In quarterly calls to discuss earnings with Wall Street, executives’ curated comments fall into two categories: information they are required by the SEC to divulge and things they think investors want to hear.
Aggregating trending topics from those calls, however, offers a glimpse into what’s on corporate managers’ minds. It was for this reason consulting firm Hamilton Place Strategies data-mined roughly 3,000 earnings calls every quarter for the past three quarters.
Following the presidential election of Donald Trump in January, 41 percent of those earnings calls mentioned policy changes like tax reform and infrastructure spending. These policies were of interest to the tech industry because they could boost profits by repatriating overseas taxes or beefing up broadband infrastructure. Hamilton Place found that by July — with the Trump agenda stalling — such mentions appeared in only 16 percent of earnings calls in all industries.
So what kinds of buzzwords did executives instead use to get investors excited? One of the most frequently mentioned was artificial intelligence. So far this year, 360 earnings calls mentioned AI, according to Hamilton Place. Before 2017, only 181 calls had ever included the phrase — back then, most execs preferred terms like “robotics” and “automation.”
Tech giants like Amazon, Alphabet, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft have been discussing AI nearly every quarter since 2016, with most pinning their futures on the technology. But they were not alone. Rocket Fuel, Cognizant, Nvidia, and Salesforce were also among the tech companies likely to mention artificial intelligence in conversation with investors.
Industries beyond tech are beginning to use the term, as well. AI was of particular interest to those in consumer goods and health care, including newspaper publisher Tronc, ad-company MDC Partners, and health care management company Corvel.
Of course, it’s easy to toss AI around as a buzzword for future business plans. A survey of 3,000 business executives conducted by MIT Sloan in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group found that 85 percent expect AI will offer them a competitive advantage, yet only 39 percent have an AI strategy in place, and just one in five actually use AI in some way.
AI remains a priority for tech giants that are already seeing their early investments in the technology pay off. For many others, it seems like an unwieldy strategy that demands expensive hires and is easier to jawbone about than implement. If and when AI delivers on its promise, those companies may wish they had treated AI as more than a trendy buzzword.