In an industry first, affiliate marketing network Webgains has recently partnered with IBM Watson to develop cognitive solutions to help online retailers advertise more intelligently and efficiently. PerformanceIN caught up with Webgains’ CEO Richard Dennys to find out more about the partnership and what adopting such technology means for the industry.

Webgains is the first company in the performance marketing industry to develop cognitive tech with IBM Watson to boost efficiency of digital ad placement. Briefly, why is this development important and how does it work?

Richard Dennys: Many organisations are using artificial intelligence (AI) to crunch through huge data systems so that they can discover new, more effective business performance. However, very few organisations across the world are leveraging AI at the creation stage and applying cognitive learning to create a new system or solution. We are the first in the affiliate marketing space and one of the few organisations in the world doing just that. Cognitive technology, including AI and machine learning, enables us to match consumers to the items they want, from trainers to electrical goods, quicker and more efficiently.

Post-user behaviour is currently only being classified and analysed in the industry and our new cognitive development will transform the process by taking into account other influential data points in the ecosystem that will allow us to predict customer intent with almost perfect accuracy. We’ll have the opportunity to feed learnings back into future ad spending and significantly increase client profits.

Implementing cognitive solutions will also enable us to streamline tasks and minimise the workload for our clients and employees. Our virtual assistant allows for 24/7 availability and answering requests in record time, dramatically improving first-line customer service and enhancing efficiency. Clients and employees can rely on those assistants to answer complex questions and perform administrative tasks automatically within minutes. This will help free up our account management team’s time to focus on more creative, high-value work and make better-informed decisions.

How will the predictive AI of Watson give Webgains a competitive advantage and what kind of data will be available for publishers specifically?

RD: We are evolving Webgains into a ‘now what’ business. This is the first time IBM Watson technology has been utilised in the affiliate marketing space and will transform our offering to clients. AI’s self-learning capabilities enable us to make sense of huge data volumes in order to initiate intelligent product upselling. By obtaining a better understanding of the consumer’s purchasing trends, our clients are able to tailor ads to their interests and at a time that’s most appealing for their online spending activity, meaning more relevant, timely ads for the individual. Publishers will benefit from campaign suggestions based on enriched behavioural data which gives them the ‘now what’ for their monetisation strategy.

For clients we’ll be able to continuously optimise their pool of publishers via automated affiliate recruitment, which is currently done manually. With AI we’re able to significantly extend our clients’ online reach within the same cost of sale target. The new technology essentially allows our clients to make more informed decisions about their marketing spend and gives us the tools to consistently deliver the most cost-effective marketing solution in the industry. Our goal is to considerably increase ROI for our clients.

What do you think has been the biggest challenge in adopting this technology?

RD: Although we’re in the early stages, we’re excited to be developing cognitive solutions in partnership with IBM Watson. While we’re likely to face challenges along the way, we’re confident in the knowledge that we’re working with world-class cognitive scientists.

Our first challenge will be to educate clients, affiliates and staff about how to exploit the new technology and make sure they understand it’s not about removing human collaboration but enriching it. IBM Watson experts will mentor the development team in order to maximise its full potential within a high-growth organisation. This marks the beginning of an ongoing project to explore how cognitive capabilities can transform the affiliate marketing operating model and foster stronger growth in campaign performance and reach.

We’ll face the challenge to create a world-class taxonomy and classification system in order to ensure we’re able to utilise all of the tools effectively, which is not something that everybody has access to. There is more academic theory involved in the development of these systems than you would think. We’re excited to have IBM on our side and we’ll manage any challenges we face together with them.

Do you see this setting a trend for the use of AI in affiliate marketing? Or other networks opening up more data to their partners?

RD: AI technology has been in development for years and it’s now at a level that will add significant value to what we offer advertisers and affiliates in our network. It’s on its way to revolutionise the affiliate marketing space and we want to be at the forefront of its development. This technology can meet the growing demands of both brand and platform while providing insight required for strategic product decisions throughout the value chain.

The popularity of AI is fast outpacing the on-going development of current technology. As IBM reports, there’s a significantly advanced adoption curve for AI compared to that of app stores 10 years ago in the retail industry. Soon everyone will be clamouring to enter the AI space and this will present a new challenge for marketers as they race to upskill and train their staff – the technology is only as good as the team behind it!

What can we expect to come in the near future from Webgains and Watson?

RD: Webgains is developing a suite of products with IBM Watson that will be rolled out across all clients over the course of the year.

The first phase includes the introduction of the virtual assistant and the second will see Webgains focus on intelligent ad placement. Learning over time, the virtual assistant will allow Webgains to analyse customer intent and trends to feed learnings into future service.

In the second phase, Webgains will focus on processing extensive data including prevailing external trends, web queries, user data and social media analysis. Webgains’ valuable insight will enable brands and retailers to make more informed decisions for their digital marketing strategies. It’s an exciting time for Webgains and we’re looking forward to showcasing the developments at our PI Live stand, where I’ll be presenting live demonstrations of the new products.