Fireside Chat on Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Communications: A Peek Inside PayPal’s Playbook
PRWeek and Meltwater recently hosted an exclusive event at San Francisco’s EPIC Steak.
Featured in this post are the highlights of a fireside chat between PayPal’s Amanda Coffee, one of PRWeek’s Women to Watch 2019, and Gideon Fidelzeid, managing editor of PRWeek.
Coffee manages PayPal’s global corporate media relations as well as executive visibility projects for the CEO and CFO. She also supports programming for 10 social media channels. She shared a number of insights into AI and machine learning that PayPal currently benefits from. The global payment processor has become more prominent in AI since its 2018 acquisition of Jetlore, an AI-powered prediction platform for some of the world’s top retailers, including Nordstrom Rack, Uniqlo, LG, and eBay. Highlights and excerpts follow.
“The place we have the biggest wins with AI is in our risk portfolio.”
PayPal’s recent investment in companies and technologies that allow users to unlock the benefits of the digital world are already creating value for the company and its users. Coffee contrasts today with several years ago when people were commonly flagged for unexpected, big-ticket purchases. “Our data scientists wouldn’t let those go through. The algorithms weren’t sophisticated enough. Instead, they suspected the buyer of being a fraudster. Today, AI and technology can open the door and see things more comprehensively.”
AI’s role as consumer facilitator and security fail-safe
Customers want PayPal to know who they are when they contact the company, and AI allows customer service to do a better job of putting the pieces together. Security may be less intrusive, but AI is powerful enough to inform PayPal of when to step in and require more of the customer. Coffee says, “We have a new chatbot technology, and it’s smart enough to tell me when I have to supply a social security number versus allowing me to simply check something. So we often push our prospects and customers to chat.”
Using AI to turn customer data into smoother, safer commerce
Coffee spoke to the importance of regulation in technology and finance, and acknowledged the role PayPal plays. “One of our most winning recent acquisitions is this new tool called RegEd Tech. Regulation is really big in technology. It’s one of our key differentiators and why merchants want to work with us. If you’re in eCommerce and you want to start selling in Ukraine, for instance, there are all kinds of regulations you have to adhere to. That’s not something as a merchant you want to take on. AI helps us take all that data and synthesize it, look at the merchant and where they want to sell, and help them navigate that regulated environment.”
Transitioning from an audience of millions to a million audiences of one
PRWeek’s Fidelzeid noted that PayPal appears to excel at gaining a deep understanding of the individuals that use their platform—the holy grail for every brand. Addressing this high level of personalization, Coffee contrasted the present with the past. “Credit is the most powerful part of the business for how we understand our customers. If you think back to 100 years ago when you wanted a loan, you would go to the only bank in town. That one lender would dictate whether you got a loan or not. Even 50 years later, they might have some data, but the customer didn’t have transparency into the decision-making process. Now, due to technology like AI, a customer really feels like we’re seeing them in full. We’re seeing all of them.”
“Our credit product isn’t based on a FICO score, it’s based on your relationship with PayPal.”
Coffee spoke of a longtime PayPal customer short on capital looking to expand her afterschool business. “She just didn’t have that US$5,000 in disposable income she needed to switch her lease and move. In a situation like that, we can look at her history and use AI to determine that she really does have a healthy business and give her the benefit of the doubt. AI allows us to open the door and see things more comprehensively. It gives us more insight into the future.”
Optimizing video on social media for a greater return on investment
Journalists at Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal aren’t always focused on the same things PayPal wants to talk about, so Coffee’s team went elsewhere to tell their stories. “We talked to channel owners like Facebook and LinkedIn, and they steered us to video. Afterward, we had people listen to all of our podcast episodes and rate when they were the most and least engaged. We then took all of our data and put AI to work synthesizing it.
“We learned that when the questions were too long, people trailed off. We also learned that people aren’t used to being on Facebook for 20 minutes at a time. We were able to report that we tested using unbiased data and it returned these results. This makes it really helpful to manage across the organization.”
AI’s personalization paying off in greater loyalty and sales
Coffee confirmed that last year PayPal went on an acquisition spree and acquired four companies in six weeks, one of which was their biggest acquisition to date. “What’s interesting is they’re all focused on achieving the same thing. They’re all tools for merchants. Because a lot of our merchants told us, you guys know AI and risk and payouts, this really helpful when doing business in Europe. They said you know this better than we do, and we’d rather just have you deal with it.
“Our new acquisition Jetlore is a technology that uses AI for big merchants like Nordstrom Rack and Uniqlo to make extremely personalized decisions. Merchants and customers really appreciate that personalization, which leads to more loyalty and sales. If you’re a small merchant, that’s not something you can easily buy. Instead, we’re able to give this really valuable AI-powered technology to our merchants as an added bonus.”
Conversations with the CEO about AI
In response to a question from PRWeek’s Gideon Fidelzeid about the conversations she has with her CEO about AI, Coffee says, “What’s interesting about anyone who works with the CEO is they’re always thinking five, 10 years ahead. And based on our M&A activity, we’re really investing in AI. When you watch our CEO Dan Schulman’s podcast, you’ll notice it’s built around the key tenet of Krav Maga, which holds that if you stand still, you’re waiting to get hit.
“In business, if you’re not evolving, you’re inviting someone to challenge you. Fintech is a huge market. There will always be winners and losers, and the winners are going to be the companies that really invest in technology and care first and foremost about their customers. And customers want personalization, which is powered by AI.”
“Will technology cost me my job?”
The question above from the audience struck a nerve with both Fidelzeid and Coffee, with the latter noting that “This is a question people feel they can’t ask, but it’s a top-of-mind question at PayPal, because so many people are involved in operations and customer service. And yet, the way the smartest people in our organization answer it is to point out that AI can only go so far, and benefits so much from human oversight.”
Fidelzeid observed that it’s a question born out of fear, understandably, but expressed his belief that AI is only a tool. Added Coffee, “And it’s a really great tool. It helps communicators a lot. But one thing that always fascinates me is that events like this one today are often extremely popular. And that’s because, at the end of the day, public relations and communications is still at its heart a very people-driven business.”