When something approaches humanness but isn’t quite human, it causes revulsion. This is a concept called the Uncanny Valley. To think of it another way, Star Wars’ C3PO speaks, has eyes, and exhibits human-like behavior -- but no one finds it creepy because it’s obviously not human. But think of a robot that is too close to real life. The eyes are too twitchy, the facial emotions unbelievable, or the voice just lacks some element of being human. 

What does this have to do with marketing automation, which I define as “technology that streamlines and automates marketing tasks so companies can increase operational efficiency and grow revenue faster?”

More than you would imagine. Just like near-human robots can be creepy, marketers can also creep people out when they use automation to impersonate genuine human interaction or show consumers just how much data they really have about them. How do you avoid entering the Uncanny Valley and creeping out your customers and prospects, and instead make sure your marketing is more Wall-E than Terminator?

If You’re a Human, Act Like It

This is actually harder for some marketers than you might imagine. It stands to reason that if you are a living, breathing person, staying out of the Uncanny Valley should be pretty easy. But recent exchanges with Bank of America and Dominos show that isn’t necessarily true. 

Look at this recent Twitter exchange. A guy writes an anti-foreclosure message in chalk in front of a New York City Bank of America ATM and is moved by the police. He tweets about it, and others link that tweet to the Bank of America handle. At this point the bank enters the fray, asking the activists what the bank can do to help, and what the status of their account is. Then the bank gives the exact same response to everyone, "We are here to help, listen, and learn from our customers and are glad to assist with any account related inquiries." 

Here's another example -- A pizza from Dominos makes its way to a woman's home, she opens the pizza box, and before digging in takes a photo of the pizza to post on Dominos' Facebook page with the caption "Best Pizza Ever! Keep up the good work guys!" Dominos’ response? They apologized for the pizza and gave the consumer a link and a reference number to address the "problem."  

Both of these brands were immediately accused of using software to automate responses. But even if there were actual humans at the helm, how could these brands have avoided mockery? They should have acted like a human. In the case of Bank of America, asking an Occupy Wall Street activist what your bank can do to help is just tone deaf. In the case of Dominos, the human thing to do here would have been to simply say thanks. To be sure, there's no lack of sarcasm on the Internet, but this example was pretty clearly authentic praise, and that's the kind of call that a human has to make. 

There’s a reason why people hate auto-responders and other forms automating social interactions. In this medium, it ends up being close to human but not quite right. Remember: The point of social media is to be social. If you aren't willing or able to dedicate the time to have social interactions with your customers and prospects, don’t just automate it. That will land you in the very bottom of the Uncanny Valley.

Personalization Must Actually Benefit the Customer

A key benefit marketing automation can provide is better access to behavioral data so marketer can create more targeted, personalized communications. Consumers want personalization, but only if it benefits them in terms of better relevance. If it only benefits you (the marketer), personalization can backfire. For example, Target found out they could know when a woman was pregnant based on her purchases very early in the pregnancy, but sending a soon-to-be teenage mother coupons for cribs and diapers resulted in an unexpected confrontation with the girl's father. Instead, use the power of data to truly understand a consumer, and then craft relevant, non-creepy messages that are informed by that deep understanding but don’t refer to what you know specifically. 

Automate What Makes Sense

So where does automation make sense? A good rule of thumb is to automate the things that will give you more time to have actual human interactions with your customers and prospects. For example, marketers aren't adding a ton of value when they take days compiling numbers and sources and making reports. Automation makes that task a few clicks.  Monitoring your customer and prospect activity on your website and assigning each a score about how ready they are to buy is something that's impossible to do manually. Automate it, and you're a better marketer. The same goes for updating status records after an event, assigning leads to the correct representative, creating landing pages for each city in a roadshow, and so on.

Automation can also scale personalized communications, especially emails. Sending follow-ups from an event is an easy task to automate, there's no need to manually write the same email to a few hundred people. Plus, unlike social media interactions, these messages have a lower expectation that they are coming from a specific “human”. 

In short, automation isn't a way to get out of doing the work of a marketer. But when used correctly, it can save time and automate the manual tasks that sap productivity, freeing marketers to create real, durable relationships with their target audience. Use marketing technology the right way, and you will actually create marketing that is more human - and you'll never have to worry about the Uncanny Valley.



Published on: Sep 5, 2013
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.