Taken from an article by John McCormick, Wall Street Journal


Humana Inc. has employed artificial intelligence to come up with persuasive language in emails sent to customers to encourage more of them to get flu shots—and it is seeing higher open and click-through rates.

The Louisville, Ky.-based health insurer serves more than 16 million customers, including four million Medicare Advantage members. Medicare Advantage plans are administered by private insurers. These plans typically offer lower out-of-pocket costs than traditional government-run Medicare in exchange for members using in-network doctors and hospitals.

Seniors are at the greatest risk of coming down with the respiratory illness. Those 65 and older accounted for 86% of flu-related deaths and 69% of hospitalizations in the 2017-18 season.

The flu season usually peaks between December and February.

Flu shots are an important part of keeping Humana members healthy and lowering health-care costs, said Jennifer Bazante, the company’s chief marketing officer. For years, it thought it was doing a good job getting members to take preventive measures, but wanted to see if it could improve its messaging and engagement rates, Ms. Bazante said.

In 2016, Humana started working with New York-based software company Persado Inc., which offers a cloud-based AI tool designed to make marketing messages more effective. The following year, Humana decided to use the tool on its flu-shot email campaign.

For the email subject line, Humana employees came up with the phrase “Be sure to protect yourself and your loved ones this flu season.” Running that language through Persado resulted in the recommendation that Humana go with “[first name] we’re serious about protecting you this flu season.”

The changes might seem subtle, but as Ms. Bazante explains, the phrase “we’re serious” conveyed a sense that the company was committed to its members’ well-being.

The results were significant. The Humana message had an open rate of about 20%, while the Persado message had an open rate of 31%. And more people clicked through. The Persado message had a click-through rate of 0.83%, more than double the rate for the original Humana message, 0.41%.

“We have found, through in other research as well, that the emotional element cause the consumer to respond. It creates a sense of trust,” Ms. Bazante said.

The company said it can’t yet measure whether more members received flu shots, but it is working on it. Still, the email click-throughs points to members being more engaged in their health, a precursor to behavioral change, it said.

When a Persado customer comes up with wording for a particular campaign, it enters the phrase into Persado’s platform. The system analyzes the words to determine their meaning. Persado then uses a form of AI called natural language generation—which taps a repository of more than 1 million tagged words and phrases in English, ranked by how well they performed in other client campaigns—to create a series of new messages. Those new messages are then tested on real customers.

Persado analyzes the responses—clicks, conversions or other engagement metrics—and produces a message designed to generate the greatest response. The system can make suggestions in 25 languages.

“We see which elements work better,” said Alex Vratskides, Persado’s chief executive.

Forrester Research Inc. analyst Brandon Purcell said Persado’s offering is unique. Until recently, he said, messaging was left to what marketers thought worked best. “Persado is changing the game by actually creating that content and deciphering which content is going to resonate with which types of customers algorithmically,” he said.

Ms. Bazante said the Humana marketing team, which was used to trusting its instincts, needed to get accustomed to using an automated process.

“As you see the performance of those campaigns improved and the response of the members, and the engagement of the members, then it started to be much more easily adopted by other teams,” she said.

Humana, which has worked with Persado on more than 40 campaigns, including one promoting prescription refills, is making plans for about 20 more.