street scene in NYC
VR’s immersive technology and AI’s predictive analytics will raise the bar for customer experience. PHOTO: Christopher Burns

Digital marketing has reached the point in its evolution where we know what the best practices are: A seamless omnichannel strategy, an emphasis on customer experience and the use of social media to co-create the brand with the customer, to name a few.

Along with these benchmarks, there is a general consensus on what excellence looks like, both in terms of which companies are leading the pack and which marketing leaders are setting the standards.

But based on what we saw at CES 2017 in Las Vegas last month, digital marketing will soon be shifting into a new gear, as virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) begin to gain critical mass.

In our view, the combination of VR’s immersive technology and AI’s predictive analytics will exponentially raise the bar for customer experience, rewriting the standards currently in place. Reaching that bar will take some doing and will depend on how well a marketing leader can do three things:

Just as when social media and mobile first emerged, AI and VR will not bring with them an established playbook to follow or metrics with which to measure success.

Without those touchstones, the default is to think of the future in terms of the present: Recall the early days of the web, when companies simply reproduced printed materials online as clunky brochureware.

Lead Without a RoadMap

When AI and VR start redefining what we mean by “customer experience,” the winners will be those who leapfrog past that primitive first stage. Marketing leaders will have to be in agile development mode, experimenting, failing fast and learning in an iterative cycle.

Managing teams through that cycle again and again requires two of the four traits of potential that lead to greatest success in times of uncertainty: the curiosity to drive rich experimentation and the determination to surmount the inevitable obstacles.

Instill a Focus on High Performance — Everywhere

Digital marketing’s emphasis on customer experience has already elevated the importance of back-office functions like customer service and distribution; the rise of AI will further do so.

Predictive analytics will have marketers striving to be clairvoyant in their ability to anticipate, shape and fulfill consumer desire.

The extent to which they can do so, however, will depend on the ability to have every customer-facing function adopt two practices of a high-performance organization: collect meaningful and accurate data on itself and then leverage the insights gleaned in analysis to be more responsive and efficient.

Build Left Brain/Right Brain Teams

One macro effect of digital disruption has been to scramble the distribution of talent. Just as automotive companies hire user interface experts from Silicon Valley, many marketing organizations are looking to bring math PhDs on board who can write the algorithms needed to harness AI at every consumer touchpoint.

But AI’s computer code is only part of the equation. In the end, marketing is about storytelling, as it always has been — and now that storytelling will need to be done through virtual reality, a platform whose power is only beginning to be understood.

The innovation this requires will come from the creative abrasion of having marketers and quants around the same table.

For most marketers, AI and VR are still in their early years.

When they become common, what is currently considered good digital marketing will no longer be good enough.

It will fall to marketing leaders to shepherd their functions to the next level. Awareness of these elements helps define the scope of the leadership challenge and talent requirements ahead of time so that the groundwork can be laid now.