Artificial intelligence (AI) has become a major tool in the growth marketing arsenal, helping businesses drive growth and increase revenue. In fact, as the world has been introduced to consumer versions of AI through tools like ChatGPT recently, businesses have been using AI-powered campaigns and marketing channels for a long time. From TikTok video feeds to Facebook ad delivery, machine-learned targeting models have already seeped into our daily interactions and experiences on our phones and devices. Even Siri and Alexa (as primitive as they seem) voice assistants are deep learning TTS (text-to-speech) model rooted in AI technology. Businesses use AI-powered marketing rooted in machine learning algorithms to analyze user behavior and personalize marketing campaigns in real-time. This allows businesses to reach consumers more effectively and efficiently than ever before. However, as AI becomes increasingly prevalent in marketing, there are emerging pockets of ethical risks that potentially pose harm to you and me.
One of the leading concerns about AI-powered marketing is a tale that we’re all familiar with: the spreading of misinformation and fake news through AI-powered social media campaigns. AI algorithms can be easily manipulated to create fake news and spread false information to millions of people. According to a study by MIT Technology Review, false information spreads faster and more easily on social media than true information, which can have serious consequences for public opinion, trust, and democracy (MIT Technology Review, 2018). For example, the 2016 US Presidential election was influenced by AI-powered media campaigns on social media, which helped shape public opinion and ultimately influenced the outcome of the election (The Guardian, 2018).
Another area of concern is the manipulation of consumer behavior through AI-powered personalization. AI algorithms can track and analyze consumer behavior, including their browsing history, search history, and social media activity, to personalize marketing campaigns. While this can be a powerful tool for businesses to reach consumers more effectively, it also has the potential to exploit vulnerabilities and sway consumer behavior in potentially unintended ways. According to a report by the World Economic Forum, as AI algorithms become more advanced, they will have the potential to manipulate human behavior to a much greater extent, creating new risks for consumer welfare (World Economic Forum, 2021). For example, brands or organizations can use AI algorithms can be used to target vulnerable populations and exploit data to drive adoption or education, leading to negative consequences.
Big data could become another driving factor behind unethical practices in AI-powered growth marketing. AI algorithms are fed massive amounts of data to analyze consumer behavior and personalize marketing campaigns. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, big data analytics has the potential to generate significant value for businesses, but it also presents significant risks to privacy and security (McKinsey & Company, 2016). Vast quantities of data collected by algorithms can be easily manipulated to create false patterns and trends, leading to skewed results and unethical practices. Having worked in technology companies with access to large data sets, I know that there are several levels upon which data can be biased, both in how we determine which signals to track, how we define them, and ultimately how we interpret what the data is telling us. The scary thing is that we don’t fully realize that we’re making biased decisions, because we think the data is objective.
One could even see a world in which perfectly fine-tuned AI, which is based on mathematical models and algorithms that are designed to analyze and interpret patterns in data, can lead to a worse or more mediocre customer experience overall. These algorithms struggle to understand the complexity of human behavior and the context in which these behaviors occur. According to a report by Harvard Business Review, AI algorithms are still limited in their ability to understand human behavior and the context in which it occurs, which can lead to homogenous and generic experiences for consumers (Harvest Business Review, 2020). As a result, AI-powered growth marketing can create homogenous and generic experiences for consumers, ignoring important cultural and contextual factors that can influence consumer behavior. Imagine a world where every experience on the Internet is a 3.5-star Yelp restaurant one – homogenous, not too good nor too bad. Optimized right for the crowd.
To address these ethical concerns and limitations in AI-powered marketing, I believe that businesses must take a responsible and ethical approach. This might come in the from of more businesses putting ethical guidelines front and center, in addition to their terms of services. We need a cultural system (or even formal regulation) that can ensure the right incentives for transparency and accountability in AI-driven marketing campaigns, protect consumer privacy and data security, and create meaningful and respectful experiences for consumers. Our best bet will be to find the sweet spot in combining AI with human intuition and creativity, and then putting together the charter upfront for how these interact.
There is a lot of buzz around AI-driven marketing today. Tools like Jasper and ChatGPT have caused many go-to-market professionals to question whether their jobs will be replaced by robots in the near future. It can be unsettling to think about, but I’m also excited about the potential of these technologies to drastically improve our work and productivity. In my daily work, I’ve been able to use Jasper to quickly generate strategy statements and ad taglines with minimal input. It’s even helped me proofread parts of this write-up.
