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The automated copywriter has arrived

By Paul Kitcatt

July 18, 2016 | 7 min read

Earlier this year, a computer beat a world champion at the game of Go. It’s a big deal, because while winning at chess just needed a computer fast enough to analyse all the possible moves in any given situation, ‘the size of the search required for Go is larger than chess by more than the number of atoms in the universe’. So the computer couldn’t win by brute force; it had to learn to play the game, and it got better and better over time.

Meanwhile, a robot receptionist debuted in a Japanese department store:

So it’s no surprise to learn that copywriters are next up for replacement with artificial intelligence. A company called Automated Insights will "produce personalized narratives at any scale – stories that are completely tailored to each reader and sound like a person wrote each one individually".

I’m not sure that sentence sounds like a person wrote it, and the word ‘individually’ stuck on the end protests a little too much. But it has a program called Wordsmith, and it turns spreadsheets into narratives, of a sort.

Meanwhile, over at Persado, "[Our] cognitive content platform is a smart system that combines natural language processing and machine learning technologies to machine generate the precise words, phrases and images that can inspire any given audience to act, every time.

"Persado’s cognitive content outperforms man-made messages 100%* of the time.’

Persado has some big clients, and its approach is like old-school direct marketing on steroids. Email marketing is one specialism, and it tests everything. Its machines can generate subject lines in vast quantities, and go on doing it long after any human copywriter would have given up and gone to the pub. I think this is what it means by "The platform eliminates the random process behind traditional message creation."

The subject lines are just the start. The whole message can be put together by machines, and all its components tested, so you get the guaranteed best combination of words to inspire action. Which is its recurrent theme.

If you think this all sounds frighteningly cold, go to its website. It’s a work of genius. Its promise is ‘hard science behind soft skills’ which will ‘turn information into inspiration,’ and it includes a news piece explaining why poets are necessary in tech companies. A cleverly baited hook for all us soft machines looking for some validation.

At the heart, if it has one, of its promise is its ‘Wheel of Emotions’. All marketers love a wheel, whether it’s one not to be re-invented, or a map of agency processes. This one allows you to choose an emotion you’d like to trigger, and then a computer will spit out phrases proven to get the right response. It says "the platform runs on 1m+ curated and tagged emotional and motivational words, phrases and images collected over several years and scored against response data from 40+ billion impressions."

In other words, it knows what works. You want an emotion; they know how to get it.

When I first encountered this, I went through a wheel of emotions all of my own.

Creatives, as I’ve said before, are paranoid, and rightly so. “They” really are out to get us. This website proves it. We are random humans, and machines will replace us, and be cheaper and far easier to manage.

Then I thought, wait, copywriters aren’t fond of writing emails. Maybe let the machines do it, leaving us with the more interesting work.

And then I thought about all the times I’ve listened to an automated apology from the dreaded Southern Railways, waiting with my youngest daughter for a train that’s always late. She and I often wonder who exactly is "sorry for any inconvenience caused" when it’s a pre-recorded message.

Nobody, that’s who. Which means the apology just makes you angrier.

An email from a machine designed to trigger an emotional response runs the same risk. It treats the reader as a rat in a maze, prodding and pushing you to the button that will give you the reward. If you spot the deception – there’s not actually a human writing to you – you are entitled to get angry.

But then I had a look at one or two examples of machine-generated subject lines, and they were in fact clearly better than the control lines, written by humans. Better as in more emotive, and more inspiring. I mean, it’s not poetry, but "We’ve got you covered" is better than "Leave roaming fears behind", and "Way to go" beats "Travel more", at least if you’re American.

I now reached the most depressing part of my wheel of emotions. Human copywriters aren’t as good as machines. What’s going on? I think the answer is this: copywriters have trouble getting emotive lines approved, because the dead corporate hand suppresses them, to the point where the writers install a policeman in their own heads who prevents them from even trying to be emotive; but Persado can prove, with solid science, that emotive lines work better.

Not only that, but its wheel identifies a lot of emotions, and it puts the onus on the client to think beyond just a sales target or ROI. It asks them to think harder about the exact feelings they want to inspire. This is not a bad thing.

The output, though, is all a bit homogenous. You get different emotions, but all in the same tone of voice. All brands end up sounding the same.

I’d like to believe we can take the science, use it to make a case for more emotive emails, and have humans write them so as to preserve and enhance brand differentiation. I’d also like to believe readers will spot the difference and respond accordingly.

And then I read, in New Scientist (2 July 2016), that at least a third of the tweets generated during our recent referendum came from automated social media accounts, and that 'the Brexit bots’ tweeted "more than three times as frequently as the Remain bots".

Never mind automated copywriters influencing my shopping. It turns out the referendum was also a robot war, and the winning side had superior numbers.

Just when you get wind of a new trend in technology, you find it’s already happened, and it’s changed your life forever.

Paul Kitcatt is a consultant chief creative officer

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