Did you know genetic algorithms and artificial intelligence can improve conversion ratio optimization with automated CRO? We live in interesting times, and this is very much a possibility these days. In fact, Sentient Technologies offers a conversion optimization tool that do exactly this.
In this blog post, I interview Jeremy Miller, who is Vice President of Marketing at Sentient Technologies, responsible for managing all aspects of the company’s marketing activities and initiatives including corporate programs and the digital commerce product lines.
Now, over to the interview!
What is Your Company’s Background?
10 years ago Antoine Blondeau and Babak Hodjat (our co-founders) asked themselves a simple but ambitious question: “What great things could they accomplish by harnessing the world’s most powerful compute to develop artificial intelligence on a truly vast scale?”
Having worked together at startups, including an earlier AI company that created the agent-oriented natural language technology that later became Apple’s Siri, they felt well-positioned to find their answer.
The convergence of two important trends—the emergence of relatively low cost, available computing power combined with a new abundance of massive data sets—created the perfect opportunity for them to try something new.
They saw huge potential in the ability to scale evolutionary computation (a branch of AI that models software development on biological evolution) and deep learning to create a different kind of AI platform.
This platform would be capable of engaging in autonomous decision-making to help businesses deliver mission-critical value not just by increasing their bottom line, but by enriching people’s lives.
To get there they first had to address three complex challenges: (1) cost-effectively obtaining the massive computer power required; (2) scaling evolutionary computation (EC) to millions of CPU cores (now thousands of GPU cores) and (3) forging a pathway to integrate EC with deep learning technology.
In late 2014, Sentient Technologies emerged from stealth and unveiled the initial result of its labors: a massively distributed AI platform that, having already proven its worth in the financial services sector, was ready to take on a host of new and varied global concerns.
Sentient’s AI platform now serves three distinct products/units: a hedge-fund called Sentient Investment Management, a Digital Marketing Suite and a Research unit.
What Problem Does Sentient Solve?
For the purposes of marketing we will focus on our Digital Marketing Suite and its two marketing related products, Sentient Aware and Sentient Ascend. Sentient Ascend is a conversion rate testing and optimization solution which is disrupting the current market of A/B and multivariate testing tools.
It is important to our customers because it allows them to test thousands of marketing ideas in the same time as single A/B test.
Using a form of AI called evolutionary algorithms, Ascend gives marketers the ability to test as many CX ideas and improvements as they like– words, images, layouts, page flow across funnels– at the same time, and searches for the best combination of those improvements out of the thousands, to hundreds of thousands, of potential designs.
By squeezing a year or two of testing into a month, Ascend is accelerating the gains marketers can realize from their optimization programs. The ability to test more, and more quickly, is also opening up the opportunity for marketers to test and optimize shorter ad campaigns and landing pages – A/B testing is just too slow for most marketers to do this.
Sentient Aware uses deep learning to understand the visual nature of a product catalog at an incredibly fine level of detail, and combines that understanding with what it learns about each user from their click behaviour to deliver personalized recommendations.
Leading retailers have deployed Sentient Aware to provide shoppers with new ways to find the products they’ll love. Focused on visually-driven product categories such as fashion and home décor, Aware is personalizing merchandising, recommendations, and product discovery.
What Does Sentient do, and why is it Important to Your Customers?
We touched on what our products do already. Why are they important to our customers?
Ascend is important to our customers because it allows them to test thousands of marketing ideas in the same time as single A/B test. Considering only one out of seven A/B test has been proven to be successful, this is a huge advantage that allows our customers to be more nimble and move faster than their competitors – they can test a year’s worth of ideas in a month.
The customer can optimize for many different parameters, from ‘add to cart’ to reaching a specific landing page, to actual revenue targets. They can also test many different page funnel combinations at the same time.
Other A/B testing solutions on the market offer multivariate testing tools, but they require greater amounts of traffic and require experts to analyze the results. With Ascend you simply come up with your ideas and then let the AI do the rest.
Another advantage of Ascend is that it gives marketers the ability to simplify their workflows and increase the velocity at which they can test while driving significant ROI.
Ascend can also find non-obvious combinations of designs and messages that marketing teams may not have typically explored.
For example, one our our clients Abuv Media creates content-rich websites that help people make more informed decisions about their futures. In one of their test using Ascend, they found that using a pink widget to capture people’s name and email worked better than any other color.
Another client Cosabella, thought that ‘Free shipping’ would natural perform better than ‘Family owned’ at getting people to sign up to their newsletter. They were in fact wrong, it turned out their site visitors shared their same high regard for family values as they did. In just the first month and half of testing 160 designs they had already seen a 38% improvement in conversions.
How Does Sentient use AI?
Ascend is an AI agent that, based on evolutionary computation technology, automatically generates web-page candidates to be tested from the ideas marketers themselves create.
