AI need not be the sole preserve of tech giants. Small businesses including pharmacies can benefit from it and use the technology to drive sales and improve customer service, says Matthew Chapman.
When artificial intelligence (AI) is discussed it is usually in the context of it replacing human livelihoods, but the reality of its current impact is very different.
The application of AI or machine learning – the two are often conflated – can help businesses with labour intensive tasks and free up the time of staff.
Definitions of machine learning and AI can often be conflicting, but at a basic level the former uses systems such as algorithms that analyse and find patterns in data and ‘learn’ by consistently improving their performance.
At the moment only ‘weak’ or ‘narrow’ AI exists, which involves computing programming that is able to learn from its environment to perform a single task, such as playing chess or making purchase suggestions or sales predictions.
The advent of ‘general’ or ‘strong’ AI will come when machines have human-like intelligence and are able to perform multiple tasks intelligently without any input from humans.
Instead of AI being a destroyer of jobs it can, in fact, augment jobs and allow employees to focus on the more creative or valuable tasks.
The marketing industry is being revolutionised by machine learning and AI, which has led to the birth of numerous AI-driven services that small businesses can benefit from.
‘Big data’ has been a buzzword in marketing for years, but is only now truly coming into its own because of the advances in machine learning and ever more sophisticated algorithms.
Previously businesses have had a wealth of customer data at their fingertips but have had no means of properly analysing it and putting it to effective use. Now, at last, this data can be put to work by applying machine learning to it and allowing machines to do the hard yards.
It is necessary to have a rich and well- managed source of data in order to make AI worth investing in. Therefore, AI should only be implemented currently in the more forward-thinking and tech savvy pharmacies.
Those who are lacking customer data would be wise to begin collecting as much as feasibly possible or risk losing out to rivals. However, with any data collection businesses both large and small should be mindful of data protection regulations.
This is especially pertinent due to the introduction of stricter regulations in the form of GDPR this month.
Even small business should technically have access to a wealth of first-party data, which they could leverage to train machine learning models. This could include data points ranging from the frequency that a customer opens emails to how many times they have used a card in the pharmacy. Pharmacies with an email marketing strategy can drive sales by bolstering it with AI.
Machine learning models allow companies to personalise eails at a speed and accuracy on a scale far greater than would be possible by a human carrying out the task manually.
For example, independent lingerie brand Cosabella was able to increase email revenues by 60% year-on-year by personalising its emails through Emarsys' technology.
Cosabella also used an AI-platform called Albert, provided by Adgorithms, to autonomously implement other digital marketing tasks. This increased Cosabella’s search and social return-on-advertising-spend by 50% and decreased its overall advertising spend by 12%.
Other AI-powered platforms include Acquisio, which allows small businesses to manage marketing operations across multiple channels such as Adwords, Facebook and Bing. In doing so, it analyses performance and makes informed suggestions about the best way to budget any digital ad spend.
Major providers of CRM systems such as Salesforce are also heavily investing in AI.
Salesforce’s AI platform Einstein is marketed to small businesses and offers them a way of making any marketing and sales activity more efficient. However, there is still scepticism about how affordable such systems truly are to a small business. For a small company it would be a hefty expense and would only offer a decent return to pharmacies that have accumulated a decent amount of data.
Alongside the driving of sales, machine learning and AI is also a means of improving customer service. AI-powered ‘chatbots’ can answer common customer queries online and significantly relieve the burden of responding to customer queries over the phone or on email or social media platforms.
Businesses that use Facebook Messenger to communicate with customers are able to benefit from Facebook’s chatbot technology. It also appears that these chatbots can drive much higher engagement than emails. Research from Octane AI, the publisher of Chatbots Magazine, claims that up to 60% of people who receive a message on Facebook Messenger, through a chatbot, engage with the message. This can significantly outperform email.
It is still incredibly early days for the AI industry but the business benefits of the technology are already clear to see. At the moment it is big business that is most benefitting because the technology can be expensive to implement.
Yet, as with all technology development, AI solutions will become increasingly affordable for small businesses such as pharmacies as the tech advances. And for businesses large and small it is time to ensure their data is fit for purpose now, to ensure they can make hay when the AI revolution hits in earnest.