SDL's Arjen van den Akker DX Leader profile

Arjen van den Akker: Machine Learning and AI to Play 'Pivotal Role' in Content Creation

7 minute read
China Louise Martens avatar
SDL Product Marketing Director Arjen van den Akker talks future of content delivery and personalization

Over a career spanning more than 25 years, Arjen van den Akker has been drawn to roles where he can act as a connection between digital experience technologies and the needs of customers.

Van den Akker is currently product marketing director at content management and language software vendor SDL, focused on its web content management business. He came to SDL in 2012 when it acquired Alterian, after becoming part of Alterian in 2008 when the company bought Mediasurface.

“I felt most attracted though to the bridge role between the technology and the market, which led to roles in field marketing, corporate marketing and now going back more towards the technology in product marketing,” Van den Akker said. “Throughout all the acquisitions, I have learned that that the bridge function is my sweet spot where I function best.”

The Ever-Changing WCM Market

With a background in computer engineering, Van den Akker acknowledges his move into marketing might seem a little odd, but it was actually quite a logical transition. “Building editorial systems in C, a long time ago, and then demonstrating that software at events and tradeshows was my first entry into the world of sales and marketing,” he said. His development role turned into presales and training, then into product management and heading up the development group.

Van den Akker has seen “huge changes” in the WCM market including the days when most companies’ websites were built using basic tools such as Microsoft’s FrontPage or Macromedia’s (later Adobe’s) Dreamweaver.

“Fast forward 25 years and we have seen Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and 3.0, moving from static webpages to fully dynamically rendered pages, a shift from webpage-centric thinking towards content dynamically adapted for any device, and a shift from one-way publishing to extensive online interaction,” Van den Akker said.

As for what’s coming next, he sees the evolution of natural language processing (NLP) having a significant impact on content creation.

Van den Akker will be speaking at CMSWire’s Digital Customer Experience (DX) Summit taking place Nov. 13 through 15 at the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel in Chicago. He will give a session titled “Win the Personalization Battle with Machine Learning-Assisted Authoring” on Nov. 14. 

We spoke with Van den Akker about the challenges companies face in creating and distributing more individualized content and how NLP can help with those issues.

The Main Challenge for Personalization? Content Production

CMSWire: How do you see the needs of content creators and managers shifting over the next five to 10 years?

Van den Akker: The trends for the next five to 10 years are hard to predict, but clearly content distribution across even more touchpoints is obvious. We see it showing up in cars and hardware appliances — for example, instruction manuals — in all sorts of (mobile) apps that are fed with dynamic content and it will feature in IoT devices as well.

For content authors I see two key trends emerging:

  1. Creating a WYSIWYG preview for each touchpoint will become harder and harder. This is because content endpoints are manifold — and the number continues to grow — and because personalization will generate a unique experience for everyone. New editing paradigms will need to be developed by vendors, beyond what is called “headless CMS” today, and organizations may need to develop new ways of working and testing content in their final context. 
  2. More content variations will be needed. Machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence) will play a pivotal role in this trend of letting the machine create content variations. For certain use cases, the machine can already even create the source content today. This will not eliminate the need for human content authors, but instead it will affect the way they work. We have already seen this shift in the translation industry, where people are now specialized in post-editing of machine-translated content.

CMSWire: How should companies think about using personalized content in creating individual digital experiences for their customers?

Van den Akker: The success or failure of many of today’s online customer experiences are inextricably linked to how personalized they are to a given customer’s needs, and that cannot be ignored. The main challenge for personalization, however, is the content production.

The companies today that can do personalization really well are the ones with huge amounts of content: Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and the like. For most other companies, just managing the regular content is a challenge already, let alone building variations of that content for different audiences. This is where I think AI will start to play a key role in the next decade.

CMSWire: How will machine learning-assisted authoring help companies create personalized content? What role will natural language processing play?

Van den Akker: We see companies struggle with content production. Shorter life cycles of products and faster turnaround times for content increase the pressure on content teams. Delivering that content in multiple regions in various languages adds more complexity, then put personalization on top of it, and you can see why most companies have problems managing this.

NLP and NLG (natural language generation) will need to come to the rescue to solve the problem in a sustainable way. NLP is in SDL’s DNA as part of our machine translation capabilities. We’re expanding that knowledge into the realm of NLG to help companies create more content and content variations in an automated way, to enable them to scale their content production beyond the current human bottlenecks.

Learning Opportunities

The real cool part of machine-generated content is that it can be created in the target language immediately, eliminating the need for a separate translation cycle.

CMSWire: How do you see the function of marketing changing in an increasingly customer-centric world and what role do you see content playing?

Van den Akker: Content has never been more important to the success of a business. Customers in both B2C and B2B no longer expect to receive broadcast messages (push), but they want to engage with a brand when it suits them (pull). This means companies need to ensure their content is wherever the customer expects to find it, which extends far beyond the traditional website. From communities to social platforms and apps, the list is endless.

Marketing somehow needs to enable this, meaning its role is changing dramatically, especially for the traditional marketing roles involved in advertising. Companies need to become publishers in a sense, and compete for visibility and findability in a plethora of touchpoints. 

CMSWire: You’ve previously talked about the importance of speaking to customers in the right language. How should companies think about this?

Van den Akker: A critical part of continuity of customer experience is related to language. What if you browse a company’s marketing content in say, French, and then when you want in-depth product information you end up in the support section, which is in English? You have just ruined the customer journey, providing a very fragmented experience.

With “language,” we also mean addressing local or cultural nuances which goes far beyond text. As an example, the color red means something completely different in Europe compared to the Far East.

Ultimately, making sure content is not only accurate, but nuanced for individual regions is critical to drive user engagement and achieve the core objective to drive revenue, and have local value to customers.

CMSWire: What interests and hobbies do you pursue outside of work? Which one do you find the most rewarding and why?

Van den Akker: I’m still in love with photography, having traded in my Nikon DSLR for an Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera last year, although my busy job doesn’t permit me to spend much time on it right now.

What’s really important for me though is yoga, to balance my busy day job with inner tranquility and mental sanity. Before walking my dog each morning, I spend 30 minutes doing a series of exercises that I benefit from all day long during my work. It’s something I would recommend to anyone.

Editor's note: Learn more about the DX Summit here.

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