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How IBM Uses AI to Create the Human Touch

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Q&A with B-to-B Dream Team Member Erin McElroy

We spent a few minutes recently with IBM’s Erin McElroy, the “tech guru” of the 2018 Event Marketer B-to-B Dream Team. Our discussion centered around how IBM is using its innovative artificial intelligence technology to spark engagement at events.

Q: Congratulations on being named to the 2018 B-to-B Dream Team! How did you react when you heard the news?

EM: I was really shocked because I’m just showing up every day, trying to innovate, do impactful things, and enjoy my job. Nothing thrills me more than seeing people get excited about technology, especially when it’s something that I’ve had a hand in creating. So many companies are doing incredibly cool things with technology, making it harder to really grab attention — and it makes it that much more fulfilling when we do.

But I would just say to everyone in this industry that you're only one activation away from being that person on the Dream Team panel, telling your story. There's nothing that precludes you from being recognized for what you're doing.

That’s one of the reasons I love what I do. Anyone can come up with the next great idea.

Q: You’re in charge of innovation for the Experiential Marketing Team for Global Events at IBM. That’s a mouthful. What does it mean?

EM: In the experiential team, we look for ways to showcase technology (our own and that of our partners) in experimental and emerging areas like virtual and augmented reality, as well as all the very exciting things that are happening with visual technology and artificial intelligence. We always anchor everything we do in our own IBM technology, which is Watson and our artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities.

Q: How do you see your role, specifically?

EM: I work on our large events, both our own as well as third-party events, and I look for opportunities to inject innovation, where we can do something new that hasn't been done before, and how we can showcase our technology in a new way.

Q: How important are events to IBM’s overall marketing mix?

EM: Our current brand platform is, “Let’s put smart to work.” We are known for our AI, for our augmented intelligence, and for our advancements in technology. At our events, we have such a unique opportunity to bring people in and let them actually experience it.

When people come to our conferences, we want them to really be able to touch, feel, and see the advancements, to have a personal experience with the technology. It may have to do with healthcare, how they bank, how they make purchases, or with entertainment. We’re putting smart to work in all industries, so, when someone comes to an event and interacts with us in one of those areas, we’re really going to help them understand how we’re trying to improve the world with technology.

Q: How many events are we talking about?

EM: We have over 6,000 events a year at IBM. IBM Think is our flagship conference. And we are excited to have Think 2019 in San Francisco, on February 12-15. There are about 12 third-party events each year, depending on where we want to show up and where our competitors and customers are. The rest are regional events, such as our Think Summits.

Q: You mentioned the senses — touch and sight — a minute ago. Can you tell us about a specific activation where you used the five senses to tell the IBM brand story?

EM: One of my favorite experiences that we created was at South by Southwest a couple years ago. It was called the Cognitive Studio. Everything you saw, smelled, heard, or felt in that studio was cognitive.

We used Watson to find out some basic information about each attendee and delivered a customized cocktail for their personality. We gave them the opportunity to ride a bicycle while learning how we’re using biometric sensors to improve the race times of professional cyclists. We allowed them to talk to a robot and play rock, paper, scissors. A Star Wars movie had just come out, so we allowed people to put on a brain sensor and move the BB8 droid around with their mind, showcasing our Watson IoT software.

And so, we were really touching on all the senses to help people understand that augmented intelligence and advanced technology is here, and IBM is on the forefront of bringing it to everything that we do.

Q: Very cool. Where do these ideas come from? What inspires you?

EM: You know, I’m really inspired by young people. It’s kind of hard to say that because I think of myself as a young person! But I mean people who have not known anything but smartphones and tablets from an early age. They really experience it differently than people who have learned it and watched it evolve. Where I might come with a preconceived idea of how to use the technology, young people just come in and experiment. There’s more of a freedom in that.

I’m also inspired by art. Often in technology, we focus on cause and effect: This has to result in that. But in marketing, especially in experiential marketing, so much of it depends on how a person feels or engages in a human way. Ironically, everything’s becoming AI, but there’s still that human component.

People are thirsting for human interaction, and that’s why face-to-face and experiential marketing are so important these days. It gives people not only the tools and technology, but that human touch — and maybe a new way of seeing things.

Q: Can you tell us about a recent digital activation that you were really proud of, or you thought was extremely interesting?

EM: One of the activations that I think really exemplifies our creativity was for the Grammy Awards, using our cognitive fashion AI. The Grammys and fashion go hand-in-hand, right? Who can forget Lady Gaga in the meat dress?

We took every single year of Grammy images and processed that through our AI. When artists at this year’s event came onto the red carpet, they went through a special area we had set up to take photos. Watson then analyzed those photos, spotted trends, and compared them to past fashion trends.

We brought millions of people from the digital sphere onto the red carpet at the Grammys and gave them a first-class seat to see how the fashion has evolved over the years. I thought that was a really neat way to bring the fans into the whole event digitally.

Q: How do you measure the success of an event at IBM?

EM: Whenever possible, we try to build our activations in a way that will give people the opportunity to continue their engagement with us after that experience. The way we do that is by trying to tell them something about themselves or some new information that is valuable to them. The focus has to be on the customer and delivering value to them.

For example, we have a CIO Command Center where C-level executives can delve into the different IBM technologies. We allow them to favor or tag that information, so we can send it back to them. What did they look at? Where did they spend their time? What did they want more information about? We sometimes use beacons and RFID to measure how long someone lingers in a certain space.

We also have some really sophisticated metrics on our site to supplement that. What I'm really pleased about is our ability to take that data and analyze it. The gold is in the data. What makes the difference is analyzing that data, understanding it, getting the right insights, and then acting on them.

Q: That leads right into my next question. How do you use data to inform your event strategy?

EM: We use data to inform our event strategy from the beginning to the end. What audiences are we going after? How do we go after a particular audience? How do we craft our content to play to that particular audience?

We aren't just going after anyone who will come to our event. We're very strategic with how we use audience and behavioral data to segment our audience acquisition strategy through the content that we develop, the speakers that we approve, the sessions that we create, and the experiences that supplement all of that.

Q: IBM is an iconic technology brand. How central is technology to engaging people at events like Think 2019?

EM: From the moment a person registers for our conference, we are engaging them with technology. We introduce them to Watson to help them figure out why they even want to come to the conference. They can ask questions on our site, and we can respond in kind using our Watson AI assistant services.

Once they register, we help them create their agenda. When they show up, we give them all kinds of opportunities to engage with technology across different industries and different elements of their personal lives. It's really just a smorgasbord of technology when you come to Think.

For this coming year, we’re really excited for all the new experiential things we're going to feature with visual technology and expanding on the customer engagement technologies that we have.

Q: You're a very passionate person. What do you love the most about what you do?

EM: I just love to create. I love to see people experience new and different things. I'm kind of unconventional in that I like the challenge — the satisfaction that comes from taking technology and doing something that hasn't been done before.

And also, all the creative people that I get to work with. It's really exciting to see things come to life.

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