We’re all aware that artificial intelligence (AI) is predicted to transform every sector of the economy, and marketing is no exception. Already, the industry is using this new technology to analyse data or give product recommendations to customers.
Of course, as adoption of the technology increases, so too is anxiety over the future of jobs. Many workers fear that AI-powered robots might replace them.
But what about the actual creation of ads? Surely that will remain the preserve of humans?
Not necessarily, as I find out when I sit down with the co-founder and chief executive of Phrasee, Parry Malm. His company has developed a technology that can write marketing copy for email subject lines, push notifications, and Facebook ads – and this AI-generated text outperforms copy written by humans.
How Phrasee works
Phrasee’s platform consists of two parts. First, it has a natural language generation system that can write natural-sounding marketing copy. Second, it has a deep-learning engine which can take this generated copy and – using years’ worth of data that the company has accumulated – predict which phrases will be most effective at getting people to open an email or click on an ad.
“What you want is a small amount of copy that’s highly effective,” explains Malm.
“This is an area that humans are quite poor at. If you’re given a set of, say, 10 different ways of saying the same thing, humans – at scale – cannot predict what’s going to be good and what’s going to be bad. With Phrasee, you click a button and the machine produces a whole bunch of copy and then says ‘use this one, it will work the best’.”
Malm compares his tech to Photoshop, which had a massive impact on the design profession when it became widespread in the 1990s.
“It was a technology which helped designers to be much more effective at their jobs. Something that was innately human was enabled by advanced technology to allow humans to become better at it,” he says.
“Fast-forward to 2015 (when Phrasee was founded) and copywriting was thought to be uniquely the domain of humans. But we disagreed. We started Phrasee to be to copywriting what Photoshop is to designers.”
Artificial intelligence and brands
Phrasee boasts a range of high-profile clients. It has worked with brands such as Virgin Holidays and Dominos for several years, and helped the website Gumtree increase the engagement rate of its email marketing campaign by 35 per cent. In fact, it’s highly likely that you’ve read copy created by Phrasee’s AI.
“Over a billion people worldwide have experienced our technology without knowing it,” Malm claims.
When I first read about the company, I was reminded of Tay, a Microsoft chatbot released in 2016. It was meant to learn and evolve by interacting with Twitter users, but shortly after it was launched it was manipulated via some trolls into spreading hateful, toxic messages.
I ask if Phrasee’s tech could be manipulated in a similar way, but Malm assures me that this is not the case.
“Tay was a pure, straight-through, neural-network-based system. While that sounds good in principle, its benefit is you can produce all sorts of content at scale, but the main downside is that you don’t have any control over that content,” he explains.
”Our generation model uses some neural elements, but we inject levels of human control into it also, to return a language which is outputted that’s on-point and accurate to a brand’s value.”
Malm adds that while someone could use Phrasee to send outrageous messages to provoke engagement, this strategy would only deliver a short-term boost at the expense of long-term trust and reputation.
“If we were short-termist, if we had technological myopia, then we would just find the most click-baity thing possible to get you as many email opens as possible, but then brands like Virgin and Dominos wouldn’t have been using us for as long as they have,” he adds.
So will robots replace marketers?
Copywriters reading this article might feel a chill down their spine. Could Phrasee put them out of a job? Malm doesn’t think so.
“Back in the day, designers were decrying the adoption of photoshop, saying that this was going to make them redundant. And now there’s more designers than ever before, directly because of Photoshop and similar technology,” he reflects.
“This technology is coming and you can either fight it and be a luddite, or accept it and make sure that you’re an expert in using it, because in 20 years’ time we’re going to be talking about Phrasee the same way we talk nostalgically about Photoshop in the 90s.”
Looking at the rest of the sector, what is Malm’s prediction for the future of AI in marketing?
“If you look today, what you will find is that every marketing technology firm under the sun will have AI on their website somewhere – but most of them don’t do anything, they don’t have any actual AI. There’s going to be a lot of snake oil salesmen, who’ll make a lot of money in the short term,” he warns.
“In the long term, there will be a few companies who offer real transparent added value who’ll stand the test of time. Knock on wood, we’re that company.”
Certainly, AI is having a major impact on marketing, but tools like Phrasee seem designed to enhance what copywriters and creators are doing, rather than replace them.
By automating certain tasks, like writing email subject lines, copywriters can focus on making the email’s content more engaging. Instead of imagining that robots will replace workers in the ad industry, perhaps we should imagine cyborgs – a fusion of marketer and machine.
Main image credit: Oli Scarff / Getty Images