Guesses and Tips for Digital Marketing in the Age of AI

Chris Esh

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We’re in the midst of a seismic shift in society due to the widespread availability of AI, specifically large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT, Claude, Gemini, and others. No matter how much attention AI has received recently, I don’t think most people are fully appreciating the magnitude of impact these technologies will have on society in the near future.

The release of ChatGPT 3.5 in December 2022 was mind boggling—how can a “robot” sound so human and display such intelligence? But the exponential improvement in AI since then is what really blows my mind and convinces me we’re living though a societal shift on the same scale as that of the Industrial Revolution or the Internet.

Where this leads us is yet to be determined. There are compelling reasons for both optimism and pessimism, and anyone who speaks with certainty about how this will play out 10 years from now is full of shit. We simply don’t know how this will impact humanity—only time will tell.

In the 8 years since I started my web design businesses, my workflow has gotten better with the introduction of new tools, but the fundamentals of how websites, SEO, and social media function has remained constant. The best way to get people to your website is good, search engine optimized content, and lots of it. Social media platforms provide avenues for expanded reach and engagement, ideally leading people back to your website to hire you or support your work.

We’re already drowning in content, but the widespread availability of LLMs like ChatGPT make it possible for people to open the floodgates and publish content at a virtually infinite scale. ChatGPT might not write content as well as you, but it can write at least as well as the average copywriter and can produce hundreds of articles a day for free. It may not come up with fresh new insights, but then again, how much of the content you read on the internet each day would be considered “fresh” or “insightful”?

For the moment, it doesn’t seem that Google or social media companies have an answer to deal with this insane influx of content. With Google and Meta heavily investing in the AI race, they don’t care whether the content was written by people or AI. Whatever attracts and retains the most engagement is all that matters to them.

So if you’re running a small business or nonprofit, how do you stand out from the noise? How do you still connect with your audience and grow?

Own your website, domain, and email list – don’t be subject to the whims of algorithms

Social media should remain a core piece of your digital marketing strategy, but it should not be the only piece. Many businesses were optimized for Facebook’s algorithm years ago, then suddenly the algorithm changed to de-prioritize business content and those businesses suddenly lost their audiences. Elon Musk bought Twitter on a whim and methodically ruined the platform.

Social media companies are not a town square designed to be fair, equal spaces for you to exercise your first amendment rights. They are massive advertising platforms. Users are the products whose data they sell to advertisers (i.e. their customers). All they care about is keeping users scrolling for as long as possible. So use these platforms as you can to spread your message and build your business, but don’t put all your eggs in these fickle baskets.

Websites and mailing lists might seem old school, but they are the pieces of your digital marketing you can actually own and control. Having 50k Twitter followers won’t help you much once the platform takes a nosedive. But having a mailing list will allow you to bring at least some portion of your audience to you – to your website, your events, or even your brick and mortar shop!

Connect with people on social media, then ideally drive them back to your website and create a more lasting impression. Encourage them to sign up for your email list to allow for an ongoing connection. Using all the tools makes you more future-proof; if one tool suddenly becomes irrelevant you won’t have to start over from scratch.

Distinguish “traffic” from “audience”

While I don’t yet know what’s on the other side of this total AI marketing mix up, part of me is excited to see the implosion of spammy content marketing and garbage content written solely for SEO purposes.

I think digital marketers get traffic to their websites or reach on social media and mistakenly think they’re building “an audience.” It’s not the same thing. Traffic comes and goes and forgets you the second they leave your site. An audience is a group of people that like you, trust your perspective, and want to see you succeed.

Focus on quality over quantity in connecting with your target audience. A few dedicated fans are worth far more than a hundred “users” who don’t really care.

Do something AI can’t: create authentic content focused on real human experience

The latest versions of LLMs can write as well as a PhD and can convincingly mimic any well known writer. What they can’t do, however, is have an actual human perspective. They can’t tell a personal story. They can’t have an unconventional view that challenges the norms of your industry. Being able to summarize the sum total of all knowledge on the internet is not the same as being smart, or having good judgement.

So don’t waste your time competing with LLMs on optimized content. Instead focus on authentic content that deeply resonates with your audience.

Invest in relationships, both in-person and online

As the digital world becomes more AI driven and the flood of content explodes to absurd proportions, many of us crave meaningful human connections more than ever. Go to in-person events, invite other professionals for coffee, spend time getting to know the clients and supporters you work with.

When I left my “real” last job, it was my friends, former coworkers, and broader professional connections who became my first clients. And they gradually referred me to others, and so forth until my business got momentum of its own.

Stay agile, learn continuously, try new things, and pay attention to meaningful trends

Things are moving quickly and you need to be ready to move quickly as well. We don’t know what life looks like 5 years from now, but we can be sure it’ll look quite different from today. A dramatic reshuffling is about to take place, don’t just sit comfortably on what’s been working for you in the past.

For example as a web designer, I love taking classes on platforms like SkillShare or Udemy to level up my skills and learn ways to be more effective. When I hear about a new software on a podcast, I give it a go and see if it’s something that would be beneficial to my work or to my clients. I pay attention to the global conversation about design trends so I can offer the most innovative yet reliable design practices to clients. And I love playing around with new AI tools and experimenting with how I can fit them into my workflow.

Keep learning new skills, play around with LLMs, listen to podcasts, and talk to people in your life.

Onward

LLMs are incredible thought partners and assistants. Your role is to distinguish the good ideas from the bad, and then effectively implement them. These are ridiculously powerful tools and they’re improving at an exponential rate. In the near term, we don’t have to worry about AI “replacing us,” but people who effectively use AI in their work are going to replace the people who don’t in many/most industries. In short, use AI where it’s helpful, but don’t become lazy and let it think for you.

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