This week, we take pride in spotlighting an esteemed Virginia Tech Marketing professor, Dr. Shilpa Rao. We discuss the current and future prospects of AI, as seen through the context of the Introduction to AI in Marketing course and AI in Marketing minor. See below for a flyer on VT's new Introduction to AI in Marketing course offered this upcoming Fall 2024!

What is a general overview of what you will be covering in AI in Marketing?

AI in Marketing Minor: The idea behind the AI in marketing minor is to ensure that students are at the same pace that the industry is seeking them to be. In the last few years, the growth in the industry, especially in the context of AI, has been skyrocketing. There is a gap between what the industry seeks from students in terms of their knowledge of AI versus where students actually are post-graduation. The intention behind the [AI in Marketing] minor is to fill that gap and ensure that our students are completely in step with the industry. In 2025, AI in Marketing will become a proper minor. At that point, we will have three courses that students can take to get a minor in AI in Marketing. The first course is called Introduction to AI in Marketing, which has just been cleared as a Pathway 5 (quantitative). Analytics for AI in Marketing will be the second course and it will build off of our current Analytics for Marketing course, which will be enhanced and modified to fit the AI program. The third course will be called Responsible AI in the Marketplace–this course will help people look through AI in the marketplace from an ethical lens. We will start offering Responsible AI in the Marketplace as a special study for the very first time this coming fall.

MKTG 4114: Introduction to AI in Marketing: Students may not know what AI actually is and what it is not, especially in the context of marketing. I like to think that irrespective of who you are or what your major is, at the end of the day, you are still a consumer. AI in marketing directly impacts your life on a day-to-day basis–whether you're aware of it or not, and whether you want it or not. So, you might as well be aware of what it can do for you and how to protect yourself. This course takes a 100-foot view of AI in marketing. We get started by talking about what AI itself is, and the myths and pitfalls related to AI. Then, we talk about AI from a technical lens: What is machine learning? What are the various technical branches of AI? This technical overview is to let our students have an understanding of what AI can and cannot do. Once that is done, we talk about how AI can be applied in marketing and sales. We then spend a few weeks talking about the various things that people can do in the marketplace using AI in the sales context. Once that is done, we take a strategic approach and discuss what firms can do to make their AI implementations successful. When you teach AI, you might end up with courses that are purely technical in nature. That doesn't really get into the details from a business perspective. The specific topics in this course talk about what firms can do to have a better chance of being successful at AI implementations. Toward the end, I will talk about how AI impacts consumers, firms, societies, and the broader economy. From the next semester onward, I'm going to add a bit of civic engagement into the course: students will interact with firms that have implemented AI, and from a strategic perspective, examine their overall organizational processes and AI strategies. 

Customer Service: In the past, you would have hundreds of people waiting to interact with current and potential customers to try to solve problems. Now, you have a chatbot as the first point of contact for most customers. Many firms are trying to implement AI customer service and test the waters by training a chatbot with an initial set of redundant questions: What is your location, what is the issue, when did you purchase this product, etc. In some enhanced scenarios, an AI chatbot can resolve the issue for the customer based on what it has learned without any interaction with an actual customer service representative. 

Advertising: In the past, you would have external ad agencies running through different [ad] options to see which one may work out best for your firm. Then, they would do interviews or send out a survey to see which option is better. All of that is more sophisticated now. Now, some ad agencies use AI to collect thousands of images and information points: the best color combinations, the best ad placement options, and competitor strategies.  

Influencer Marketing: Posts may not be written by [the influencer] themselves. Maybe there is AI in the background looking at current topics, or the interests of their followers and coming up with draft posts. There is a good chunk of social media influencers who use this technique. Once the AI generates something, [the influencer] is not going to directly post whatever comes out of AI, but they use it as a baseline and build on top of it. 

Sales: AI is both streamlining and enriching the sales context. It can help you flush out potential leads. AI, when it is well-trained, can handle an initial set of questions with customers who are at the top of your funnel, and provide them with a lot of information so that they can proceed to the next step in your sales funnel. At this point, [AI] can help a sales rep by creating a profile with customer interests, positive points, what they're looking for, etc. This helps the salesperson prepare to pitch efficiently.

In the next 5-10 years, how do you see AI moving forward and working into the fabric of marketing?

In the past, the technical side of marketing was not that prominent. 15 years ago, the importance was placed more on the art form of marketing. In the last 10 years, schools such as [Virginia Tech] have helped students get acquainted with the various technical aspects of marketing as well. In the last few years, with AI really stepping in and firms investing a lot into AI, we are at a point where understanding AI is no longer an option, but mandatory for our students. In this day and age, especially with the field becoming more and more technical in nature, I would say students should be prepared and in step with where the industry is at, where the needs of the market are, and where the market is headed. [Marketing] is going to become more technical than it is now, so we might as well be prepared for it. We don’t all need to do complicated coding; We can still perhaps leave that to the computer scientists and data scientists. But, I see a lot more positions opening up looking for people who work at the intersection of business and computer science. The more AI becomes prevalent, especially in marketing and business, they will need people who have an understanding of marketing and sales and can talk to the technical folks.

What advice do you have for graduating seniors entering the workforce amid the rise of AI? How should we get acquainted?

Irrespective of whether you're taking my course or not, be enthusiastic about technology. It never hurts to read current events in the marketplace. Be a little curious and try to read between the lines. When a firm has done something with regard to their newest offering, try to dig in to see if it is AI that they're talking about. Try to look at the broader picture: How can it touch people's lives? Marketing is all about impacting consumers. A specific impact may or may not always be positive. Irrespective of who you are, there are situations where innovation in AI may look really cool on paper, but it may negatively impact certain groups. They're striving to correct that issue, but it will take a while. Those are things that you should be aware of, especially if you're going to be in a position where you hire people. If your firm ends up using AI, it is known to come up with some biased decisions, so don't completely rely on it. As students, try out ChatGPT, try out generative AI, and have fun with it. But, there is a certain line beyond which, you should be cautious about the results that these things are going to throw out. Take it with a pinch of salt.