Episode 17 – The Application of AI to Sales and Marketing
Oct 21 9:00:00 am
Marketing and sales have transformed over the years. What was once cold calling and email drip, has transformed into chat bots that engage with customers all across the world.
In this episode of hello, Human, we will be diving deep into the application of AI into sales and marketing. Today we’re talking with Anu Shukla about the history, the implications, and the ethics involved in AI integration into marketing strategies. Anu is a four-time CEO and founder with two exits to date over $300 million.
Co-Founder and executive chairman of Botco.Ai, Anu Shukla, is an industry pioneer in the marketing automation space. She’s an industry expert and is transforming the way businesses communicate with their new and existing customers. Analyzing conversations, learning about a business; processes, and understanding a customer wants and needs is the very base of successful marketing automation.
- Anu’s background and journey into technology
- The transformation of AI in marketing and where it is going
- How Botco.ai is using and applying data and AI to create intelligent chat solutions
- Automation is an enabler and not a destroyer of the workforce
- Anu’s involvement with Elevate VC
- What excited Anu about AI in marketing and beyond
- Anu’s advice for the next generation of leaders
If you enjoyed this episode, subscribe and check out our series at fortressiq.com/podcast. Thanks for joining us today on hello, Human.
Full Episode Transcript:
John: Anu Shukla, the co-founder and executive chairman of Botco.ai joins us today on the hello, Human podcast where we discuss the latest topics in artificial intelligence and how it’s being applied in the real world. I’m John Knisley, the host of hello, Human and a long-time technologist helping companies adopt and utilize emerging digital solutions.
A big thanks to Fortress IQ for sponsoring the program and be sure to hit the subscribe button wherever you listen to podcasts. This episode is part of our second season of hello, Human where we are exploring how AI is being used across specific industries and functional areas of a business. We are fortunate today to have a true leader in the industry give us her perspective and insight on the exciting uses of AI in the sales and marketing domain.
Anu Shukla is a four-time CEO and founder with two exits to date over $300 million. This promises to be a fascinating conversation. Welcome to the program Anu. Thanks for joining us on hello, Human and bringing your knowledge and expertise to our listeners. I spent the early part of my career on the customer experience side of technology back when it was called online communications. I’m very excited for our conversation today.
One small claim to fame on my part, I placed the first online political ad back in 1995. While there were no dinosaurs, there was a thing called Netscape that some of our older audiences may remember, but probably not some of our younger audiences. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since those early days of static websites and drip emails. We’ve now got recommendation engines and chatbots to improve the customer experience. With more than five billion daily users of messaging and chat, it’s obvious that mobile computing and real time knowledge is how people prefer to communicate, work, shop, and play.
Anu, maybe to start us off, you can give us some of your highlights for our listeners of your story, and how you got into technology, and the decision that ultimately got you into conversational marketing.
Anu: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. First of all, I really love the idea of this podcast, exploring how AI is really impacting so many areas of our daily lives and also in business. I was actually a VP of B2B’s Marketing for many years. Initially started out with a semiconductor company, and right after that I switched to software and never looked back. I was actually very competent and I like to say well-known B2B VP of Marketing. In order to be effective, I actually created a whole bunch of tools, software tools for myself.
These tools helped me justify my existence, helped me get leads for the Salesforce, helped me track campaigns, and helped me build relationships with customers. It was all home ground. When I started my first company, Rubric, which was one of the early marketing automation pioneers, I really used this knowledge of the software that helped me to market it to my peers. That began my entrepreneurial journey. It was very, very exciting. You can tell I liked it because I never stopped.
Even though Rubric was a pioneer and had a quick and excellent exit, I continued to start different companies in martech and adtech, all the way up to Botco.ai. I had done an ecommerce recommendation engine that you mentioned called MyBuys. I did a company called Tapjoy. I started a company called Tapjoy previously known as Offerpal Media, which really monetized Facebook and now, of course, mobile games by advertising technology.
