Why starting small has paid big email marketing dividends for Virgin Holidays

Customer lifecycle lead at tours and travel operator shares how a small investment into automating email subject lines has lead to an overhaul of all customer communications

The decision to start small and gain quick email wins through AI-powered subject lines and content choices has given Virgin Holidays’ customer lifecycle leader the leadership buy-in to transform its entire communications approach.

Virgin Holidays is a UK-based company providing a range of holiday packages and services to consumers online and through a physical store network. Its customer lifecycle lead, Saul Lopes, told CMO the decision to bring on Phrasee’s AI-powered email subject line creation tool, as well as Movable Ink’s automated content software, was about gaining a quick way to improve process, automation and engagement around email marketing campaign and communications.

With a small team overseeing marketing, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to test creative, subject lines or variations of email. In addition, compiling and approving creative and content was slowing down the email production process.

With plans to overhaul its online user experience and grow digital sales to 50 per cent of revenue by 2020, it was clear Virgin Holidays needed to innovate its approach to email marketing, the second-largest generator of revenue for the group.

“When I joined the business, we had legacy IT systems and technology, and we wanted to change our approach and process,” Lopes said, noting 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.

“Your subject line is your headline; it’s the first thing that attracts the customer. It was about bringing engagement up quickly without changing our systems.”

Phrasee’s AI-powered software uses natural language generation and deep learning capability to automatically generate subject lines that adhere to brand style and guidelines. Importantly, the technology optimises and evolves based on previous engagement results. The number of subject lines varies based on database size, expected effect sizes and metrics such as historical data.

“With Phrasee, we didn’t initially trust the AI 100 per cent, so we were fielding suggestions ourselves,” Lopes explained, adding results didn’t significantly improve. “It was only by letting the AI do its thing that we saw incremental rise in results. We saw a 2 percentage point rise in open rates.”

For Virgin Holidays, this literally equates to millions of pounds of incremental revenue. A single campaign, for instance, resulted in a 21 per cent open increase and 39 per cent click increase versus the human control cell.

Virgin Holidays now uses Phrasee across more mass communications, such as sales and offers and major newsletters. It works with Phrasee to share specific language requirements for communications a month in advance, to ensure subject lines are relevant for that campaign. Within 30 seconds, 10 brand compliant subject lines are generated.  

“For example, if we’re doing a weather-based campaign, we funnel that request into Phrasee, and it changes the language so it fits,” Lopes said.

From a team point of view, the biggest benefit is time. “This has taken away all those conversations, meetings and back and forth discussions to decide on a subject line,” Lopes said. “We no longer have human bias in the organisation impacting this. It took away all that noise so teams can spend more time on content and offers.”

Personalising content

At the same time as rolling out Phrasee, Virgin Holidays brought on Movable Ink to automate and better personalise email content based on data.

With its first campaign, the platform allowed Lopes and his team to introduce five personalised elements: A consumer’s local store, event feed, hero image, and available appointment times in the relevant store. The result was a clickthrough rate lift of 50 per cent.

Virgin Holidays also automated back-end processes with a custom API for pricing automation.

“We’ve also automated some content, such as that in our weather emails. For example, we can show what the weather is for each person in the database in their area and there’s no additional workflow to the team,” Lopes said.  

“It revamped our marketing so quickly. We’re using Movable Ink on all communication types, even transaction emails and booking confirmations. And it helps us manage the content more effectively. For example, we have 50 destinations to address. The tool automatically personalises changes to the email… we don’t have to readjust the campaign or the record, just set it up once.”  

The next step for Lopes is to better integrate the two technologies, employ Phrasee’s AI capability on call-to-action button text and hero images, and tap Movable Ink’s optimiser tools. There are also plans to extend usage outside of email.

Starting small secures the big wins

But it’s what these two technologies have done culturally within Virgin Holidays that arguably presents Lopes and his team with the bigger long-term gain.

Thanks to the success of these two adhoc tools, Lopes has been able to open the door to more significant, transformative investment. Notably, the rollout of Adobe Campaign not just for managing marketing communications, but across the entire customer lifecycle.

“The quick wins helped us gain confidence in the changes we were making. And this led us to secure funding to rollout Adobe Campaign as a result and change our email platform,” Lopes said.

“People often want to start on the big wins and projects, but before you do that, you need to prove yourself first. The organisation saw the improvements we were making, and that created the desire for major change. Incremental delivery was much better than trying to undertake a two-year transformation straight away and only get the benefits later.”

Phrasee and Movable Ink were deployed in late 2015, and the Adobe Campaign rollout commenced in June 2016. The first phase took six weeks, and saw the management platform replace three standalone tools.

Now, Lopes and his team can do segmentation, creative and search and fulfilment in one place, along with workflow management. Integration between Adobe, Movable Ink and Phrasee was also straightforward.

In its first peak sales period after rolling Adobe Campaign out (December /January 2017), Virgin Holidays grew revenue by 33 per cent, and open rates by 60 per cent. One winter email campaign achieved a 67 per cent increase in people clicking for more information, a 50 per cent increase in retail store appointments, and a 22 per cent increase in margins.  

“It’s very powerful to have these technologies going together. Investment returned year-on-year gains, and very quick email creation,” Lopes said. “Previously, it was taking us a whole week to build emails. We’ve reduced this to one hour. Now each time we have last-minute need, we’re quick to react.”

The work also saw Virgin holidays reorganise customer data in a way that’s easy to use, Lopes said.

“We look at what is the customer experience needs from a communications point of view and reorganised the data to start that. We had 48 data tables, and we merged these into seven.”

Having a flat, easy-to-use process means any marketer can build campaigns, and no specialist skills are required to segment or translate customer data.

Since then, Virgin Holidays has moved all communications, including service, into Adobe Campaign, making the platform the group’s entire customer communications engine.

The fact the leadership team agreed to all customer communications being centralised in one platform off legacy, siloed systems, illustrates just how significant the transformation is and the good results it’s delivering, Lopes said.

“Everyone is onboard to take that forward. we and the service teams all using Adobe Campaign,” he said. “Next week, I’m training all overseas staff in this as well, and we’re slowly expending as customer communications across the organisation.”

For marketers looking to make a similar transformative change, Lopes said it’s important to get leadership and cultural buy-in first.

“More than ever, beyond the technology, it’s the leadership buy-in, having that remit and getting that support to make it successful,” he said. “Without it, you just won’t be able to put it together.

“We started small, and evolved into wholesale transformation. The team takes pride in that.”

Read more of CMO's in-depth case studies on brands utilising marketing technology with aplomb:

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