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As of May 18, nearly 40% of the U.S. population had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with close to 50% having received at least one shot. But outreach remains a major challenge. McKinsey estimated in December that vaccine adoption would require “unprecedented” public and private action and incremental investment of about $10 billion. Highlighting the unevenness in the rollout, a lower percentage of Black Americans than of the general population had been vaccinated by March in every state reporting statistics by race.

Governments at the local, state, and federal levels are involved in distributing and administering vaccines, alongside private-sector partners like pharmacy chains, grocers, and retailers. Among those is Walgreens, which now offers same-day COVID-19 vaccine appointments in most of its U.S. retail locations.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Walgreens aimed to ensure that it had strong customer engagement and high open rates of its email communications on vaccine availability. To meet this goal, the company partnered with Phrasee, an AI-powered copywriting platform, to create a targeted email marketing campaign for customers.

AI-powered marketing

When McKinsey surveyed 1,500 executives across industries and regions in 2018, 66% said addressing skills gaps related to automation and digitization was a “top 10” priority. Forrester predicts that 57% of business-to-business sales leaders will invest more heavily in tools with automation.  And that’s perhaps why Salesforce anticipates the addressable market for customer intelligence will grow to $13.4 billion by 2025, up from several billion today.


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According to loyalty and personalization director Brian Tyrrell, Walgreens leveraged Phrasee’s technology to create more engaging subject lines and bodies that reflected the right degree of urgency. “We knew that our largest owned channel in terms of reach was our email channel. We had the opportunity to communicate with 50 million customers there. So when we started rolling out communications about testing, and now the vaccine, it was never more important to ensure that these customers were opening that content,” Tyrrell said in a statement.

Phrasee, which was founded in 2015 by Neil Yager, Parry Malm, and Victoria Peppiatt, offers an email “optimization” product that combines AI and computational linguistics to generate, automate, and analyze language in real time. Phrasee tailors language for email subject lines, in-body copy, and calls-to-action, reminding customers about things like abandoned shopping carts and important sale announcements.

Walgreens tapped the Phrasee platform in March 2020 to change its use of emojis in emails. The goal was to make sure “urgent” emojis, like the red alarm bell, were being used in a way that matched the level of severity covered in the content.

“The folks at Phrasee helped us understand how customers were engaging with different parts of those subject lines, to know where to tone down and where to tone up certain parts of our brand language. We also made everything much more simplified so that customers could digest the content of our emails as easily as possible,” Tyrrell said.

While the platform helped Walgreens simplify its emails, Phrasee’s team also partnered with the retailer to make sure the tone of its campaign was appropriate. Specifically, Walgreens altered some of the “fun” language that felt tone-deaf during the early pandemic.

“One of the most important elements is that we (Walgreens) maintained a very consistent and authentic tone of voice. We take a lot of this feedback loop that we get from Phrasee to roll back up into how we develop brand tone as a brand in its entirety,” Tyrrell said.

Expanded partnership

Walgreens said it saw a 30% increase in email open rates after implementing Phrasee’s suggested changes. This means 30% more customers received info on available vaccine appointments — and potentially up to 30% more customers scheduled a vaccine.

Since March, Walgreens has expanded its partnership with Phrasee beyond optimizing email subject lines. Now, the retailer and Phrasee, along with Adobe, are helping optimize messaging throughout the customer experience.

“Phrasee’s really good at subject lines. But what’s next, how can we use this for app push messaging? How can you power the content within our emails instead of just the subject lines? So we’re really expanding our partnership into other areas,” Tyrrell said. “If we only have one shot to get customers to engage and get a vaccine today, how can we put our best foot forward?”

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