It really gets down to AI. One of the things that I remember when we started Rubric was, the internet was new. You mentioned Netscape, okay. I’m one of the people who remembers Netscape. Of course, I was just a newbie, but I still remember it. The internet was new. People were trying to see, how do we apply the internet to communicating with our customers for marketing, for relationship building?
There was this new technology called Java. We could build applications very quickly because we don’t want to be looking for memory leaks in C code. Using the combination of the new Java language and internet, we created Rubric. Many of our customers that were early adopters very much really liked our architecture and the fact that they could leverage the Internet. Our first three customers were Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and General Motors.
Imagine that. A little startup out of the valley, getting these big Fortune 500 companies. Now this is similarity. When I look at the four or five startups I did including, of course, I have to mention the payments, company rewards pay that uses virtual currency in points and miles to let people do online shopping with their loyalty currency.
We get down to conversational marketing, which you asked, how did you get here? When I look like literally 18–19 years later after Rubric, pioneering marketing automation player, I didn’t see things that changed that much from what we first brought to market. People were still using email drip marketing and campaign management. Now they’ve added a little bit of social and video. Other than that, the primary B2B way of communicating with customers at scale was email, which is of course, going to be around for a long time—I’m not dissing it; we use email—but it was getting less and less effective.
We felt that with the advent of AI, natural language processing, the mobile device, the fact that chat and messaging was getting so popular, and looking at what WeChat had done in China, for example, where business communications is very much through WeChat not through email, we decided that that was enough of a platform shift, where we could do something interesting in marketing automation once again. That was really the seed of a conversational marketing platform driven by AI chat called Botco.ai.
John: That’s great. I think the most interesting part of that story is you’ve really seen the industry grow up from nothing to where it is today, and being able to have that perspective is so valuable. Can you talk a bit more about that transformation, and where it’s been, and where you see it going? A few years ago, I saw Gartner reported that CMOs—the marketing parts of the organization—were spending more on technology than the CIOs—the technology people. That was really eye-opening to me.
Obviously, the pendulum had swung a bit towards the CMOs with the customer experience focus, and maybe now with the pandemic, resiliency, and everything else that people are focused on, we’ll slide a little bit more back to operational excellence and some more internal focuses. What’s your general perspective on the industry with that incredible vision that you’ve been able to see from really nothing to where it is today?
Anu: The nothing part is also very interesting because we didn’t have very prime VCs from Sandhill road when they looked at our page on marketing automation or as we call it enterprise marketing automation. They felt it was an oxymoron, that marketing was really an art, not a science, and couldn’t be automated. I said, well, really? Without automation, I don’t think I could have done what I did for the companies that I worked for.
We had to fight that battle. Just convinced them that marketing was really a function that could be automated. When we went to our early customers then they were like, we pretty much take our lists, and give it to a list of vendors, and outsource our data. I said, well, you’re not looking at the rich information you could get from studying your customers.
Now, I just recently saw a CMO interview. I wish I could remember who it was, but it was a well-known CMO who said, look, people say there’s too much technology in marketing and there’s no need for it. I say, well, if you don’t like technology, then just get another job.
You’re absolutely right, that technology from the oxymoron days to now, is very much accepted. I don’t think we can do anything without using the different tools that we use right from looking at SEO to looking or studying our audiences, to recommending, to being more interactive and engaging, to analytics that tell us what’s going on.
I think technology is very much part of marketing. I absolutely concur with the CMO who said, if you don’t like data, if you don’t like technology, it’s fine, just get another job, not in marketing. Because in marketing, it’s all about your knowledge of the tools, how to apply them to actually make your function operate better to optimize your budget, and to increase your patient engagement and streamline your patient’s journey.
John: That’s great and I love that idea of the art and science of marketing. It’s probably a topic for a different conversation, but I’ve never liked the term artificial intelligence. I like machine intelligence and human intelligence because they’re both smart, but they both do different things. There’s no way that a human is going to be able to segment a customer database of millions of people. Computers can do it in seconds. At the same time, some of those beautiful ads that we see at the Olympics this week could never be created by a computer either. You need the balance of both at the end of the day. I think that’s what we all agree on, which is great.
