Virgin Holidays turns to AI for email marketing subject lines

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The Virgin Holidays CRM team

The holidaymaker turned to a UK startup to use AI for its email subject lines, seeing multi-million pounds in revenue growth as a result

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Tour operator Virgin Holidays is using AI technology from UK startup Phrasee to optimise and automate the writing of its marketing email subject lines, with the machines outperforming humans by up to 10 percent for open rates.

Outside of marketing teams an email subject line may seem inconsequential, but when you are on the customer relationship management (CRM) team at a tour operator with revenues exceeding £500 million in 2015 and £19 million in profit for 2016, incremental improvements can mean millions of pounds worth of difference.

This was the goal set out by Saul Lopes, customer lifecycle lead at Virgin Holidays when he joined the company in 2015.

"There wasn't a culture around testing and I wanted to see some quick ways to supercharge our email marketing," Lopes told Computerworld UK last week.

Lopes had heard of a new UK startup in industry circles that was using artificial intelligence (AI) to improve marketing email subject lines, and decided to go in for a meeting.

"In the first two minutes I wanted it," he said. "I saw the ability to save time and test a lot more, rather than a human giving me two or three variations that are pretty similar."

Previously Virgin Holidays was relying on external copywriters or marketing staff to write email subject lines, with fairly flat results. It took just two weeks to get Phrasee up and running and into the hands of the CRM team of five people.

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The first challenge was in trusting the AI to do its job. "Getting confidence with the tool was the initial issue," Lopes said. Staff originally tweaked the subject lines created by the tool and then became frustrated that these weren't delivering results.

But when the team trusted in Phrasee and turned over the keys completely they noticed a two percent increase in open rates – accounting for as much as "several million pounds in revenue". Lopes constantly tests Phrasee lines against those penned by humans and by this metric there's a difference of up to 10 percent in open rates.

Getting started

Lopes has been impressed by Phrasee's ability to quickly learn Virgin's unique brand tone of voice and to keep learning to deliver better results.

Virgin fed Phrasee its brand guidelines and three years of email subject lines so that it could pick up the brand's tone of voice and tweak its algorithm accordingly.

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For example, Virgin is currently coming to the end of its January sale, where it sells 40 percent of its annual inventory. Phrasee adjusted its messaging towards more direct, urgent subject lines rather than trying to tempt people in as a result.

"It's true AI, so it constantly looks at performance and learns which lines do best and which sentiments work best and which don't, so it returns more lines which do work," Lopes said.

What next?

Next Virgin Holiday is looking to automate beyond just subject lines to include call-to-action (CTA) copy within emails, Facebook ads and eventually cost-per-click (CPC) advertising copy.

In terms of broader applications of AI, Lopes is interested in chatbots, specifically for customer service.

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Virgin isn't ready to sit back and outsource all of its email marketing to an AI just yet though. "We can't kick back and relax now the AI is up and running. We need to adapt and constantly tell it what we are doing," Lopes said.

For example, Lopes' team is preparing to send out a weather-activated campaign this week as storms hit the UK to promote beach holidays. "So creating a language set for selling hot destinations mean we have to feed it that information. Still, it's easier to do that than doing it yourself," he said.