Vala Afshar has only formally been associated with Salesforce.com since September 2015, but as a customer of the popular CRM provider since 2003, he’s proven himself to be the perfect “digital evangelist” for the company’s outreach efforts, helping others join what he calls the “cloud revolution” as enthusiastically as he did more than a decade ago.

Salesforce digital evangelist Vala Afshar
Salesforce digital evangelist Vala Afshar believes AI will drive marketing in 2017 – and that Canada could play a lead role.

“You can imagine the spirited conversations we had about moving our most sensitive data into this thing called the ‘cloud’ 13 years ago,” he says. “Then we saw the dramatic, positive impact that it had on our business.”

Of course, the speed of cloud’s impact – he notes that by 2020, Forrester predicts the public cloud market alone will be a $236 billion industry – is business as usual in the tech industry, where relatively young game changers are the norm: Think Google’s founding in 1996, Facebook starting in 2004, Twitter in 2006, the first iPhone’s release in 2007 – and, of course, Salesforce itself, which first hit the scene with its brand of social-driven marketing in 1999 and didn’t really begin hitting its stride until 2006.

“The social revolution only started in the latter part of the first decade of the 21st century,” Afshar says – and in his opinion, the latter part of the second decade has the potential to be just as revolutionary.

“When Salesforce and I look at this decade, there are three technologies that have gained significant traction: artificial intelligence, advanced analytics, and data sciences,” he says.

Why AI will become the backbone of marketing

Afshar believes, having worked “fairly intimately” with business executives across multiple industries and with companies of all sizes, that there is an “unquenchable thirst” for insights which can help companies better understand consumers and B2B business buyers alike.

“Artificial intelligence will be the defining technology of the 21st century,” Afshar proclaims, admitting that “the term was coined in 1955, so we’ve been talking about AI and AI sciences for decades,” but adding that “we’re closer to it today than ever before.”

“It’s become an indispensable technology for consumers,” he says. “If you are shopping on Amazon, if you are watching Netflix, if you’re using Apple’s Siri – you’re using AI.”

More importantly, he says, today’s consumers have come to expect features that incorporate the machine learning, image recognition, smart data analysis, and natural language processing capabilities offered by today’s AI.

“We recently surveyed the expectations and buying behaviour of 7000 global consumers and B2B buyers, and personalization, intelligence, and speed are the new currencies in the digital economy,” he says. “Technology has made it easy for customers to switch brands, and they will take advantage.”

Meanwhile, he notes, nine out of 10 B2B buyers expect the businesses they work with to anticipate their needs.

Fortunately, Afshar says with palpable glee, many businesses are recognizing changing consumer expectations and adapting to them – a far cry from their standard behaviour even two years ago.

“I’m finding as I speak to chief marketing officers, chief revenue officers, CIOs – and, more and more, to my delight, CEOs – is that digital transformation, analytics, and insights are now a boardroom issue, instead of just a technical issue,” he says. “And so from efficiency to revenue growth to customer/employee experience, they’re actively participating in discovery meetings; they’re at the front of the sales cycle; and they’re driving the conversation.”

What Canada brings to the table

Afshar spoke to ITBusiness.ca during a mid-November visit to Canada, which he believes stands to gain a great deal from the coming AI-driven revolution in digital marketing.

“Here’s my advice to Canada and Canadian businesses in general: You need to promote yourself more,” he says. “There’s a rich heritage of innovation in this country. Seven out of 10 Canadians have smartphones, so you’re among the top five countries in the world in terms of smart device connectivity. Ninety per cent of Canada’s population are Internet users… Canada is ahead of the U.S. when it comes to Internet connectivity and mobility, and when it comes to AI, most in the data sciences space view Toronto as a pioneer.”

From the industry-leading AI projects that have emerged from the University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Labs to Facebook, Google, and Twitter incorporating some of the most bleeding-edge technology developed by students, professors, and thought leaders in Toronto, the Great White North is shaping Silicon Valley’s approach to artificial intelligence, Afshar says, with consulting firm McKinsey & Company predicting that more than $10 trillion USD will be invested into AI-driven technologies such as IoT and knowledge work automation by 2025.

Salesforce alone has nearly 200 data scientists working across eight clouds, he notes: sales, marketing, services, community, analytics, IoT, and ecommerce.

“Think about cloud in early 2000, and how we couldn’t imagine that in 15 years it would be a multi-billion dollar business,” he says. “It’s the same with AI.”

“Whatever the industry, your company needs have to have that deep insight of your customer shared across every line of business,” Afshar says. “You cannot invest in silos and optimize your transformation initiatives.”

He cites a study in which consulting firm Deloitte interviewed more than 300 Canadian CMOs, and found that 71 per cent considered applying analytics their leading challenge.

“There is an awareness that there’s a need for a data-driven, simply defined way to apply information and technology to bolster the stakeholder experience,” Afshar says. “Companies that are data-driven, using information-lead technologies like CRM that give them a holistic view of their customer base, have the best chance to not only avoid disruption, but gain market share.”

And though Canadian businesses are poised to reap part of that market share, he says, research shows there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

For example, Vashar cites another Deloitte study of Canadian businesses that found only 13 per cent were ready for emerging technology disruption.

App, app and away

It’s not just businesses that Afshar sees being affected by AI – he believes AI-driven apps will play a leading role into the next year and beyond as well.

“Studies show that 90 per cent of the time when you’re behind a smart device, whether it’s a phone or a tablet, you’re using an app,” he says. “And whether it’s voice-enabled apps, or the integration of apps and chatbots, the next generation of apps will be powered by AI.”

In the case of Salesforce, the company plans to make its AI capabilities available to customers and partners for integration into their own custom apps, he says.

“We are in the age of the customer, and Canadian businesses that embrace artificial intelligence will have a significant – I don’t know if you can bold and underline ‘significant’ in the story – advantage over their rivals in delivering the next generation of customer experience,” Afshar says.

“AI is just no longer a projection of what the future will look like,” he says. “It’s here now, and it needs to be integrated into every facet of your business.”

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