Richard Turen
Richard Turen

Sometimes, if you listen carefully, you can tell when the canary in the coal mine goes silent. Change in the way that travel is sold will not come in the form of radical overnight change. Instead, we have to look for signals that may not, at first, have obvious implications for the transformation of the manner in which leisure travel is booked.

Does it end with OTAs or does it go in the opposite direction, with solid gains for the human touch and a significant backlash against those who would sell vacations like a Coca-Cola vending machine?

I noticed something the other day in the banking field that I want to share with you. Although generally unreported in the travel media, I think there may be something afoot that could have profound long-term implications in the way that travel is marketed and, therefore, sold.

It all started with a surprising announcement from JPMorgan Chase. It turns out that they had been secretly testing a machine, a "message machine" to be exact.

Just like any hotel brand, cruise line or tour operator, Chase had an offer and a concept it wanted its marketing department to design. It involved letting customers know that they can get cash for important purchases out of their home equity.

JPMorgan did what any travel company would do; it asked its marketing team to design an online ad campaign to produce large numbers of inquiries for this profitable enterprise. The marketing team did and came up with an ad that trumpeted "Access cash from the equity in your home." Fair enough.

But then JPMorgan Chase did something else, and therein lies the story. They also asked the start-up, Persado, to attack the same problem.

Persado uses the latest generation artificial intelligence (AI) to reach clients and potential clients. Humans would not write the copy, it would all come from their message machine with a vocabulary of some 1 million words. Score would be kept; it would be simple to measure, number of clicks. Persado's machine-produced copy used the line "It's true -- You can unlock cash from the equity in your home."

The machine and the humans over in headquarters used the same customer database. They know who they were trying to reach and they knew a bit about them. But who would be able to best tap into the "emotional appeal" that any advertising message must employ?

The results were somewhat shocking. and I think we all ought to pay attention. The machine-generated copy almost doubled the number of responses that human copywriters were able to muster.

Chase saw it all as a way to personalize ad copy to individuals in ways that a human marketer or travel agent never could. The machine's ability to use AI to truly personalize each message based on purchased profile information was so impressive that JPMorgan Chase signed a five-year deal with Persado. In some of the tests, Chase saw a 450% increase in click-through rates versus human copywriters.

So what's next? A 2018 study by BrightEdge found that 60% of Fortune 500 companies intend to use AI going forward to deliver "more human, personalized" messages to their clients. Among the companies cited were American Express and Air Canada.

And the takeaway? Could it be that, going forward, machines will be better equipped to more effectively interact with our clients than we are?

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