable brand impact and business outcomes with content. To see more content in this series, click here.
Einstein. Sensai. Watson: Three important words for the future of martech and artificial intelligence. Salesforce’s Einstein launched late last year, Adobe’s Sensai two months later, and IBM and Salesforce announced a partnership to sell their AI together, earlier this month. As an IBM representative told TechCrunch, “Within a few years, every major decision—personal or business—will be made with the help of AI and cognitive technologies.”
However, not everyone is impressed. Henry Schuck, CEO of marketing and sales intelligence platform DiscoverOrg, thinks the AI arms race isn’t a new phenomenon. According to him, many martech companies are just rebranding technology that has been around for years. He isn’t the only one feeling skeptical. In a recent article on The Content Strategist that examined AI hype, Sameer Patel, CEO of the smart automation software company Kahuna, said: “There’s just a lot taking old technology [and] plastering AI on it.”
As artificial intelligence continues to grab headlines, I spoke to Schuck to get his take on evolving skill sets for marketers, where salespeople fit in an automated future, and why some marketers struggle with marketing technology.
I know you’ve expressed some skepticism about artificial intelligence. Do you think it’s going to be a big part of marketing’s future?
I’m certain AI will be a part of marketing’s future. But part of my perspective on this is the way companies use the word “AI.” It’s like a fancy word to describe something that marketers, particularly B2B marketers, have been doing for years now. It’s really just predictive lead scoring.
Marketers have been doing that for the last decade with website tracking and their own leads, all without using AI. It’s really over the last four or five years that there have been dozens of predictive lead scoring companies that have added machine learning to that process. They bring in a bunch of different data elements to help you look at your customer base and then identify which customers are your “A” customers, your “B” customers, your “C” customers, your “D” customers, all based on a complex statistical model that looks at the activities that your customers and non-customers have done. Then they identify what your ideal customer looks like.
So I think it’s interesting that there’s all this buzz around something that’s been around the B2B marketing world a long time.
Do you think in some cases it’s marketing technology companies rebranding something that has already existed, or do you think there actually has been a change in the technology itself?
No, I think they’re rebranding. My guess is, post-Salesforce announcement, the companies in the predictive lead scoring space began to rebrand themselves as companies who are in artificial intelligence.
That would not be too surprising. It seems that happens a lot, not just in marketing, but in technology in general.
Salesforce leads the way on a lot of that. DiscoverOrg was always a platform that was available on the web, but in 2010, when companies got really excited on the idea of the cloud, that’s just what we rebranded as: your data service provider in the cloud, everything in the cloud, all of your tools in the cloud. It was really because that’s when Salesforce was pressing on this cloud thing harder than they ever had before.
Do you think there is going to be a time in the future, say five years from now, when a proper AI technology can really change things?
First and foremost, I don’t think that AI ever fundamentally changes the need for a salesperson. In B2B sales, especially in the mid-market and enterprise side, there is a true skill to what a salesperson is able to do. A salesperson is able to comprehend the needs of a customer, make pattern recognition to what this customer needs compared to another customer, and so on. I don’t think that AI ever gets to a point in the near future when it replaces the art of what a salesperson does.
I don’t think that AI ever fundamentally changes the need for a salesperson.
I think what it will do, and what it’s already doing, is taking away some of the most mundane tasks that sales reps have to do. Calendar management is a place where you can see AI doing a great job.
In our business, we curate high quality information on companies and buyers that sell to companies. We have machine learning that’s built throughout the technology that we use. But one thing that we found is the last five yards, ten yards that you need, machine learning just doesn’t get you there. And sometimes those last yards make all the difference.
When you talk to some marketers and look at studies on how marketers are implementing tech, marketers are having problems with integrating everything and making sure it actually functions. Do you think that’s because marketers are not as technologically savvy as they should be, or is that more the fault of vendors not building products that are easy to use?
It’s two things. One, the industry has changed so quickly that the marketers who have those talents—who know how Marketo interacts with Salesforce, how to do campaign attributions, and how to look at different stages in the sales funnel—the number of people with real experience in that is very few. The entire universe of people who have done marketing attribution at scale is probably a couple hundred people in the United States.
Two, most of the technologies trying to help marketers are pretty new. Plus, the problems that marketers face are rapidly evolving, and the software’s trying to evolve alongside it. But it’s obviously a little bit behind.
With all AI, there are always humans behind these tools, and humans can make mistakes. Do you think there are potential problems where maybe the initial data input isn’t correct or there’s a wrench in the system that messes everything up?
With any AI, any predictive lead scoring, and really any of these analytics tools out there, they are only as good as the data that goes into them. So if you have a predictive lead scoring tool that defines a model and looks at your customer data, it’s entirely dependent on the quality of data that goes in. Once you have a bunch of the wrong contact types or incorrect industry labels, then the model is pretty useless.
With any AI, any predictive lead scoring, and really any of these analytics tools out there, they are only as good as the data that goes into them.
If you talk to any marketer about a predictive lead scoring tool, the biggest project is normalizing the data and filling holes. You spend a lot more time making the data normalized and filling gaps of the data with your own data than you do actually getting the data in and having it do the analysis.
It all comes down to how disciplined you are gathering your data, keeping your data cleansed, and making sure your data is in a format that can be easily translated into multiple systems.
So if you’re an average marketer and maybe you don’t work for the most tech savvy firm, how should you prepare for the increasing automation?
I think what you’re going to continue to see is people in marketing are going to be required to have a real technological skill set that maybe a decade ago they didn’t need to have. They could be creative and artistic and clever and probably get away with being a good marketer, but today’s marketer needs to be data-driven, technology-savvy, and able to pick up new concepts quickly.
If you look at the martech landscape, it’s almost tripled in size in the last three years. There are thousands of new marketing technologies that are coming online. Having a sense of what those things do and how they play in your environment really requires technological savvy.
We did a study where we looked at companies that grow fast and companies that don’t. For the companies that grow fast, one of the top characteristics that they looked for in salespeople that they hire is technological savvy. That contrasts against slow-growth companies that look for experience and discipline. I think it goes to the point that technologically savvy salespeople and marketers are the ones who are able to get the most out of today’s B2B sales marketing world.
This interview has been edited for clarity.