By Larry Alton

If you attended Dreamforce last year, or you’ve followed the announcements relating to the annual conference, you might know that Salesforce, one of the most popular online commerce programs, is making great strides in the use of predictive marketing.

Known as Salesforce Einstein, the program is introducing Artificial Intelligence features across the Salesforce ecosystem. Salesforce may not be the first company to reorganize its business model around AI and predictive marketing, but it appears poised to shake up e-commerce.

This effort has caused many people to ask: What is AI in terms of commerce, and why is it so important?

A Changing Language

When you hear the word AI, the first thing that may come to mind is something from the movies, such as the robot-child from the 2001 film, “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” Robot children are not the factor that’s transforming e-commerce, obviously; instead, companies are using the term AI to refer to predictive analytics: the strategy we’ve employed in marketing for years, in which we draw upon data to predict future purchasing behavior.

It’s instructive to grasp that AI doesn’t represent a dramatic change in e-commerce practice so much as a linguistic shift that demonstrates an increasingly data-centric sales perspective. AI isn’t new, but what many call “AI-first” is a fairly innovative way of orienting both technology development and marketing strategy.

Beyond Analytics

Another thing to understand about AI is that it’s taking analytics, now the core of most marketing decisions, to another level. Google Analytics could look at your site and tell you how visitors behave when they use it, where they came from, and where they were when they left, for example.

That’s all highly useful, but it’s also only retrospective. The purpose of AI is to tell you what your customers will do next, not what they’ve already done.

Of course, AI also relies on retrospective data to do its job, but the goal of programs like Salesforce’s Einstein is to go beyond that old information. It takes that old information and turns it into a behavioral model that may tell you when customers are ready to buy, which empowers you to target them at the perfect moment.

Then, if they don’t take the bait, AI-style products aim to integrate that new data into the model so the program can determine why the sale wasn’t successful.

“AI Is For Everyone”

“AI is for everyone” is Salesforce Einstein’s slogan, but it’s much more than that. It highlights a new reality, one in which other firms will also need to embrace predictive analytics if they want to keep up.

So it should come as no surprise that Salesforce competitor SunView Software released its own new program at roughly the same time. What does the SunView program do? It uses data intelligence – essentially, predictive analytics again — to drive the decision-making process.

If we ponder the notion that companies will have to adopt AI in order to be competitive, it’s useful to recognize that what sets AI apart from older forms of analytics is its ability to grow smarter. New programs like Einstein learn from every interaction, each success and each failure.

In the past, companies had to update their systems and reformulate sales models on a regular basis to reflect the changing market. In contrast, AI changes itself.

AI is probably inescapable, and since it learns all the time, companies would be wise to adopt it as soon as possible. Unlike other programs that often reward early adopters by letting them work out all the bugs, AI-based programs will only grow if you use them. Starting early has a data-driven edge.

Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.