13 December

How AI Is Helping Virgin Holidays Improve Their Email Marketing ROI

By The Caybon Creative Team

Last year, the marketing team at Virgin Holidays was struggling. Its email marketing campaign wasn’t doing as well as it should have. Sure, its in-house copywriters could capture the brand’s fun, quirky, and adventurous style. But for some reason, their email campaigns had plateaued and weren’t giving them the results they wanted.

Then Saul Lopez, Virgin Holidays’ Customer Lifecycle Lead, decided to see if AI could help.

Needless to say, others in the marketing department were skeptical. But once the results started to come in, they were surprised, not just by the numbers, but by what AI had to teach them about writing and creativity. It’s a lesson that all of us in the content marketing game would do well to learn.

First Improvement: Getting the Company to Start Testing Email Subject Lines

Among the challenges that Virgin Holidays had been facing is one you might not expect: The company was hesitant to A/B test things like email subject headlines.

The company’s busy marketing schedule happened to include an extensive approval process. In fact, it took so long that by the time the creative team was able to get something approved, it was already time to publish, leaving testing an unattainable luxury.

So Lopez decided to bring in Phrasee to automate and optimize the marketing team’s email subject lines. Phrasee’s AI-powered tech looks at phrases, sentiments, and emotions and pulls them together to predict the kind of copy its clients’ audience will respond to.

Lopez explains, “What we did was give Phrasee our tone of voice, which then allowed the AI to create a language that was specifically for us and our campaigns.”

The speed of the software and the extensive results it provides allowed Virgin Holiday to finally have the time to test subject lines and start improving their open rates.

Second Improvement: Overcoming Human Bias

One of the things that Virgin Holidays was most skeptical about was AI’s ability to come up with creative solutions. And as a result, its marketing team didn’t initially trust the headlines that Phrasee’s AI came up with.

In fact, it took a few months before they stopped fiddling with Phrasee’s subject lines. Because of this, those early headlines weren’t much different than what the team would have come up with on its own. And the results weren’t much better, either.

But once the team let Phrasee do its thing, the results started improving.

One noticeable quality of the AI-optimized subject lines was that they were often lines that most copywriters wouldn’t have thought to try.

Lopez explains, “The company would never go into a sale weekend without promoting it in email subject lines, so if we had 20 percent off running, we would always mention it. When we started using Phrasee, we actually realized that these subject lines were not the strongest ones.”

Once it sunk in that Virgin’s open rates were improving, the marketing team was able to admit that their gut instincts weren’t always right. They learned to forget what they thought works and let Phrasee do what actually works.


In a matter of weeks, Virgin Holidays’ open rates increased 2 percent, which might not sound like much, but in terms of profits, it adds up. The new headlines added several million pounds to the company’s earnings, and the AI-optimized subject lines also increased brand awareness by 66 percent and web traffic by 33 percent.

Beyond the numbers, there were also lessons learned.

Lopez says that he realized that there’s no magic formula to subject lines and no one-size-fits-all solutions. So while, humans tend to stick with what has worked in the past (which leads to a repetitive approach and lower open rates over time), AI focuses on what’s working right now.

It’s also always learning.

Lopez explains, “Over the years, the algorithm has got better and better and we have seen improvements year on year. There’s no single subject line or word that works the best, because it always depends on the campaign. That’s the thing with true machine learning, it learns and changes over time. This means that just because something worked last year, it doesn’t mean that it will work again now.”

The Future

So with AI outperforming humans in writing email subject lines, what does the future hold? Will it slowly take over every corner of content marketing?

Phrasee’s CEO, Parry Malm, says “no.” He recently reminded people that AI is just a “collection of technologies that perform tasks equal to or more effectively than humans.” If we allow AI to do what it is best at and concentrate what we’re best at, our content marketing campaigns can only become more successful.

As for Virgin Holiday, will the company expand its use of AI beyond this email subject lines?

Lopez says, “We are talking about chatbots at the moment. We know that click-to-chat has increased, in fact, demand has increased 250 percent lately. Sometimes, we don’t have enough resources, so we’re trying to figure out ways to automate some of those queries to provide better service to our customers.”

What do you think? Are you considering using AI to enhance your email or content marketing campaigns?

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