Man versus Machine: Which side are you on?

This article was previously published on, written by Marie Wiese, member of Forbes Agency Council.

I am an old school marketer: I started my marketing career long before Google, social media or the iPhone. I started marketing just as email and browsers were being introduced to the world — when cell phones were the size of a lap dog. Things like servers and databases were still a mystery to marketers. They were things that the IT department worried about, not the marketing team.

But then everything changed: marketers had to adapt to search engines and an algorithm we could not see, touch or feel. Machines were deciding who got on page one and who didn’t. Machines were taking over the marketing function and quite possibly the world.

The Story Of Man Versus Machine Is Not New

Many songs and books have been written about John Henry, an African-American folk hero in a famous man-versus-machine story of the industrial revolution. Henry, according to legend, tested his steel-driving skills against a steam-powered hammer. He won but died of stress soon after, still holding his hammer.

 The modern day version of John Henry may well be the average cell phone user who powers on to find free Wi-Fi, improve their data packages and will likely perish with their cell phone held high as they succumb to texting.

What Machines Mean To Marketers

The world has dramatically changed — not just since Henry’s time, but even in the last five years. As marketers, we have watched Google’s about-face with respect to the importance of people consuming content versus machine manipulated web pages.

 Suddenly artificial intelligence and machine learning were sprung upon us. Every new startup getting funded in Silicon Valley has an AI component to it that has VCs clamoring with checkbooks at the ready. The balance has been tipped again in favor of machines versus humans. “Microsoft founder Bill Gates shared concerns about the threat artificial intelligence will pose to humanity, and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who relies heavily on machine learning and artificial intelligence to communicate, argued that it could spell the end of the human race,” Richard Boyd wrote for  TechCrunch.

But even as some of the most respected technologists in the world proclaim our downfall if machines win the battle, it has not slowed down technological advancement. It has only made things more complicated for marketers of all shapes and sizes. There was a time when being a creative individual was enough to get you into marketing. Today’s marketer spends much more time figuring out marketing automation and CRM tools, studying data and looking at screens. Today’s marketer has to not only understand the machine, they have to figure out how to manipulate and game it so humans will pay attention.

So which side does the modern marketer choose?

There is a constant battle occurring at our agency when we visit the editorial calendar. After carefully designing a keyword strategy based on what humans look for when they purchase a product or service, as well as the questions they ask and the places they visit to build trust before they shortlist a product or service, we still argue about humans versus machines. The technical team wants to override an article with awkward, clunky keywords that will help the content perform, while the creative side of the house wants to create elegant prose and witty copy void of keywords or machine-driven direction. The battle rages on as we look to see what performed and what worked.

Humans are the element every marketer should start with when designing a buying path to lead a searching prospect down. But how they arrived at the journey is often the work of a machine and how that path worked in the cogs of its massive wheels. I don’t think one side is better than the other — man with machine is the norm today.

 Over the next few years, it will be interesting to watch this machine evolution play out. A 2017  study by the International Data Corporation looked at the top IT spending initiatives for companies. At the top of the list were security, application modernization and infrastructure. Coming in 14th out of 15 priorities was the Internet of Things, otherwise known as connecting everyday items to the internet. But the IoT  seems to be waning as consumers are realizing that fridges that automatically order beer can create security risks.

As a new-age marketer, I believe that to be successful today, you need to be many things: a creative, a project manager, a technologist and a data analyst. It’s not enough anymore to come up with brilliant ideas or ad copy. You need to figure out how to optimize them for search. Opening an Instagram account does not make you a social media expert; understanding how the platform works and how humans behave using the tool is more important than what you create on it. Slick copy or pretty pictures are a waste of time if they can’t achieve the ultimate goal: helping buyers and consumers decide what to buy, what to pick and who follow. It’s more important to understand how the ultimate buyer goes on the purchase journey. To do this, marketers need to embrace machines and machine-driven activities, not just as platforms but for the process behind the platform.

 I refuse to be John Henry. I will not die with a cell phone in my hand, struggling to use a poorly developed mobile-enabled website. I will embrace machines and make the journey more useful to all humans. Call me a fence sitter, but I’m picking both sides for the win.
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