Marketers are always trying to get more engagement from their content. They may send an email and cross their fingers, hoping that everyone’s going to open and click. Normally the goal is to drive traffic to something like a sales landing page in an effort to maximize ROI. Walgreens’ marketing team was no exception.
But then came COVID-19. For Walgreens, suddenly, the goal wasn’t about sales; it was about health and safety. At the beginning of the pandemic, they had to notify everyone about things like testing opportunities and safety protocols. Then, when vaccines became available, Walgreens found itself in a race against time to get as many people vaccinated as possible. The stakes for those opens and clicks were suddenly very high. Marketers often say to each other, â€œIt’s just marketing â€” we’re not exactly saving lives here.â€ But lives had become very much at stake.
â€œIf we only have one shot to get customers to engage and get a vaccine today, how can we put our best foot forward?â€ wondered Brian Tyrrell, senior director, customer marketing platforms â€“ CRM at Walgreens. â€œWe knew that our largest owned channel in terms of reach was our email channel. We had the opportunity to communicate with 50 million customers there. So when we started rolling out communications about testing, and then the vaccine, it was never more important to ensure that these customers were opening that content.â€ Fortunately, Walgreens had invested in an AI technology called Brand Language Optimization. This AI writes short-form copy for brands to use in things like email subject lines, push notifications, headlines, CTAs, etc.
How Brand Language Optimization Helped Improve Email Open Rates
AI has been able to generate human-sounding language for several years now, thanks to natural language generation (NLG). But what sets Brand Language Optimization technology apart is that the algorithm is trained specifically on a language model unique to each brand. Much has been made of GPT-3 recently. While it’s terrific tech, it doesn’t take into account the subtle nuances of a brand’s unique voice, tone, and identity, so what’s produced can be off-brand, too similar to competitors, or even offensive.
Brand Language Optimization avoids all this by working from a more tailored, customized dataset taken directly from a brand’s past communications. Then, natural language processing (NLP) is applied to analyze the language model to determine which messages will work best and hands the baton to NLG to construct the language variants for testing. Once the variants have been tested, and the resulting data is gathered, machine learning is always there in the background, making sure that each iteration is better than the last. It’s the kind of robust test-and-learn approach that marketers know they should be doing more of but can’t ever seem to find the time for. Why find the time when you can have a machine do it all for you?
The result is AI-generated language that sounds like a human wrote it, and more importantly, a human that works in that brand’s marketing department (and a human who isn’t overwhelmed by the flood of content they’re required to produce each day at scale across dozens of marketing channels). But it doesn’t just sound authentic; it also delivers real, provable results in the form of increased opens, clicks and conversions. Great news if you’re trying to drive more ROI on a sales promotion; even better when you’re trying to get critical information about a lifesaving vaccine out to millions.
When Brand Language Optimization was applied just to Walgreens’s email subject lines, it worked beautifully. Open rates increased by 30%, which meant about a third more people opening, clicking, and booking their vaccine appointments. Since April, there’s been a steady decline in COVID-19 casesOpens a new window in the U.S., thanks in large part to the vaccine rollout in which Walgreens played a key part.
Walgreens is still focused on ensuring everyone gets their vaccine. But now that the world is opening up again, they’re thinking beyond the vaccination campaign to see where they can use Brand Language Optimization next. There’s a focus on bringing the technology to every possible point in the customer journey. As Tyrrell puts it, â€œWhat’s next? How can we use this for app push messaging? How can AI power the content within our emails instead of just the subject lines? So we’re really expanding into other areas.â€
AI can be used to solve problems big and small, and Brand Language Optimization was just one of the many AI tools deployed in the fight against COVID-19. Now, as the world returns to some kind of normalcy, we can focus on less dire things, like using AI to drive ROI from the next sales campaign. Yes, it’s a relief, but it’s also a new challenge for a new day.