Those variables can be pretty much anything on a site, from small changes like button color and font weight to whole-scale messaging and design ideas. What’s more, they can all be on a single page or even across multiple pages in a funnel–something that’s currently impossible with industry-leading tools.
Ascend searches for the most successful ideas in the vast space of possible combinations of the values its users want to try.
Ascend can handle this intelligently because it uses evolutionary computation. Each page is represented as a genome, as shown for two example pages in the figure below (left side). Simulated genetic operators such as crossover (recombination of the elements in the two genomes; middle) and mutation (randomly changing one element in the offspring; right side) are then performed.
If the parent genomes are chosen among those that convert well, then some of their offspring genomes are likely to perform well too–even better than their parents. Each page needs to be tested only to the extent that it is possible to decide whether it is promising, i.e. whether it should serve as a parent for the next generation, or should be discarded.
Therefore, thousands of page designs can be tested in a short time, which is impossible through A/B testing. On the other hand, through evolutionary search, it is sufficient to test only thousands (out of millions) to find the best ones.
Ascend learns over time which combinations of elements are effective, and gradually focuses the search around the most promising designs—as a matter of fact, at Sentient we have solved problems with spaces as large as 2^2^70 (approximately 10^(10^20)) with similar techniques in the past.
All this means Ascend can discover designs that convert better than those designed by humans, often because it finds unexpected interactions between elements.
For instance, Ascend may find that the button needs to be green, but only when it is transparent and the header is in small font and the header text is aligned. Such interactions often do exist, and they can be very difficult to find.
Ascend makes this discovery process automatic, based on computing power and AI instead of extensive human effort. With Ascend, it is thus possible to optimize conversions better and at a much larger scale than before–and keep optimizing them as the ecommerce conditions change.
In other words, Sentient Ascend replaces A/B with AI. It’s an automated system for massively multivariate conversion optimization, capable of testing vastly more ideas in shortened time frames.
It finds the subtle combinations of variables that lead to conversion increases. And because marketers can spend more time trying ideas and less time doing statistics, Ascend gives them the freedom they need to really make a difference.
In Your Mind, What is the Future of AI in Business and Marketing?
AI is currently being used by many businesses and marketers today to perform a variety of functions from managing email campaigns, predicting purchase intent of prospects and optimizing customer experiences online.
While there is a lot of excitement about these recent innovations in artificial intelligence, we need to see this as just the beginning and that the potential for how AI can transform marketing is enormous.
Marketers have never had more resources, tools, data and access to their target customers like they have today. But with this has come new challenges that are putting a huge strain on how well marketing teams can operate and compete.
We have all experienced the shoe ad that chases us around the internet or the email promotion you get from a vendor offering you a discount on something you just bought from them.
A lot of this poor promotion or lack of new marketing content is due to the lack of resources (people, time and money) and limitations of the tools at the marketing teams disposal, not because marketers lack creativity or think it’s a good idea to do that to you.
In the near future, I think it is very possible that marketing teams will have AI assistants that will orchestrate marketing campaigns across channels, analyze disparate data sets to find meaning and make decisions, and most importantly allow marketers to focus on the creative aspects of their work vs. focusing on operations.
Do You Think Marketers Will be Replaced by AI Robots?
To reiterate a point I made earlier, AI will allow marketers to be more efficient but not necessarily replace them.
As marketing becomes more and more data centric, AI will help alleviate some of the heavy lifting and complexity of managing disparate campaigns. It will allow marketers to get back to doing what they do best, coming up with strategic ideas and creative campaigns instead of asking them to turn into data scientists.
Do You Have Any Other Thoughts on AI in Business and Marketing?
There is a lot of hype around artificial intelligence in the market today and some of it is justified. New research is advancing the science of AI at a pace that has not been seen before and there are a lot of interesting companies doing great things with artificial intelligence.
That said, marketers and managers need to educate themselves between solutions that are “AI-washing” and solutions that really are pushing the boundaries of the way we work using artificial intelligence.
The best way to evaluate this is to ask a vendor how they are applying AI to their solution. Most people can tell pretty quickly when a vendor has just simply crammed “AI” into their solution so they can make claims vs. a solution provider who is really solving customer problems and AI is the foundation to how they approach solving the problem.
AI or not, a solution should be addressing a problem, not be a marketing gimmick.
The other thing I would add is don’t be afraid to look at newer start-ups or companies that are using AI to bring solutions to market as that is where the interesting innovation is happening, and often, these vendors will be easier to work with and provide low-risk options for testing their solutions out.
In this blog post, Jeremy Miller gave an excellent – and very fascinating – view into how CRO might be disrupted with a new breed of tools, that not only perform A/B or multivariate testing, but also come up with the design changes to test automatically as well.
With CRO based on genetic algorithms and AI, every landing page might be turned into a high-performing conversion machine. Provided you have enough traffic to feed the algorithms with, of course.
I am an author, speaker and consultant in marketing automation and artificial intelligence.
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