Amazon is known for pushing the envelope with artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation. In the span of five years, the e-commerce giant has managed to turn an unassuming black speaker into a helpful family member named Alexa. About 30% of U.S. households own a smart speaker, with Amazon leading the pack. Amazon's Echo boasts surprisingly human-like skills, such as reading bedtime stories, ordering pizza, and settling board-game disputes. According to Nielsen, 68% of users even admit to chatting with their voice assistant for fun.

Clearly, automation is the wave of the future. But to maintain strong connections with consumers, brands have to find ways to make their interactions feel exquisitely human -- even when communicating across digital channels.

You Can't Eliminate the Human Touch

No industry is immune to the AI revolution, least of all marketing. According to Gartner's "CMO Spend Survey 2018-2019," chief marketing officers are investing one out of every six dollars in innovation. But that doesn't mean marketing teams have the skills or the bandwidth to support these advanced technology programs.

Companies are investing proportionally more in digital automation than they are on talent. (Investments in marketing technology accounted for 29% of budgets in 2018 versus 24% invested in labor.) Yet 95% of brand marketers say they struggle with emerging technology, and 40% find tech aimed at relationship and experience marketing the most difficult.

To be sure, AI and automation open up a whole new world of exciting possibilities. Think of how Spotify uses algorithms to create customized playlists and how Netflix always manages to recommend the perfect TV show. But innovation shouldn't come at the expense of real human connection.

"Companies must strike a tricky balance between automation and human interactions. When people are frustrated, they will want to talk to human beings -- not a chatbot or an automated answering system," explains Shelley Washburn, president of GSM. "To build sustained customer advocacy, your digital solutions must deepen -- not replace -- the human element."

Here are a few ways to use automation technology to enable more high-quality human moments:

1. Get to know your buyers.

Truly understanding your audience members means viewing them as real people who are always changing and evolving. Your customers are constantly moving through major life transitions, contrary to the assumptions supported by the two-dimensional buyer personas that fill many marketing slide decks. They're setting goals, celebrating wins, and planning for the future. If you're using automation to engage these customers, make sure you consider where they've been and where they're going.

Southwest Airlines is one company that does this well. Instead of sending out cookie-cutter emails, the airline sends personalized messages to its rewards program members reminding them of trips they've taken that year -- acknowledging the literal journey each person has taken since becoming a customer. Figure out a good way to acknowledge your customer's personal journey, and you'll be one step closer to proving your brand's function in that person's future.

2. Engage the emotions.

Customers who have an emotional relationship with a company have a 306% higher lifetime value than customers who don't, according to Motista research. On average, they stay with a brand almost two years longer and spend up to twice as much with that company. Consider Nike, which took a bold stand when it released a controversial ad narrated by ex-NFL player Colin Kaepernick, known for his political activism. The brand clearly got the emotional triggers right for its intended audience: Despite some initial backlash, Nike went on to surpass expected earnings that quarter with a 10% increase in income. 

But a brand doesn't need to engage in controversy to tap into consumers' emotions. In fact, when it comes to social media, positive posts are often the most-shared. Dove, for example, made huge inroads with its heartwarming Real Beauty campaign. In its first 10 years, the campaign increased the brand's sales from $2.5 to $4 billion. This year Dove updated the campaign with #ShowUs -- an initiative to create a user-generated stock photo library featuring real women and non-binary individuals as they appear in real life.

3. Enable self-expression.

Too many legacy brands don't understand consumers' desire to feel understood. The Interactive Advertising Bureau reports that nearly half (48%) of U.S. shoppers now purchase from disruptor brands such as Everlane, Dollar Shave Club, or Simple Contacts. They still purchase from incumbent brands, but they're twice as likely to choose brands that enable self-expression. These disruptor brands have a knack for creating an omnichannel presence that feels like a real conversation and are highly responsive to consumer feedback.

Another of these brands is MeUndies, the underwear e-commerce company. Customer feedback has informed every aspect of MeUndies, from its inclusive sizing to adult onesies. By forging partnerships with influencers, giving back to the LGBTQ community, and listening to feedback, MeUndies has solidified its reputation as an inclusive brand that empowers customers to express themselves.

What's unique about disruptor brands is that they're digital natives. They live and die by the data their customers provide, but they are intimately connected with the real people who buy their products. They have forged this bond not in spite of digital automation but because they have used technology to give their customers a voice. They understand the importance of reaching out to make a real human connection in the age of automation.