Close this search box.

GUEST COLUMN: What impact will AI have on content creators?


In his latest guest column for InternetRetailing, veteran retailer David Kohn considers what AI will mean for ecommerce and those who produce its content.

Over the first few months of 2023, artificial intelligence (AI) has finally made it into the mainstream of the public consciousness, with the launch of ChatGPT creating a bigger stir than any technological innovation in memory. Almost inevitably, it has led to doom-mongering and concern. If you insert into Google the phrase ‘will AI cause …’, the following come up on the first page of the results:

  • “Will robots and AI cause mass unemployment?” 
  • “US experts warn AI likely to kill off jobs – and widen wealth inequality”
  • “8 risks and dangers of AI to know” 
  • “AI takeover”

It’s not overwhelmingly positive is it? And this for a technology that most people reading this article will consider to present a great opportunity for themselves, their businesses and, possibly even, wider society. 

Before I go on to explore what impact AI might have on our little world of ecommerce and content, it’s worth reflecting on how new technology has been perceived through history, and then on what impact it’s really had. 

Click here to sign up for our newsletter

The effect of technology on jobs

If we go back to the early 19th century, we see the Luddite rebellion in which skilled factory workers began destroying machines that they saw as taking their jobs. (NB. Modern interpretations of the rebellion are somewhat more nuanced, but the Luddites did a great job of branding!) Not long after, we see the Swing Rebellion, better known for the Tolpuddle Martyrs, in which agricultural workers took to smashing threshing machines and other farm equipment.

In the 20th century, we had numerous ‘rebellions’ by those who saw their jobs threatened by new technology or competition, such as ship workers, miners and newspaper typesetters. Most of these were absolutely right to be concerned about their specific jobs and communities (and also for the chronic lack of help they were given to find something else), but what happened to employment as a whole? 

The facts are indisputable. There are more people working in the UK (and indeed the world) now than there have ever been, not just in absolute terms but also in percentage terms.

In 2022, 76% of UK adults were in employment compared to only 71% in 2009. And this isn’t because a greater proportion are working part-time – in fact, the percentage of full-timers is marginally higher than it’s been at any point in the past two decades. In a period in which we’ve seen the birth of the internet and ecommerce, the almost universal adoption of the personal computer, the invention of the smartphone, email, social media, streaming and numerous other new technologies, the number of people in jobs has grown and grown.

A recent report by the UN’s Development Policy and Analysis Division backs this up: “Throughout history, technological innovations have enhanced the productivity of workers and created new products and markets, thereby generating new jobs in the economy.” So, why will AI be different … or not? 

To a large extent, the pessimism about AI reflects humankind’s natural pessimism about the future and, specifically, our fear of the robot. The idea that machines will outgrow us and eventually come to control us, has been around almost as long as we’ve had machines.

The fear infects even the most scientific of minds. Stephen Hawking in 2014 warned that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” And, in the days before writing this article, more than 1,000 technology leaders including Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak, called for a pause in the development of the most advanced systems citing ‘profound risks to society and humanity’. 

These are massive questions and too big to cover here, but to repeat the observation made earlier, history does show that whatever new technology does, there will still be jobs for humans, and probably for more of them. 

How will AI affect ecommerce?

But what of our own sector, ecommerce? Will professionals in our industry become the new newspaper typesetters or hotel elevator operators, in having skills that are no longer useful?

A good place to look is content creation, as this is one of the first areas where AI applications are already making inroads and where they could potentially take over from humans. I must admit to a personal interest here as both of my 20-something boys work as freelance copywriters. Will they have a future in this field or have to find something else (other than dad) to pay the bills? 

Let’s start by asking what online content is really for. There are many different types of content but most fulfil one or more of four principal purposes: 

  • Conversion – Customers need to know what they’re buying and whether it will be suitable for their needs. Creating content, particularly on product pages, that both creates desire and gives enough information for a customer to add to basket, is a core skill in ecommerce. 
  • Brand building – With a vast choice of product available for every need, customers are increasingly drawn to brands they’ve heard of and can trust. Content of all sorts, is key to building a sense of what a brand stands for and why it should be trusted. It’s also central to the process of building awareness and initial consideration. 
  • Engagement – Sometimes customers just want to be entertained or educated or even to feel a part of something. Content, for example across social media or in email, can help to create a sense of involvement amongst interested parties. 
  • SEO – Often the primary objective for many ecommerce operators when thinking about content is to improve search engine rankings. Search drives such a significant proportion of traffic that ‘impressing’ Google and Bing is something that’s always near the top of the priority list. 

NB. I’m not including customer service in this list, although I will come back to this subject in future. 

So, to what extent will AI be able to create content that achieves these objectives more effectively than humans? The answer, I think, is quite a lot, but there will still be an important role, albeit slightly different, for humans. Here’s why. 

First is the need for something distinctive. One of the biggest issues in digital, whether looking at products or services or news, is navigating through the vast amount of near-identical content out there. Having a tone of voice and a point of view will be increasingly important if your content is to stand out and you’re to find your right audience. 

It’s a similar story with SEO. In the early days of SEO, it was all about listing as many keywords as you could and creating user guides that no-one ever read, in the hope that it would persuade Google that you knew what you were talking about. In truth, it’s still quite a lot like that so ecommerce teams up and down the country have people doing the same thing and coming up with roughly the same content. One hopes that Google and Bing will refine their algorithms not only to identify what’s been driven by humans, but also to look for content that’s a little distinctive. 

Understanding what works

There’s also the challenge of understanding customer psychology and understanding what content will really work. In theory, AI could do this, but successful brands and products rarely emerge from a structured, logical process. They rely instead on an innate understanding of what people want and how they make decisions.

The instinctiveness of, and role of ‘emotion’ in human decision-making has been much covered by writers like Kahnemann and Ariely, but that doesn’t make it any easier to understand how to trigger the right emotions. It’s hard to see AI delivering the requisite creativity and instinct bring this off. 

In short, a lot of this comes down to creativity – “the ability to produce or use original and unusual ideas” – and empathy – “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”. And this is what content creators are going to have to deliver.

Those working on the sausage machine of product descriptions or category text blocks are going to have to sharpen up their game. Machines and AI will be able to replace a lot of the grunt work, but content creators will still have the opportunity to add something of value on the top. If they don’t, they will become like the elevator operators; if they do, they should not only survive ‘the march of the machines’, but also thrive. 

David Kohn is a veteran retailer, whose experience most recently includes customer and ecommerce director at Heals, and previously roles at WHSmith, Waterstones, Borders and Snow+Rock Group. Now acting as an independent advisor and NED.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Read More

Register for Newsletter

Group 4 Copy 3Created with Sketch.

Receive 3 newsletters per week

Group 3Created with Sketch.

Gain access to all Top500 research

Group 4Created with Sketch.

Personalise your experience on