Can AI write thought leadership? Lessons from US-based leaders

Marketing leaders are finding generative AI useful for strategic planning, data analysis and some writing, but they are less convinced of its ability to create distinctive thought leadership copy such as blog posts and reports.
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I recently spent a fascinating fortnight in the US, where generative AI is being created, launched and adopted at speed. My trip culminated at Momentum ITSMA’s Marketing Vision ’23 conference in Boston, which brought together top marketers from Google, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, IBM, Orange Business, PwC and beyond. Generative AI came up in most sessions and I was particularly interested in seeing how such businesses are using the technology in writing.

The upshot is that these market-leading companies are finding generative AI useful for strategic planning, data analysis and some marketing writing. But a number of speakers and attendees were less convinced of its ability to help create distinctive thought leadership copy such as blog posts and reports.

Here are perspectives from five marketing leaders who spoke at the conference.

Jim Jackson, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, said his organisation is pursuing AI with urgency and energy. But the business is also proceeding with caution and using its ethics board to consider potential security, bias and reputational issues.

“We’ve been moving relatively slow – we’re definitely doing some pilots internally in analysing data, dashboards, these kinds of things, so that we can distil the insights given to our marketers more quickly, then go and have a more relevant discussion with the business units,” Jackson said.

“We’re also looking at personalisation and some content pilots. I do think that if we’re in this room in a year or two years or three years, AI’s going to be having a huge impact on marketing. And we just all have to figure out how to harness it in the right way.”

Google’s bold AI venture

Unsurprisingly – given it’s a leading generative AI vendor and the owner of tools like Bard – Google is pushing the envelope as hard as possible.

Katharyn White, Head of Public Sector Marketing at Google, said she wants to create the world’s best AI marketing team and is actively exploring how generative AI technology could be used in internal processes. “I’m not being cautious!” she said. “I’m leaning into this thing and learning every single day.”

“This thing is changing so fast that the only way to learn is to do this.”

When it comes to content, White said her team is taking pieces of marketing writing and using AI to transform them into assets that could be published jointly with other companies. They are also using it to customise collateral for segments, industries and audiences. She had even seen a colleague use a Google tool to review a white paper and propose a marketing plan for its release.

Looking ahead, White shared that Google is debating whether AI should be built into every marketer’s job or whether the business should first create a team of specialist AI marketers. Either way, she encouraged everyone to get their hands dirty and see what is possible.

“This thing is changing so fast that the only way to learn is to do this,” she said.

Elevating efficiency with generative AI

Melody Callaway, Head of Marketing for the Americas at Orange Business, said that while she holds concerns about information security, she sees generative AI as a great way to boost her team’s efficiency.

“It’s really important as marketers to continue learning, and I really do think gen AI is going to be that next step,” said Callaway. “It’s going to help us produce more content in a world where we’re having budgets slashed and people and headcount removed.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for us to look at how we customise our marketing differently, and how can we use it to verticalise, to personalise and kind of take it to the next level in making us more efficient as marketers.”

Role in thought leadership differentiation

But what about thought leadership writing?

With long-running series such as the Global CEO Survey, PwC is a world leader in thought leadership. Lesley Bakker, the firm’s Global Industry Campaign Leader, said it is still early days for using generative AI but the firm is finding it useful for tasks such as distilling insights from thousands of survey responses, and to better understand the content landscape.

“I’m a little bit old school around AI when it comes to editorial content,” said Bakker, commenting on thought leadership writing specifically. “I feel as if nothing really takes the place of amazing writing, and I think that’s a craft and an art, and I hate to think AI will take the place of that.

“But I do think it’s a tool that can be used by our editors. I also think it’s a tool that can be used by our campaign teams to look at the competitive landscape – to understand very quickly what’s happening in the market, whether it’s competitive content or website use or other types of data that’s already out in the market.”

“Everyone is producing content. Thought leadership content is your opportunity to differentiate yourself.”

Natasha Thornton, ABM Marketing Lead for Financial Services at IBM, agreed with Bakker that there are many good ways to use AI in marketing. But she also felt that the writing of thought leadership material is such an important differentiator that it should stay in human hands.

“Everyone is producing content,” she said. “Thought leadership content is your opportunity to differentiate yourself … why would you give up that editorial and replace that edge – the thing that makes you different – with AI?

“If you’re going to use AI to design the survey that you’re going to push out to the field, absolutely. If you’re going to use AI to have a creative rollout plan for that thought leadership once it’s created, absolutely.

“I think AI will get better over time. Maybe my perspective will change over time, but it’s all about differentiating … I think it’s really the opportunity to stand out.”

Navigating the generative AI learning curve

These views reinforced those we heard at a recent roundtable lunch we held for Editor Group clients in Singapore. The message from that session was that while organisations are actively exploring the use of generative AI, they were applying it selectively – and the more complex and nuanced the content, the more traditional the production.

I think this shows that generative AI is new enough that organisations and marketers around the world are still learning and experimenting with the technology. Teams are finding amazing ways to use it, while also striking a balance between AI-assisted and traditional ways of working. That’s certainly been our experience at Editor Group so far, so it’s interesting that our journey isn’t far removed from that of many much larger businesses in the US and Asia.

Grant Butler is the founder and director of Editor Group.

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