‘AI will enable marketers to achieve more, but requires trust,’ says Microsoft Bing Ads GM
As AI is powering new search experiences, including conversational ones, and driving Digital Transformation, Steve Sirich talks about Microsoft's approach.
There is hardly a new digital marketing feature or product introduced today that doesn’t incorporate — or is at least informed by — artificial intelligence and machine learning. But is marketing getting better for it?
Yes, says Steve Sirich, general manager of Bing Ads at Microsoft. “While some have doubted the outcome of this relationship [between marketing and AI], evidence points to its success. In turn, marketing is becoming more data-driven as integrated marketing, efficiency and ROI become more of a priority.”
Machine learning has long been applied to search data to continually analyze and improve organic search results. Now, that technology is being applied across nearly every aspect of search advertising (along with just about every other product at Microsoft). “Advertisers are looking to leverage more data about customers to target the right users and present them with personalized offers,” said Sirich via email. “Search data, when combined with the abilities of AI to reason over large volumes of data, enables deep user understanding for marketers. In short, it’s a powerful and impressive tool.”
It’s easy to think of negative examples AI being manipulated by users in ways its designers never anticipated or prepared against. Facebook and Twitter’s problems with Russian-propagated ads and content are among the most recent to underscore the negative consequences of abdicating oversight to the machines. Last year, Microsoft had it’s own unfortunate incident when users quickly manipulated its experimental chat bot Tay. In advertising, marketers largely have to put faith in the platforms’ algorithms to optimize their campaigns (the same platforms they are paying to run their ads) while still maintaining some level of oversight. I asked Sirich how marketers should be thinking about the balance between letting the machines run things — specifically in bidding, targeting or creative algorithms in Bing Ads — and holding onto the reins. Sirich pointed to a mandate for corporate responsibility set by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella last year.
Nadella’s six design principles of AI: “AI must be designed to assist humanity; it must be transparent; it must not destroy the dignity of people; it must be designed for ‘intelligent privacy’; it must have ‘algorithmic accountability’ which would allow people to undo any unintended harm; and it must guard against bias.”
Sirich continued, “Our culture and our mission are very much about empowerment of individuals and organizations to achieve more. AI will enable marketers to do more and achieve more, but the way to do that is to build trust and trust is built when you’re representing the truth in an inclusive and unbiased way.”
Rather than seeing these tools as a threat to Microsoft’s search business, Sirich says, these new inputs are additive to the traditional text input and provide new ways for brands to engage with customers.
“For example, a digital assistant may receive a voice query from its user asking, ‘help me find a black suit for next week’s party,'” says Sirich. “This provides product information but also contextual information –- the user wants ‘help,’ suggesting urgency, and the user has six days to find the right suit for a festive occasion. From this, marketers can strategically time and craft their advertising to this person’s exact needs. If, by Wednesday next week, the user has still not purchased, they know to continue delivering relevant black suit ads, based on this original intent information. In delivering more personalized, timely targeting, the user is more likely to engage with the ad — and consequently, purchase.”
Guiding and advising companies through “Digital Transofrmation” has become a key priority for Microsoft. “Forces like cloud computing, machine learning/AI [and] data availability are all driving companies to rethink their businesses,” says Sirich. “And for us as a company, the investments we’re making is to help companies through this transformation. While the idea of Digital Transformation is a relatively new topic, the challenges facing businesses today are familiar: engaging customers, empowering employees, optimizing operations and transforming products. We are having conversations to help companies with digital transformation across all of these pillars.”
Specifically in regard to marketing, Sirich says Microsoft is having conversations with businesses about how they can transform their engagement and productivity levels to drive growth and revenue. “For Bing and Bing Ads, our role is really to help companies better engage customers. Search capabilities form the basis for many AI capabilities, and in turn, search gets better with AI, and even more central as a digital marketing channel. The increasing amount of data and increasingly sophisticated AI and machine learning capabilities will provide an ever-deeper understanding of the consumer. As a result, search is shifting from a marketing tactic to an increasingly important component of consumer connection. Bing has always used AI to enhance our products and platform and will continue to do so to help advertisers get more from Bing Ads.”
If you’re headed to our MarTech Conference in Boston, be sure to attend the session with Steve Sirich on Tuesday, October 3.