Turning a bit more to your current role, how is Botco.ai using and applying data and artificial intelligence to create this intelligent chat solution? Can you give us some examples of how Botco.ai is being applied at various scales in different industries?
Anu: Absolutely. Because of the pandemic and pandemic is definitely looming over us still, we went from being a general-purpose conversational marketing platform for large customers like Massage Envy and some hotel chains, et cetera, to being getting more and more pulled into healthcare, because healthcare had to go through what I call a forced digital transformation.
People could actually have to accomplish a lot more without going in-person to visit their doctor. All of the admissions, intakes, this affected so many other ancillary or related areas, mental health, behavioral health, even senior living centers, addiction centers, physical therapy practices. All of those people that normally have contact with users and can see them in person had to accomplish a lot in a digital front doorway. We got pulled into that. We’re being used at scale in many of those industries.
How we use artificial intelligence is that we actually have AI chat. Basically, it’s a chat without humans. We are either at your Facebook page. It’s a full enterprise platform with training capability, with the ability to build these interesting conversational experiences from templates so you can do it very fast, from being able to tap into the terms or ontologies that we have already incorporated, and then having the training interface to classify intense, do better matches, and really train the AI over a short period of time so that it can be most effective in answering all types of questions.
Understanding natural language, having the ability to train, plus a full on dashboard that will analyze every conversation that took place and tell you what was the length of that conversation, was it a happy sentiment, or mad, angry sentiment, or some other trigger. All of this leads you to actually initiate and have natural conversations with people who come to your website, come to your Facebook page, or contact you on your mobile device. Really, what you’re doing is you’re understanding their questions. Imagine your best product manager, your best salesperson, your best SDR is online and has the wealth of knowledge, never takes a vacation, is never mad, and is always available 24/7 for anyone.
The old metaphor was you came to a website, you pointed and clicked, and you searched for information, read FAQs and tried to find the information that you wanted. The new one is really, why not have a conversational website? It changed the game because the conversation is on the website. You come to the website and basically you’re confronted with, hey, how can I help you? Do you want this, this, or this? Okay. Do you want anything specific? Write it here.
We really think that it’s much more engaging to take the user into a guided flow through the wealth of content that websites or Facebook pages have or just get very specific answer to a specific query, so that you can take a 6-day or 6-month email nurture campaign and turn it into 6 minutes, where somebody is saying, does this part work for this application? Instead of saying read the manual, you go, yes, indeed it does. Here’s the place where you can read more about it. It changes the game.
John: It’s such a great tool and application. I find myself, in many cases, preferring to use these digital tools, picking up the phone and calling somebody because I get the answer right or they get my food order correct, and everything else much more efficiently. I think healthcare is such a great candidate for digital transformation. It’s such an important part of our society. At the same time, I think it was intended to be seen as a bit of a laggard in transformation.
In some ways, I think the pandemic pushed transformation into the industry, which is not necessarily a bad thing. As the son of a physician who used to get dragged to the hospital in my grade school, middle school days, and my father had to go speak into a tape recorder and transcribe cases for a couple hours, then 25 years later you have Microsoft buying Nuance a couple months ago or last year at some point—I think it was their second biggest acquisition since LinkedIn—I think that just gives you the indication of the importance of communication, audio, the spoken word, and how it integrates in with technology. Very, very interesting application of the technology.
I think automation is sometimes viewed as a job killer. I tend to take more of a utopian view of it, that it enables companies to do things that weren’t possible before. I remember an article on Alibaba, the world’s largest ecommerce site, in their Singles Day a couple years ago, which is the equivalent of their Prime Day. I think, in 2020, it did $75 billion in revenue.
I read that their AI customer service tool handled something like 300 million inquiries, which would have been the equivalent of 85,000 humans that they would have had to go hire for the day to handle their customer support. Clearly, that shows you that in some of these cases, automation is really an enabler and not a destroyer of the workforce. Is that your view of automation in work and society? Or do you have a different take on it?
Anu: No. I concur very much with that thought and I see examples of it every day. What happens in marketing in particular, which is where our focus is, more than customer support or sales. Although I think those functions are incredibly related because if you put customer relationship management, these are all important aspects and should work in an integrated way. What I see is that marketing is campaign-driven.
