AI Primer for Marketers Part 2: Algorithms and Machine Learning Basics

The most innovative marketers routinely pick up new things, try them out, and succeed or fail. Why are marketers struggling so much to adapt to artificial intelligence and machine learning? In this series, we’ll explore machine learning and artificial intelligence to build a foundation for understanding the field – and how it applies to marketing.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

Before we can begin discussing how artificial intelligence and machine learning will impact marketing, we have to establish some basic definitions.

First, artificial intelligence is the science of creating computer hardware and software that mimics human intelligence and performs human intelligence functions. For example, if you are reading the words on the screen right now and they don’t appear as gibberish, you are using visual recognition and natural language processing, two fields of study in artificial intelligence.

The Basics of AI: Algorithms

The foundation of artificial intelligence, and of computing itself, begins in the algorithm. Named after a 9th century Persian mathematician, an algorithm is a set of repeatable processes that deliver a reliable, repeatable result. We use algorithms every day. Our morning routine is an algorithm. The way we make our coffee is an algorithm. The way we drive to work is a complex series of algorithms.

In marketing, we’ve been using and discussing algorithms since the dawn of digital marketing. Our first experience with algorithms was in SEO, as we tried to figure out what pages ranked well insearch engines. We developed our own algorithms for creating content to be found by search engines. Social media marketing is entirely based in algorithms. We talk about them everyday – the Facebook news feed algorithm, the Instagram algorithm, how these platforms choose what content appears to users.

In the basics of computing, algorithms don’t change by themselves. We have to create them and modify them every time something changes. For example, if we’re out of sweetener, we have to change the way we make our coffee. If there’s a traffic jam, we have to change how we drive to work.

What if algorithms could change themselves based on new information?

They can – and that’s what we call machine learning.

The Basics of AI: Machine Learning

Machine learning is exactly as it sounds: the ability for machines to learn without being explicitly programmed. Given new data, a machine can adjust its own algorithms to be more efficient or more effective.

For example, we use machine learning every time we use our smartphone GPS. We put in our destination and the GPS finds the most efficient route for us. If traffic conditions change, our GPS changes along with those conditions and finds us a new way to get to where we’re going.

As consumers, we’ve had experience with machine learning since the early days of a digital marketing. Every time a platform or a service remembers our preferences and changes with them, we are seeing machine learning at work. Every time we shop online and a website gives us a list of recommendations that get better and better the more it gets to know us, we are seeing machine learning at work.

The foundations of machine learning are in algorithms and statistics. For example, when we are shopping online and a website is deciding what to show us as a recommended item to go along with our purchase, the machine learning algorithm is running a series of statistical tests.

Based on past experience and what other customers bought, what is the probability that we will like and purchase the red item versus the blue item? each time we purchase something, the website learns and scores its previous statistical test.

If it succeeded in convincing us to buy something additional in our order, then it updates as probability calculations for the next customer and for the next time we come back. If it didn’t convince us to buy something, then it will rerun its statistical tests to find what else we might purchase instead.

Next: Types of Machine Learning

In the next post in this series, we will look at the different types of machine learning and how they apply to marketing. Stay tuned!

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