Artificial intelligence and the future of copywriting, in conversation with eBay’s Molly Prosser
by Donna-Marie Bohan
9 minutes read time | 3 July 2019
Phrasee CEO and Co-founder Parry Malm recently sat down with eBay’s Associate Creative Director Molly Prosser to discuss what she’s learned about the evolving relationship between human copywriters and AI-powered short-form marketing language, since she and the eBay team decided to put their fears aside and embrace the awesome power of artificial intelligence…
Short on time? Here are a few quick takeaways
1. AI-powered copywriting is being adopted by creative teams to optimize language at scale, freeing up copywriters to focus on higher concept creative thinking, strategy and innovative campaigns.
2. Challenges to AI adoption include copywriters’ concerns about job destruction and AI negatively impacting marketing quality and brand perception.
3. Contrary to existing fears and perceptions, creative teams at big brand advertisers like eBay are getting comfortable with AI-powered tools to stay relevant and marketable in their careers.
4. Change has happened before and it will happen again. Brands in the past have often struggled with differentiating new tech and what it can do for them. Language AI is another tool in the creative toolbox and the next wave in copywriting and creative success.
5. The shift to personalization and relevancy is already happening. Marketing teams that will thrive in the future are the ones that have the foresight to invest in AI-powered tools that apply science to language, enabling creatives to optimize customer interactions at scale.
[Pictured above: Molly Prosser (left), eBay’s Associate Creative Director, and Parry Malm (right), Phrasee’s CEO]
Writing marketing copy that generates engagement and revenue for an ecommerce brand with tens of millions of subscribers is hard. At least, it’s hard to do consistently. For a massive global brand like eBay, which sends out email marketing campaigns to its subscribers on a fairly frequent basis, capturing and maintaining their attention represents a significant and important challenge.
Molly Prosser’s quest to build a repeatable, sustainable model for engaging eBay’s email audience took her down many different paths, but none led to the robust email marketing performance she and the eBay team were looking for.
Three years ago, however, Molly’s quest brought her face-to-face with AI-powered marketing language in the form of Phrasee, and all of that changed.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the recording.
A team’s initial reaction to AI-powered copywriting
Parry: Why did eBay take the decision to experiment with AI-driven marketing copy?
Molly: We were looking for a way to optimize at scale. That’s a boring way of saying we wanted to do more with our creative without having to put tons of effort into it. That’s what initially brought us to the Phrasee table. It took some convincing for us and our creative team to really embrace and adopt it.
Parry: What was the team’s initial reaction to the idea? What concerns did you and your copywriters have about implementing an AI language tool into its marketing strategy?
Molly: My background is in copywriting. I have an MFA, as do a lot of the marketing copywriters at eBay.
There were two areas of concern when we first talked about bringing in language AI:
1: Our copywriters wondering if robots were coming to take their jobs away.
2: We had concerns around how implementing AI would impact the quality of our marketing and eBay’s overall brand perception.
Overcoming fears and negative perceptions
Parry: How did you answer those questions to assuage your team’s fears that they would be put out of work?
Molly: That’s an easy one for me to combat. Not to be flippant, but if you think this AI is going to take your work away, then you’re not thinking creatively. Ultimately, this is going to be a tool for you, to free you up to do the kinds of copywriting and the kinds of creative thinking that we all want to do. I ask those copywriters who are nervous about this cutting into their own workload ‘What kind of work do you want to be doing? Do you want to be writing 150 subject lines for emails, or do you want to spend your time thinking about the next innovative campaign that we’re going to be putting out?’ Ultimately, they always pick the latter.
Parry: What about the team’s concerns about quality and brand perception? How did your team push past those?
Molly: That’s a valid concern. We’ve all seen and heard bad language AI. That sits on the heart of a copywriter and makes them very nervous and afraid. I get it. I really do get it, and I appreciate it. But instead of worrying about that, I invite them to be part of the solution. How can we improve the quality of this tool? How can we make it more brand-appropriate? Phrasee allows us to do that. So if we’re seeing things that we don’t like, we can have a hand in shaping what that tool can do for us. Once we re-set the way that they’re thinking about it, it becomes a way more engaging conversation with the copywriter.
Times have changed but they’ve changed before
Parry: Are there comparable technologies in other creative fields that have been a source of fear for the folks working in that space?
Molly: I have said before that Phrasee is to copywriting what Photoshop is to design. I have teams of designers sitting here right now, and no-one has a pen and a pad. Everyone’s on Photoshop. Photoshop is a tool that has been perfected and we’ve spent more time with it and we’re much more comfortable with it.
It’s about getting copywriters to think of Phrasee and the whole idea of language AI as a tool. A tool that they can use to do their jobs better. Spellcheck is a tool. Copywriters are comfortable with spell check and grammar check. This is just the next step. It’s just the next mind hurdle we as copywriters need to get past.
Enabling and empowering marketing teams to thrive now and into the future
Parry: What is your experience and philosophy when it comes to applying AI technology to copywriting, which was previously perceived as such a uniquely and quintessentially human domain?
Molly: Language is a puzzle that we’re trying to piece together so that we can come up with something beautiful. I think that’s what this type of AI is doing.
The eye-opening component that Phrasee has brought to me and my team is about human bias. That unbelievable capability that we have as humans to think that we’ll intrinsically know what language will resonate with another human, which just isn’t true.
All the time I’ve spent lingering over the length of a subject line, wondering ‘Is this word more engaging, or is this word more engaging’, or ‘How do I convey urgency without seeming too cliché’. The hours I’ve spent editing and having team members pour over these things. It’s just meaningless work when we have a piece of AI that can do that for us.
This technology is nothing to be scared of. We have that narrow focus, and we’re pinpointing the problem that we have. It’s a puzzle that we’re solving. The real thing that people are scared of is that we’re taking the humanity out of our copywriting. If you’re a brand that is devoid of humanity, then you’re not going to be a brand for very long. You need people for that humanity to come through. You need creative thinkers to do that thinking instead of just writing all these subject lines.
Parry: From a creative standpoint, how does this type of technology fit into future-proofing a big global company like eBay?
Molly: As a copywriter/creative for any brand, digital or otherwise, there is this line you have to ride between art and business. At the end of the day, we are beholden to the needs of the business, so we need to think about things like optimization. How do we scale? How do we make sure we’re targeting the right customers?
Personalization is so massive right now. It’s coming at us from all angles. How can we as a small and scrappy team talk to the millions and millions of customers that we have like we’re only talking to them? That’s a real challenge, and the only way we’re going to be able to overcome it is with technology like Phrasee. We have to get comfortable with it, because it’s already happening. If we can’t adopt this, then we as a brand will get left behind.
On a more personal level, if we as creatives don’t know how to use these types of tools, then our careers will start to stagnate as well. If we’re going to make ourselves marketable in the future, we need to get comfortable with these tools now.