Historically, global crises have long-since been responsible for accelerating major trends in technology. For instance, the SARS outbreak has been credited for helping launch Alibaba and JD.com. Major corporations like Starbucks and American Express also reportedly found success when they shifted their operations to digital models following the global recession of 2008.

Tech predictions in 2019 foresaw that we would see a more advanced mobile experience, a more unified online communication system and users spending more time online than ever previously recorded. While a worldwide pandemic wasn’t exactly factored into these results, the accelerated pace in which we have seen these digital applications grow in response to COVID-19 has been astonishing.

In the last 10 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has been responsible for upending nearly every known aspect of our daily lives — including the way we work, the way we communicate and the way companies have resumed conducting business with their customers. More goods and services have been purchased online than ever before, remote work has become the “new normal” and the application of robots in the workforce has never been a more feasible reality.

Given that the need for physical distancing has subjected most of us to confinement, we have witnessed a heightened dependence on shifting our operations into the digital world. While many businesses have had to suspend or reduce operations as a result of the pandemic, it has likely initiated what will become a historical paradigm shift towards digital channels and the growth of several emerging AI applications. This is particularly true for any innovations that automate processes, reduce levels of human-to-human contact and support increased online spending.

Image credit @nickrbolton

2021 is set to be a pivotal year for AI growth in marketing. As we navigate towards a post-pandemic future, the proliferation of AI will be highly instrumental in helping economies reopen and adapt to a more digital-friendly reality. As the growth of AI applications continues to accelerate, so will its ability to reform digital marketing strategies and extract valuable customer insights for businesses.

Let’s take a look at six emerging applications of AI in the world of marketing, and how we can expect to see these trends ramp up as we head towards the new year.

1. The advancement of predictive analytics

According to the AI Research and Advisory Company, predictive analytics is “the use of data, statistical algorithms and machine learning techniques to identify the likelihood of future outcomes based on historical data”. The main objective of this tool is to provide the best possible assessment of future user activity.

Of course, the growth of this technology goes hand-in-hand with helping the advertising industry make better predictions about the minds of consumers and potential buyers. Digital advertising has, without a doubt, adopted and utilised artificial intelligence more than most other popular applications. In recent years, platforms such as Facebook, Google and Instagram have all deployed AI tools to monitor users’ online activity, allowing them to make predictions about their buying habits and target them with personalised ads.

Pre-COVID reports alleged that the global predictive analytics market would be set to reach US $10.95 billion by 2022. However, given the unprecedented spike in Internet usage in 2020, this number is now expected to increase even further than previously predicted.

Based on the last four global economic downturns, 14% of companies were reportedly able to respond by increasing both sales growth and profit margins. This evidence suggests that companies that are ahead of AI trends will be most likely to thrive in a post-COVID future.

Companies that are ahead of AI trends will be most likely to thrive in a post-COVID future.

Coral C.

2. Increased workflow automation

COVID-19 has pushed companies to further streamline their operations and look for ways to generate the highest levels of profit during the current economic downturn. AI has proven to be a driving force in improving workflow management, helping businesses to reduce time spent on manual work and increase their overall efficiency. Following the aftershocks of the pandemic, AI’s ability to add new features to already-used processes and improve workflow is bound to expand within the next year.

Today, there are a myriad of tools available that help companies automate menial tasks and therefore increase the productivity of sales and marketing teams. At a rapid rate, artificial intelligence has been learning how to do repetitive tasks that once required human input, while at the same time performing big-data computations that were once dismissed as impossible to achieve.

3. The advancement of conversational AI

Conversational AI (better known as “chatbots”) has become a popular type of AI application that can be found on just about any type of service page today (e-commerce sites, Facebook pages, airlines… you name it). However, you may have noticed that the “conversations” had with these bots are typically not very engaging or human-like.

Following the aftershocks of the pandemic, many companies across various sectors have seen a surge in on-demand messaging from customers. Unprecedented changes have given businesses an increased need to communicate about any operational or logistical changes with their customers — such as mandated closures, reduced hours of operation, news about regulatory requirements or other COVID-based concerns.