While this is all novel and exciting, AI-driven marketing is already making an impact on performance marketing channels. In fact, I’ve been using an ML-based performance ad channel over the last year in my role running growth at Descript, and these campaigns have broken our performance ceilings month after month. Let’s explore what’s happening now and how it affects our digital marketing and go-to-market decisions.
ML-based performance marketing is already here
Channels are all converging toward ML-based conversion optimization for targeting. Example: Google’s Performance Max campaigns; Facebook/Instagram’s broad targeting with conversion optimization campaigns
For those who aren’t familiar: Google Performance Max is a paid search campaign type that uses machine learning to optimize ad delivery and targeting in real-time, which results in achieving better performance and ROI outcomes. Instead of setting up targeting, you set up ‘”anti-targeting’” by telling the system what’s not considered a valid conversion.
ML-based targeting is ideal from the lens of ROI – the machine-learned system will most certainly be more precise in targeting and use each ad dollar in more effective way than human allocation could. But, it’s not ideal from the lens of gaining customer insights.
Perhaps in 6-12 months time, all paid search and paid social will utilize blackbox targeting where we don’t define or know who the platforms are targeting, except understanding broad filters geography, demographics, or platform, to name a few examples.
This creates a reliance on ads, where you can get a ton of results but you don’t know what drove its success and you can only count on the blackbox targeting system to continue working well.
A good parallel might be to understand what Amazon does with brands/sellers today. You pay Amazon to sell on your behalf, and the units sell or they don’t, but you don’t know who the customer is at the end of the day.
Overall, the Amazon-esque system can work incredibly well, but it rules out a certain type of seller that isn’t savvy enough to learn and exploit the system.
Skills for the future are technical and strategic
Performance marketing becomes a technical sport
Less focus on hiring those with ads operating experience, which tends to be the background of most junior performance marketers or agency hires. The things that performance marketers spend time on today, such as building the post, creating targeting parameters like frequency caps and daily budgets, setting up an a/b experiment, or optimizing based on results, will all become automated. Instead, people will spend more time defining clear optimization signals and structuring campaigns across these signals. Think of it almost as prompt creation.
Performance marketing as a whole will become a technically performant function where the operators behind the scenes will need to be data-minded in order to understand how utilize targeting and ranking mechanisms.
Instrumenting marketing data systems isn’t a common skillset for data engineers. That’s why the performance marketer will need to become an acting product manager to help ensure accurate instrumentation, and define a data taxonomy that becomes useful for marketing teams.
Content marketing and product marketing work requires more precise customer segmentation
It will be imperative to develop strengths across multiple niches in order to gain scale. Otherwise, we’ll hit the ceiling within the constraints of our economics – i.e. willingness to pay for a conversion – and time horizon.
More micro-targeted content positioned to the customer that will be likely to convert. This could mean developing more landing pages with focused content that gives greater chance of fitting into the blackbox targeting match.
Having a multi-faceted product that spans customer segments should play to our advantage in that it allows us to compete in multiple audience segments at one time, which increases our chances of exposure and conversion.
This increases our need to have a clear data-driven signal customer segments that can be exposed externally somehow.
The chasm between digital performance and brand marketing tactics will widen, yet the function of these are intertwined
Today, performance marketers look toward increasing reach as a mechanism to improve the likelihood of finding a converting audience. Tactics include bidding on a CPM basis to achieve a broader set of conversion outcomes. However, in the world of ML targeting, the system will reach as few users as possible to reach conversion objectives, which minimizes total reach and frequency of reach.
Brand and performance assets are thought of as separate entities right now, but these are becoming inseparable parts of the customer’s experience. For example, a user that is abruptly shown a use case landing page will most certainly want to explore the brand’s larger offering on the homepage or other branded pages (in my experience, this happens 20-30% of the time). Both types of pages will be relevant to cold prospects who are looking to learn about the brand while trying to get more information about their use cases. It’s about identifying the ideal navigation path and understanding what happens after a user interacts with a brand for the first time, or vice versa.
The bridge from brand marketing to performance marketing can be built via a multi-touch attribution model that companies either develop themselves by centralizing all data within a CDP like Segment, or they can be outsourced and imported to a 3rd party tool that does this for you, like Branch.