They’re buying different keywords on Google, they’re driving traffic, they’re trying to engage with that traffic. They want to convert that traffic in session into either buying something, or just setting up an appointment with a counselor to talk about an issue, or to decide for themselves which facility they want to tour, tour for what kind of living arrangements for their senior that they’re looking for. All of these activities are going on. I’ve heard a number that if your website is unresponsive, if somebody can’t find the information they’re looking for, 57% of users will go to another website, your competitors.
Being engaging and presenting the information quickly and correctly is really, really important once we have so much money spent on just driving the interest in traffic and engaging with your customers. Our customers don’t have the bandwidth and they can’t even find the people. For example, one of our customers is STC health. It’s been written about on our website so I’m not getting any new information. They basically are a medical records company that provides these medical records, vaccination records to all 50 states. It’s a place where you can go to request your immunization record and provide it to whoever needs it in a safe and secure manner.
We are HIPAA compliant, so we obviously have the systems to deal with this kind of data, but they can’t even hire right now. They can’t hire enough people to be answering customer questions. Customers need the answers and need them now. It’s an important service. They use the AI to really scale when they add a new state. They have something like 75,000 new queries that come in and then it dies down after a while.
There’s no way to find the people, train them, and then scale them back when the initial spate goes down and another state starts. They use AI chat very effectively to provide a good level of service in a cost-effective manner, in a scalable fashion. There is no other way to do this other than automation. What I believe is that the types of automation that we provide enables our customers to spend their time in high value activities.
In many senior living center sites, for example, somebody has an avatar that’s Milton. He’s an elderly gentleman, who can tell you all about the facilities, and costs, and activities in that center. When you say, well, yeah, I would like to talk to someone, they will get you to a very highly-trained counselor that can immediately chat with you. It’s a way of combining the basic 20 questions that everybody always has, and getting that out of the way, and then you are self-qualifying into taking up the time of a highly-trained counselor.
We even train our virtual agents that are created for our customers. The customers create themselves into having sensitivity or sentiment analysis. They watch out for some words that are triggers for somebody that’s distressed in some way and needs to get to a human right away. Or they need to be calling 911, it’s an emergency, or some other line. We even provide sentiment analysis and sensitivity training to these agents. Again, back to your question, I think that many use cases that I have described are simply not possible by humans alone for our enterprises. We really help them in enabling those capabilities in the first place.
John: Totally agree. I think the next wave of automation is going to be more about this human technology teaming and how that partnership moves forward. I totally agree. I used to do a lot of work on the RPA side, and we were always advocating. It’s not the jobs that you’re replacing or the people you’re replacing. It’s really much more about moving from lower value to higher value work. That’s ultimately what everybody’s looking to do at some level.
Anu, you’ve got just this incredible background and obviously, tremendously successful profession. I think what’s also really interesting is, even while running the company, you continue to support a lot of outside initiatives. I know you’re involved in the elevate program and that VC mentorship program. A majority of investments are women-led companies and 40% or so are with African American or Latin ex-founders and CEO led startups, which is great. Do you mind sharing what organizations you’re involved with and why? Give us a little bit more background on that.
Anu: Sure. I am a multifaceted person. I feel like at this stage, having done four or five companies, I can certainly step up a little bit and be involved in more things because I mentor and work with, for example, my co-founder, who’s perfectly capable of leading our company. I don’t have to be in control of everything. I can provide my guidance, assistance, and contributions, and have somebody else take the lead, somebody that I really believe in and who I’ve mentored.
With Elevate VC, the second fund is about $40 million. They’re quite well-known LPs that believe in diversity and equality like Bank of America that have contributed to that fund as well. We have multiple general partners. It’s really all about supporting underrepresented founders. I’m a venture partner there.
I bring qualified deals for the partnership to look at, and mentor our existing portfolio wherever my talents are required, and generally help underrepresented next African-American women founders jump into entrepreneurship. I really, really enjoy that. That’s the main reason why I took advantage of this opportunity with Elevate VC, of Elevate Capital Partners because I really believed in their mission.
