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Robot writers: the potential and perils of AI copywriting

Last year, campaign.co.uk published this article about how Goldman Sachs is investing in an automated copywriting startup. Naturally, this got all the human copywriters here at HN to wondering whether our jobs were about to be lost to robots.

Although the boss assured us that there were no immediate replacement plans, the question remains – does AI copywriting have a future in B2B marketing?

Come on… really?

Even in an age of VR, where the digital world is inching closer and closer to the physical, the ability of robots to take over creative jobs sounds a little far-fetched.
But it’s definitely being worked on; Google’s AI has written some eerie, haunting short poems, and has beaten a grand master at Go, widely believed to be the most complex game ever devised. And there are the incredible feats that IBM’s Watson is pulling off, from cooking up a storm to saving lives.

So why shouldn’t AI be able to match human writers when it comes to B2B copy?

After all, we can do quite a lot to define the sales funnel or buyer’s journey that we hope to move targets through. Our job is to match solutions and messaging to stated (or assumed) customer needs at various points on their journey, and both halves of this equation (solutions/messaging and needs) seem amenable to being specified for the AI.

We can also point to loads of examples of good B2B copywriting for AI to learn from.

And as I sit here with a cold while my computer perches contentedly on the desk, one of us seems rather obviously to be a far more resilient worker…

The rise of the machines?

But I’m not panicking — yet. Because what is possible in principle is perhaps not so much in practice — yet.

Rarely do we receive a brief that is completely unambiguous in intent and complete in every respect. Because, frankly, composing such a brief is time-consuming and our clients are busy people. So they’re looking for us to connect lots of dots by ourselves, and to clarify where necessary through the faster and more efficient process of having a conversation.

Asking even the cleverest computer to reliably identify gaps and then pick up the phone to ask questions feels like a very tall order right now. Maybe in a few years I’ll have to reassess, but right now I’m feeling pretty secure.

What would be cool is access to an AI copywriter to use as an additional tool in my copywriting toolkit.

I’m thinking of how Watson’s recipes work best when filtered through the judgement of a human cook. And of how machine translation can make the lives of translators easier, but rarely works well enough without human post-editing. I can see how a robot copywriter might help me think of options I’d not have found on my own, and that could help me become a better writer.

So bring on the robot copywriters; I’m not scared… yet.

B2B storytelling: How to make your content stand out

Everyone in marketing knows the value of a good story…don’t they?

Historically, the answer for B2B marketing has been ‘no’. But that’s changing, as these great examples of B2B storytelling show.

“How do they do that?” I hear you ask. The article points to some of the relevant factors: LinkedIn has a clearly defined niche and promotes its value relentlessly; Salesforce uses case studies really well; Cisco uses humour. All good weapons in your storytelling arsenal.

All very specific, though. What if humour isn’t appropriate — or you’re just not very good at it? What if you’ve got multiple propositions that all need equal airtime?

What struck us about the examples given wasn’t so much the specifics of what they’ve done well, but the more general principles that we think they exemplify.

When we try to bring storytelling to B2B marketing, these are some of the key things we’re usually aiming to do.

1. Make your audience invest with emotion
Connecting with emotion in B2B marketing is perhaps not as easy as in B2C, but it’s always something to aim for.

The Cisco example shows that humour is one way to do it, if you’ve got the chops. Fear can have its place, too, though too much negativity can have the wrong result (you want to use the carrot as well as the stick.)

Whatever emotion you use, use it with caution; you don’t want people remembering only the emotion, but rather the message you’re using the emotion to convey. This is why one of the most powerful ways to connect with people’s emotions is to tap into the stories of your customers.

As the article points out, for Kickstarter this is very much part of their business (their users tell their own stories), but Salesforce proves that you don’t have to be selling stories to master the art of bringing customer stories to life.

2. Gain trust through authenticity
As we’ve pointed out before, businesses today need to show that they’re open and honest; human rather than a faceless corporation.

But you can’t simply sound authentic, you actually have to be authentic Which means that, like LinkedIn, you really need to take the time to think about developing your value proposition from the customer’s point of view (and if you have many products, services or audiences, you may need to do this for all of them).

Another effective approach is what Salesforce does with its customer community. They’ve developed a space for customers to discuss their experience (positive or negative) without any influence from the company itself.

No selling. No corporate spin. You can trust that everything on there is 100% genuine. People respond to that.