Preparing for the future means hiring for technical skills & building for channel-market fit
In a world of ML-driven customer acquisition, digital marketing teams must create clear signals and high-quality user experiences to be successful. This means that the better you perform today, the better you’ll perform tomorrow – it’s a performance flywheel. This wasn’t the case in the past, when performance marketing was limited by target audience ceilings and manual optimization decisions. The more signals you have, the better these platforms will be able to acquire new customers for you.
To accomplish this, you should hire ad managers from diverse backgrounds, with an emphasis on those with technical expertise. Content quality is still paramount for delivering persuasive messages that convert, but product marketing, content marketing, growth marketing, and product teams must work together to create a well-managed journey from first touch to product entry.
First, let’s understand: what is monetization? Monetization strategy refers to how a company decides to make money by offering its product or services to customers. This is a company deciding what they’re going to start charging users for them to use their products or services. Figuring out how you make money is tied in with what you’re naming it, when you charge, how often you charge, and how much it costs. For most software companies, revenue is the ultimate metric, and monetization is the strategy that touches revenue the deepest. The key reasons for a company to prioritize monetization strategy are:
Monetization allows companies to make money, which enables the team to reinvest into growth.
Monetization completes your product-market fit: it’s a reflection of your product’s positioning and packaging that ultimately allows you to build a sustainable and profitable business.
A focus on monetization strategy forces companiesto focus on growing the set of users with the highest ARPC.
Rather than cost cutting, monetization strategy is a lever for accelerating revenue through its compounding effects on acquisition and activation.
To grow a company, product and marketing teams will think about several strategies, including but not limited to common ones such as acquiring paid users, reducing product friction, and improving product retention. When it comes to revenue, it seems like sales alone is somehow responsible for numerical dollar amounts, and it can feel as if product and marketing will dust their hands and work on user and retention problems (often times as proxy or leading indicator) rather than directly on revenue ones.
For product teams, the first default tactic to impact the bottom line is often to “cut costs”. This is also true for marketing teams that track metrics like LTV:CAC, where after a 4-5 years, LTV rarely grows and instead we look to decrease the cost basis of the users we acquire. Product teams often look at the traction of their time investments and determine whether products and features are additive or detrimental – if the latter, we shut down the feature, or roll it back. If the product or feature is neither good or bad, then usually nothing happens and is handed over to sales and marketing to grow adoption. These are problematic perspectives that are miss the mark on distributing a product to an end customer. Ultimately, a user will purchase a product that they need if the price and packaging are right in their moment of need. Companies can inspire users to get to that moment, but for the most part, a product’s core job is to get users to that point.
Pricing strategies today – SaaS & enterprise
Pricing is a very relevant topic today, where companies need to adjust prices due to the rising costs of doing business as a result of decades-high inflation rates. Companies like Netflix or Beamer for example, have announced their price increases. Some of these companies are taking extra care to word their messages by addressing value-added features to justify the increases (Netflix explained that they are providing a lot more value through an extensive new collection of movies and TV shows). Yet others simply saying that their costs have risen and they need to increase prices as a result (Beamer announced that COGS have increased). Regardless of the circumstances, price changes will impact users in different ways, such as affecting the satisfaction of existing users or changing the perceived value of new potential users. Prices also affect how users perceive a company’s competitive positioning. In the examples above, companies expressed that their prices were forced due to broader economic conditions, and that they had no choice but to begrudgingly change. But while these example are driven by an increased cost basis, there are many benefits to thinking about pricing and packaging proactively relative to positioning.
In a world where user growth is typically seen as a proxy to revenue growth, there are many missed opportunities when it comes to driving growth through the components of monetization. Let’s break those down into the raw pricing and packaging components that a monetization strategy represents:
If we only rely on growing the # and composition of users to grow revenue, we missing out on a big part of our conversion engine. For example, what if your business only offered two plans today – one for consumers and the other for businesses, and you found out that the prosumers using your product were looking more for business-type features, but were paying for the consumer plan? That’s both money and potential users left on the table, so there’s a ton of value in exploring how you could create a separate package for your prosumer users. The company Webflow, a low-code website builder platform, does a great job of identifying several distinct segments of users that would want to pay to create a website. Though the monthly prices are each within a low range of prices, they individually speak to the specific type of customer who is looking to create a website through the tool – a blogger would look at the CMS plan, whereas a small business would start with the business plan, and someone who is just getting started and doesn’t have the need to collaborate with others or utilize scalable page types would go for the starter or Basic plan.