Experts predict that following COVID-19, major investments will be made by various companies worldwide to improve their overall customer experience. In 2021, an estimated 47% of organisations are expected to deploy chatbots to provide customer support, with 40% of companies also predicted to adopt virtual assistants.

Programmed to respond to human inquiries as organically as possible, many sophisticated chatbots rely on machine learning to continually advance and become better at mimicking human-generated text. Within the next year, we will likely also see a major advancement in conversational AI bots — with a focus on increasing their ability to carry out more personalised, organic conversations and making them better at predicting customer sentiments.

4. AI-driven decision-making for businesses

Given that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an estimated US $8.1 to $15.8 trillion loss worldwide, the need for intelligent, AI-driven decision-making has never been more critical to industries. As such, we will be likely to see more companies turn to AI to guide their overall processes.

Luckily, AI and machine learning have advanced the world of business forecasting, whereby up to 90% of diverse data sets can now be accurately predicted. This is a great way to help companies make smarter business decisions on how to achieve their targets and develop better workforce planning strategies ahead of unexpected events of crises.

For greater context, some of the items that can be predicted through AI-based business forecasting include:

  • Pricing
  • Stock optimisation
  • Demand planning
  • Workforce planning (eg. whether there will be a shift in remote work vs. in-office work)
  • Debt management
  • Sales forecasting

Image credit @Franki Chamaki

5. More customer-focused app strategies

According to Google, the average weekly time spent on mobile applications grew by 20% in apps year over year. This suggests that intelligent apps have made a world of difference in how people have coped with the changes and challenges that have been brought on by the pandemic.

In response to this shift in consumer behaviour, Google reports that companies are looking to tailor their app strategies and business models to be more customer-centric within the next year. Some examples of how brands are looking to provide more intuitive apps that will meet market demands include:

  • AI-enhanced tracking apps that follow people’s movement during COVID-19 lockdowns
  • Andie, an app that uses AI to predict wait times, queues and checkout times to ensure safer retail experiences for customers

Google has also reportedly donated upwards of US $8.5 million to 31 organizations around the world to employ AI and data analytics to aid in COVID-19 response initiatives. In partnership with Google, some of the world’s top participating universities have outlined their plans to fight COVID-19 by developing interactive, public-facing trackers, building digital tools, creating more enhanced digital contact tracing methods and much more.

6. More robots on the ground

In the last few years, we have seen extraordinary progress when it comes to the growth of robot technology across a wide range of worldwide sectors — including healthcare, manufacturing and core technologies. As we have seen changes in our behaviour and spending habits following COVID-19, higher levels of automation in the healthcare and manufacturing sectors seems like an inevitable response to a shift in marketing trends.

As social distancing has become the current norm and companies have sought out the best “contactless” remedies available, industries have already recognized the benefits of employing robots within various different industries. For example, robots have started working alongside healthcare workers to fight the virus, all with zero liability for risk attached to their circuitry. This has led to an increased use in healthcare robotics, where robots and AI have begun taking care of telehealth, lab automation and more.

Advanced robots that have object-recognition capabilities have also been behind a massive growth in the e-commerce sector, as they have provided extra manpower to accommodate the tremendous growth of online sales following the outbreak of COVID-19.

As such, it is certain that we will see the production of more AI-poweredrobots in 2021 and the coming years. A recent study conducted by Accenture suggests that “across 21 industries surveyed, 61% of executives now expect [that] their organizations will use robotics in uncontrolled environments within the next two years”.

Final Thoughts

When the pandemic finally subsides and economies begin to fully reopen, there is no doubt we will be entering a changed business landscape. In fact, it is predicted that by 2030, AI products will contribute more than US $15.7 trillion to the global economy. As we ready ourselves for a post-COVID-19 world, the capabilities of AI will be highly instrumental in helping us transition into the “next normal”.

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