Evolution or extinction? Surviving and thriving in the age of AI

17 February 2017

Artificial intelligence is an 'asteroid' set to change the landscape for marketing forever, writes Jon Epstein, but how exactly does it apply to affiliates in the gambling space and how should they be looking to leverage its benefits?

If anyone's familiar with survival of the fittest, it's affiliate marketers. After all, affiliate marketers are in constant competition for the same scarce resources and the ones who evolve better strategies are the ones who survive.

In an ecosystem with only so much "food", being on the cutting edge of performance and statistics can be the difference between thriving and going extinct.

And, like in nature, every now and then comes along an “asteroid” which changes the marketing landscape forever. The Internet was one of those asteroids, as was social media.

If you didn’t stay on top of the rapidly changing Internet technologies, you’d be out of business by now. Similarly, if you ignored social, chances are that others were able to outperform you.

Well, hurtling towards us right now – and already starting to collide – is the biggest disruptor of all to your and everyone else’s business: artificial intelligence. Software that can think, learn, and make decisions.

It makes decisions better than you, faster than you, and with every decision it learns even more. We stand at a brink of a new era, for business and society, and how you choose to react to AI will make the critical difference in how you, and how your company does, over the next years.

So, what’s an affiliate marketer to do? Do you need to hire a team of expensive machine learning specialists? Leverage open source systems and build your own neural networks? Or is there another way to leverage the benefits of AI? And where can those benefits be realised today?

Fortunately, marketing is an area which is ripe for improvement from AI, and companies are bringing forward products which can leverage AI to solve the specific problems you face each day.

What’s the best source of traffic? How much should I spend to get them? What creative should I put in front of them? What product(s) do I pitch when they hit my site? Will a special offer help? What words, images and layouts will close my prospects best?

Want to get ahead of the AI learning curve? Here are just a few areas affiliate marketers should keep their eyes out for:

AI in advertising
You don't need me to tell you SERP ads are an extremely competitive area. Chances are, either someone on your staff is dedicated to maximising your ad spend or you're using an agency which specialises in exactly that.

Ad performance is moved by a complicated series of levers. Snappier copy can help. So can more efficient bidding and smarter targeting, among other factors.

Finding the right combination of all factors is what makes for the best possible performing ads and, of course, getting more and better traffic for lower prices is an ideal that doesn't need to be explained.

Artificial intelligence is particularly well-suited for the task. Because machine learning is skilled at finding subtle relationships and patterns that elude even the most seasoned data scientists, a smart AI can find the exact mixture of ad copy, audience targeting, and spend that produce the best leads and customers.

AI that learns with every ad served means your campaigns change and improve 24/7, constantly optimising towards better performance, even while you (or your agency) is taking a well-earned dinner break.

Want to see what’s going on in AI in advertising? Check out companies like Adgorithms, Blackwood Seven, Rocket Fuel, and others.

AI in engagement
What happens if a user comes to your site and doesn't immediately know what to do? What if they want to use your service but can't find an offer that looks right for them? What if they want to reach out and ask you a question?

Chances are, if you're like most affiliate marketers, you don't have customer service reps standing by. And, even on the off chance you do, they aren't working at 11 pm when a user clicks an ad to place a bet.

More and more sites in a variety of industries are looking to chatbots to address this very problem. Chatbots are natural language AIs that can carry out conversations in real time with users.

And, because they aren't people, they can be on the clock all-day, year-round. You can train them to tell users about new offers, lead them to preferred sites, help with billing, or really any questions you think they should know the answer to.

And a little guiding light can be the difference between a conversion and a bounce. Check out Wizeline and Inbenta for some of the latest work in AI chatbots.

AI for conversion optimisation
For a lot of marketers, conversion rate optimisation (CRO) has long been a smart way to test and evolve strategies that work better than the current status quo.

If you're unfamiliar, CRO is the practice of trying new ideas on your site, evaluating which performs better, and then implementing those winning ideas moving forward.

These ideas can be anything from changing the headline or image on your homepage to the affiliate offer you present your visitors. It's about finding the right content to close the most sales.

Many people think of CRO and A/B testing as synonymous, which is understandable. After all, A/B testing is the most popular flavour of conversion rate optimisation.

But advances in AI are poised to give forward-thinking affiliate marketers a leg up on their competition, even those that are actively testing right now.

Artificial intelligence unlocks a type of optimisation that has long required a team of dedicated data scientists far outside the budget of most affiliate marketers. It's called multivariate optimisation. And it's the best and fastest way to find the content that maximises the traffic you work so hard to get.

Multivariate testing means trying not just A vs. B but all your marketing ideas at once. It means plugging in new content on every level – from the headline copy and image size to the offer itself.

The AI will immediately start testing those ideas and finding which are promising. It can then use a branch of AI called genetic algorithms to really start evolving your site.

It combines all those promising ideas, trying different mixtures, testing and tweaking constantly until the AI settles on the best combination of the ideas you gave it.

This can amount to thousands – even hundreds of thousands – of potential combinations, the stuff that would take years to test. And in the end, sites typically see double-digit growth in key KPIs.

Get to know your customers better than you already do
You might note a common thread between all these AI applications: namely, they all help affiliate marketers understand their customers better.

They help marketers understand how to incentivise searchers, how to message prospects, what questions users have, and what offers move the needle.

Not only that, but they all help evolve your site and survive in a competitive landscape where extinction is more the norm than the exception.

In the coming technological landscape, adaption is going to be key. Evolution is going to be the norm. And it's smarter to get started now and get a few steps ahead.

AI learnings happen quickly and even a quarter can be the difference between a thriving affiliate site and another face in the crowd.

So, what’s it going to be? Evolution time? Or extinction time? It’s up to you. The earlier you embrace and understand how to leverage AI, the more likely you’ll end up on top of the heap.

Jonathan Epstein is chief marketing officer of Sentient Technologies.