Why don’t companies use pricing as a growth lever?
While it makes sense that we would want to package appropriately for our target customer segments, there are still reasons why companies don’t prioritize monetization as a growth lever. Based on my experience working at large companies like Pinterest and Facebook, to smaller startups like Indiegogo and Descript, these are the key reasons why companies don’t prioritize pricing changes as a growth lever:
It seems customary to focus on getting customers first, then getting monetization right later. For many consumer companies, we’re trained to think of the goal as a hockey-stick shaped user growth curve. SaaS companies track ARR, but even then, revenue growth is driven by assuming changes in the number of paid seats rather than increasing revenue per user.
Pricing and packaging isn’t a typical skill set for anyone on product or growth teams – it feels like an abstract decision that is driven by experienced people.
Pricing changes aren’t easy to make. Not only are these changes deeply embedded within existing product flows, such as checkout experiences, feature gates, or pricing pages, they are also decisions that no single team can make alone. Changing prices also risks the satisfaction of your core customers, if you’re not doing it right.
Given the potential hurdles of getting buy-in from internal stakeholders such as the CEO, product and marketing leaders, to your own customers, updating your company’s pricing can be hard to get started. But the changes of a company having gotten pricing and packaging right on the first try is low, and particularly as a company is scaling its growth, there are many reasons that make pricing changes incredibly advantageous.
How do you build a monetization strategy for your product?
There’s an art and science to landing a monetization strategy. There’s no one-size-fits all strategy, even as a baseline, that will apply to the specific context of the product and market that you’re building for. The best thing to do is to start with the intuition you have for your customer set, and begin to validate it through experiments. Start with your own baseline and go from there. There’s no one else’s pricing strategy that you can copy and instantly become successful with (in fact, it can often be detrimental to just follow what your peers are doing without considering how it impacts your customers). That said, here are a few of the most important considerations for creating your baselines and experimenting from that point:
Monetization isn’t just price changes, it’s about positioning relative to your understanding of customer value and how your product delivers it. Think about how packages are separated, and make the decision points clear for customers. Your goal isn’t to confuse them on what they want, but rather to offer them a clear way to make a decision on how pricing scales value for their usage of your product.
Don’t bet all of your eggs in one basket, test changes where you can. Geographical or audience roll outs are a great way to test without disrupting the entire user base.
Don’t reengineer all of your product SKUs right out of the gate. Painted door tests are a way to get real reactions that mimic true conversion rates.
If unit economics / profitability don’t work yet, don’t rely solely on cost-cutting. Look toward pricing and packaging as a lever proactively, as it could change your COGS considerations.
Implementing a monetization strategy at your company
So then how do you know if you even have the right monetization strategy before you’re a prime candidate for pricing and packaging changes? The reality is that pricing and packaging is never going o be a decision made in a vacuum. Being at the bottom of the funnel, monetization strategies will see the compounded effects of acquisition and activation for better or for worse. You might be charging the wrong price or on the wrong value metric for the right customer, even if it gates access to the right thing.
Monetization is an incredibly interdisciplinary sport. In this topic alone, you’ll end up running through at least these functions:
Product marketing view of different segments.
Qualitative and quantitative research to run pricing surveys such as Max diff or conjoint analysis.
Data science-led pricing tests, with test vs. control audiences, a/b variants, or other tests of statistical significance.
Customer support management to manage new and existing user questions and sentiment.
Sales & marketing will need to update pricing and packaging messages across the website, emails, and in external publications.
Finance to work through implications of how it impacts bottom line and other company numbers.
Product and design to identify the right flows to introduce pricing and packaging.
Not only does pricing require a strong general manager skillset, it also requires driving alignment amongst many stakeholders. Monetization isn’t going to be as simple as one person’s decision – because it ties to revenue and product, it will likely require working with the CEO in earlier stage and growth stage companies. This will involve bringing data, customer insights, strategic insights, risk management, and more to the table just in the process of writing a proposal alone. Given the complexity of pushing through pricing changes, testing every change isn’t always possible. Sometimes, you just have to roll it out and see how it works. If it doesn’t work well, you can roll back as long as you’re transparent and keep your customers updated each step of the way.