What driverless cars tell us about marketing technology

17 February 2020

Figures released a few weeks ago by research company Pitchbook show that investments in the mobility sector (including autonomous and electric vehicles, ride-hailing, and transportation logistics) fell significantly in 2019. 756 deals raised $33.5bn in venture capital last year, down from the $58.7bn raised from 886 deals in 2018.

While part of the decrease may be linked to falling auto sales, several analysts have blamed delays in the development of driverless cars. Technology analyst Richard Windsor noted the “deflation of the autonomous hype balloon”, while early-stage investor Tarek Elessawi commented in tech magazine Wired that autonomous vehicles have entered the “trough of disillusionment” – referencing the infamous Gartner Hype Cycle phase where interest in a new technology wanes as early implementations fail to deliver on initial excitement.

The growing realization in the auto industry is that autonomous driving is a far harder challenge than most imagined. Elon Musk’s prediction of a truly self-driving car in 2020 looks unrealistic, maybe by as much as a decade.

Delays in autonomous driving technology are a good indicator that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is incredibly complicated and will take time to mature. Building a car that can drive itself around a few ring-fenced blocks in Silicon Valley is one thing; delivering a vehicle that can navigate a seething metropolis while motorbikes and pedestrians buzz by is quite another.

Does this remind you of marketing?

Marketing technology (martech) has seen extraordinary growth in recent years. The Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of today can select from a whopping 7,040 tools, and that number is rising by the day.

A growing number of those tools claim to harness AI and, as with cars, current technology is limited. Most executions utilize machine learning, analyzing structured, historical datasets to guide future decision making. A host of early adopters are generating increases in efficiency and effectiveness, but I’d wager many more are making bad decisions informed by poor data or their unconscious biases. And given the similarity of datasets, many brands are creating bland, undifferentiated experiences aimed at the average user who likely doesn’t even exist.

Demand for martech has increased with its supply. Spending on technology now accounts for 26% of the average marketing budget, according to Gartner’s annual CMO spend survey. But there is a growing realization among CMOs that marketing technology is no silver bullet – and I expect growth in technology investments to plateau as marketers strive to understand the value they bring.

B2B CMOs know that sales are often long and complex. Building and maintaining trust is crucial. For now, this requires more than just technology. It requires human intelligence and judgment. For now, your people – not technology – hold the key to understanding your customers, and to creating content that builds trust and drives action.

“We were pretty optimistic about where autonomy was going in 2016 and 2017. Then in 2018, pragmatism started to set in.” That’s early-stage investor Tarek Elessawi talking cars again, but it could soon be your Chief Executive talking martech. How will you respond?