Saul Lopes, Virgin Holidays customer lifecycle lead, took a leap of faith on artificial intelligence as a tool to improve the brand’s email marketing efforts by working with UK AI start-up Phrasee, and has seen that faith rewarded with over the past three years.
Virgin Holidays increased email open rates by two percentage points which generated several million pounds in revenue, though Virgin will not disclose the exact figure.
Tnooz asked Lopes what led him to Phrasee in the first place, how the system was deployed, and how else Virgin Holidays applies AI in its marketing efforts.
Lopes says that the first motivation for employing an AI system to generate subject lines for the brand’s marketing campaigns was overcoming system and staff limitations.
As he tells us:
“We had legacy IT systems and technology in place, and we wanted to change our approach and process. Virgin Holidays has about 200 communication types and sends about 22 million emails annually. I was looking for quick wins to supercharge our email marketing without infrastructure changes.
“It made sense to address changes to subject lines first. Your email subject line is your headline; it’s the first thing that attracts the customer. We were looking to bring engagement up quickly without changing our systems.”
Lopes says he had heard of Phrasee through industry circles and met with them to find out whether AI might save time in generating multiple variants of engaging subject lines and be more effective than human-generated text.
He says three aspects of Phrasee’s services specifically appealed: that they could generate human sounding language that fit the Virgin Holidays brand,its cloud-based SaaS was ESP agnostic, and that the platform is relatively easy for staff to use.
“Anything less than a 100% client-focused approach to producing marketing language wouldn’t have worked for us. Phrasee’s AI-powered software uses natural language generation and deep learning capability to automatically generate human sounding subject lines that adhere to brand style and guidelines.
“The Phrasee platform itself made application of AI technology fast, simple and easy to use – we’re able to generate up to 10 subject lines for a campaign in under 10 minutes, something that used to take up to a week to receive sign-off previously. This meant more time for the Virgin Holidays team to focus on email content and deals.”
But it did take time for the team to give up control to an AI system, Lopes says:
“We didn’t initially trust the AI entirely, so we were fielding email subject line suggestions ourselves. We found that in doing so, our results didn’t significantly improve. It was only by letting the AI do what it is designed to do that we saw an incremental rise in results.”
Phrasee uses an agile testing method, which identifies the “winner” out of a variety of subject lines sent to a small testing pool of recipients, based on performance, and uses that top performer as the subject line for the bulk of the send.
Virgin Holidays shares specific language requirements for communications with Phrasee a month in advance, to ensure subject lines are relevant for the planned campaign. The system can generate 10 brand compliant subject lines within 30 seconds.
“For example, if we’re doing a weather-based campaign, we funnel that request into Phrasee, and it changes the language so it fits.”
Like a virgin
Virgin Holidays has a unique voice, that fits with the core Virgin brand’s cheeky and good nature humour, so we wondered whether it’s possible get AI to reflect that same tone reliably. Lopes says that Phrasee’s Natural Language Generation is indistinguishable from humans and with applied Deep Learning can reliably predict, refine and optimize the performance of subject lines.
Phrasee CCO, Stefan Britton, says:
“We create human-sounding, brand compliant language, specifically for each send. It’s never ‘spammy’ or misleading. It’s adherent to our client’s business model, and it’s always on-brand. We then use deep learning techniques to measure, learn and optimize subject lines over time through longitudinal methodologies. This means we are always learning what works and we are always improving on results.
“Virgin has such a strong personality and tone of voice it was essential that they worked with a company that understood that. Phrasee’s algorithms quickly got to grips with the unique brand tone and learnt how to communicate with Virgins audience. It’s hard to believe an AI algorithm can develop a sense of humor and create puns and wordplay but Phrasee’s did, and both Virgin and their audience love it.”
Beyond the Subject Line
Virgin Holidays found other ways in which natural language AI could be applied to customer touchpoints by working with Movable Ink to automate the content on their emails based on data.
“[AI] revamped our marketing quickly. We’re using Movable Ink on all communication types, including transaction emails and booking confirmations. It helps us manage the content more effectively. For example, if we have 50 destinations to address, the tool automatically personalizes changes to the email. We don’t have to readjust the campaign or the record, but set it up once.
“It’s very powerful to have these technologies working together. Investment has returned year-on-year gains, and very quick email creation. Previously, it was taking us a whole week to build emails. We’ve managed to reduce this to one hour. As an added benefit each time we have a last-minute need, we’re now quick to react, and this has also positively benefited our bottom line.
“Our focus now is working to better integrate the two technologies (Phrasee and Movable Ink). We want to employ Phrasee’s AI capability on call-to-action button text and hero images, and tap Movable Ink’s optimizer tools. There are also plans to extend usage outside of email.”