Of course, they have excellent returns and that was certainly tempting to me, but I also got to do what I really love to do. In addition to that, I’m involved with various academic organizations and women organizations as well. I’m involved with many universities in their entrepreneurship programs. I’ve spoken at Stanford. I’ve been involved with the advisory board of the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. It was my own alma mater, where I got an honorary doctorate, Youngstown State University. I’m involved with the Youngstown Business Incubator and generally trying to do more work in the Midwest to encourage entrepreneurship.
I feel that those are very interesting and important right now in the way I spend my time, which is really a lot of it should be focused on giving back. Entrepreneurship is a topic that I love, but I couldn’t actually give up the startup life completely because I love it so much. You can understand, Botco is my sixth company. I had to find a way to do both, and I think I did.
John: That’s great. I don’t know if you notice in my opening, I said you’ve had at least two exits or two exits so far. I was trying to throw in the hint there that there was likely going to be at least one more, and great to hear that you don’t let any grass grow under your feet, and you’re staying active. I think it’s so important to be able to give back to the community as well.
One final question to wrap up, a bit of an open ended one. You can take this any direction you want to. What excites you about the future of AI in your industry and beyond? Any advice for the next generation of leaders looking to get into AI and be the next big startup?
Anu: I think AI is going to be dominating or layering into all our lives in various ways. Whether it is the autopilot in your car getting further and further ahead, or planes that will go on autopilot most of the time, or other kinds of mobility plays. Or if it’s just simple things in your life, like when you want to wash your hands and water just comes on automatically. Sometimes if you don’t have that facility, I’ve seen people were surprised like, hey, why isn’t the water coming out? I’m like, well, you have to lift the faucet.
It’s getting more and more becoming a part of our life. I see it dominating and getting there, but it has to be used in the right way. It has to be used the right way and people shouldn’t expect miracles out of it, but application is very important to make it accessible to everyone. That’s what we’re trying. I love marketing automation.
I think I was a small part of pioneering the beginning of this revolution. Now I’m really excited to be involved in applying AI, and analytics, machine learning, et cetera to the field of marketing automation to make marketers more effective, control spend, and better customer journeys. We couldn’t actually do it without AI. Provided you’re not very heavy-handed, you have to sit and do knowledge-base for years and years, and then access it. It’s not practical for marketing.
Marketing people need like, here’s my white paper, now just turn it into questions and answers and put it up there. If we have certain scores that are reaching a conversation, transfer that over to an agent. All of that stuff is very practical and you need some basic software workflows with the application of AI in a practical way.
I’m very bullish on the fact that we’ll continue to refine the use of it. For example, there are some unexpected benefits that we got out of deploying this conversational marketing at scale at one of our customers. They noticed that a lot of people were asking about the subject of acne. They never expected that for their business, somebody would be inquiring if a certain type of massage would aggravate an acne.
That led them to create products all about people who had some sort of acne and helping them get over that. They craved the whole product line from just analyzing conversations and what was of interest repeatedly to the customers. I think there are many gems like that that we’re going to see and it’s going to really enhance the ability of marketing to effectively engage with customers. I’m very excited about those possibilities.
John: That’s great vision, and great insight, and probably a great point to end on. To recap today’s conversation with Anu Shukla, the co-founder and executive chairman of Botco.ai, Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM was fond of saying, “Nothing happens in business until someone sells something.” Given the discussion today on the impact of AI on the sales and marketing function of every enterprise, it may be time to revisit this saying and modify it for the modern era. The positive impact of AI on the CX side of transformation almost can’t be measured, and incredible companies like chatbot AI are leading the charge.
This episode has been part of our second season of hello, Human. A big thanks to Elizabeth Mitelman for spearheading the season. That’s a wrap on today’s show. Thank you, Anu, for joining us, and Fortress, thank you for sponsoring. If you enjoyed it, don’t be shy about giving us that five-star review on whatever platform you’re listening to. I’m John Knisley and this has been hello, Human.