3. Be memorable
The Zendesk Alternative. Need I say more?

Unfortunately there’s no formula for the kind of creative, outside the box thinking that will make you really stand out from the rest. Nor will time and budget always make room for it.

But there are other ways to be memorable. If, for example, you can avoid an over-zealous corporate legal team diluting every bit of your content with ‘maybe’s and ‘might’s, you can be memorable for having and expressing opinions.

B2B marketing is historically very cautious, and we’re not suggesting that you make wild claims that can’t be backed up. But there’s really very little danger in being a little unexpected, a little controversial now and then. If you have something interesting to say, say it!

Let’s move B2B marketing forward
This blog was inspired by an article pointing to a few great examples of B2B marketing. But that kind of article is much harder to come by than we’d like.

Read any article outlining great examples of content marketing (here’s one from the Content Marketing Institute) and you’ll be lucky to find B2B examples referenced.

It’s up to all of us to change that by daring to be more emotive, authentic and memorable with our marketing. Let’s go!

Exit, pursued by a bear: another content marketing lesson from Shakespeare

April may have come and gone, but this year still marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. In this post, we take a look at one of his greatest enigmas – and the content marketing lesson we can draw from it.

‘Exit, pursued by a bear’, appearing in Act III scene iii of The Winter’s Tale and heralding the death of Antigonus, is perhaps one of the most famous stage directions ever written — not least because there are none other like it in all of Shakespeare’s collected works.

A lesson from the Bard

But famous and unprecedented as this stage direction is, I can tell you (based on the rigorous test of asking all of my friends) that though many people have heard of it, they often know nothing else about the play it comes from (possibly not even its name).

I don’t pretend to know the mind of someone who’s been dead for 400 years, but I’d hazard a guess that Shakespeare probably wouldn’t be thrilled that one of his plays is best remembered for a stage direction. Which suggests, to me, a lesson about content creation: if you’re going to do something different, make it count.

Redesigning your white paper to be visually stunning (for example) is a great idea – unless it becomes remembered as ‘that paper that looked great’ rather than ‘that paper that was really engaging and made some great points’.

Where there’s a Will (Shakespeare), there’s a way

Innovation in content creation is awesome and absolutely to be encouraged, but how can you be sure it isn’t going to do more harm than good? Here are a couple of options to test any new concept.

1. Prototype it. Get a sample made up and think through the effect of the finished piece. Will it (still) have the result you’re looking for?

2. Ask someone not connected with the project. It’s possible that you’re too close to the content to see the impact your ideas might have – so find someone who isn’t involved and get their opinion.

Perhaps we’re being a little unfair to Shakespeare. Given that he purportedly invented around 1,700 of the words we use today, it’s fair to say that most of his innovations supported his content, rather than distracted from it. With a little thought, yours could do the same.

The resurgence of storytelling as a means of persuasion

We love a good story here at HN — whether it’s a novel you can’t put down, a TV drama that’s so gripping you won’t be watching it on catch-up, or the latest Hollywood blockbuster. This is the power of storytelling — it draws you in and makes you hunger for more.

Of course, storytelling isn’t a new idea when it comes to being persuasive. Ancient Greeks, notably Aristotle, understood the role of pathos and ethos — the modes of persuasion appealing to an audience’s emotions and their perception of the speaker’s moral character — in establishing a connection with the audience. More recently, it’s been proven that long copy — when it’s written to influence the cognitive and affective attitudes of an audience — can outsell short copy. That’s despite the trend to distil information into bite-sized nuggets to suit the time-poor society we live in.

We’re not arguing against brevity but in the pursuit of ‘concise’. The bombardment of messages, one fact after another, can sometimes be relentless and tiring for the reader — it takes the pleasure out of reading when it should be a welcome diversion. A swing towards a more engaging approach, where the reader derives enjoyment from reading your material, has to be the answer.

So whether you’re looking to create online or printed copy, the approach remains the same: engaging and thought-provoking copy that involves the reader — whether presented in a hundred words or a thousand — will be far more successful than reams of facts and figures.

There are many ways to make your B2B message more engaging — we’re certainly passionate about video and animations here. But the biggest change we are seeing at the moment is a return to good old-fashioned storytelling, meaning that case studies are taking a far more human angle to draw the reader in and show the personal gain as much as the business benefits. This is great to see, not least because it’s a proven way of creating an environment to sell in but also because it’s just as much fun to write as it is to read.

Have you used storytelling to your advantage? Or were you persuaded by a great story? Why not tell us about it on Twitter, LinkedIn or in the comments section below?