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Persado and Digitised Copywriting: Fad or Future?

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By now you’ve probably heard of Persado. It’s the software that writes your copy for you, and (it says) can do it better — claiming to outperform human-crafted messages 100% of the time.

For the (roughly) five thousand years that humans have been writing, we like to think we’ve gotten pretty good at it. So can a computer really do it better? Should copywriters be packing up their MacBooks and re-training as baristas?

The big question is: can it write? Persado’s ‘cognitive content’ platform deconstructs and analyses your copy before generating a new, optimised version, based on response data from 40+ billion ad impressions gathered across more than 4,000 marketing campaigns via Facebook, display ads, email and mobile. It highlights the emotional language you’ve used, intuits what you’re trying to achieve, and rifles through a few million possible semantic combinations before settling on the permutation that its data says will achieve the highest click-through rate.

So far, so Skynet.

Persado reports a 75 per cent rise in engagement across web, email, and social. This sounds hugely impressive, and all of their 80 global clients — including the likes of Microsoft, eBay, and American Express — have yet to refute it. The company was recently bolstered by £21 million worth of investments led by Goldman Sachs, bringing the running total from outside funding to over £46 million. For a company only 3 years old, Persado has quickly attained widespread credibility in a field many still write off as science fiction; in all likelihood, it’s here to stay.

But what’s really behind the numbers? Automation has already proved its worth in other areas of the industry, with programmatic buying and retargeting having gained firm footholds. Computers can even outthink us at strategy games. Only last month Google’s DeepMind program — AlphaGo — beat the world number two at Go (a game widely considered to be more complex than chess), in three consecutive matches. But with any automated system, things can go wrong — a system can’t account for context. It doesn’t know not to put an ad for flight sales beside a news story on a plane disaster, or an ad for funeral services under that of a care home. It can be intuitive, but it can’t be sensitive.

It promises a ‘consistent and continued lift in campaign performance’, but it can only fall short when it comes up against truly emotional, creative content that grabs attention and tells a story. Content production is often over-simplified to ‘storytelling’, but there’s an element of truth in that. Stories showcase human wit, beauty and innovation — and it’s this that we as consumers identify with. Can an automated system really replicate that?

Too good to be true? Probably.

Now that every company out there has to generate digital content to retain and grow their customer base, there’s a seemingly endless deluge of substandard content pouring onto the web. Does 75 per cent more engagement really mean better brand recognition, higher conversion, or is it just a marked improvement on a sea of already-weak content? Persado’s site is littered with too-good-to-be-true statistics, but until they define the parameters of ‘engagement’, these mean little.

There’s definitely a place in the industry for companies with quick, effective ways of creating marketing material, especially for the thousands of brands and businesses for whom content is an afterthought or a reluctant obligation. If what you aim for is ‘above average’, then Persado is for you. If you want crafted copy that rises to the top of the pile; that prompts engagement while building powerful, lasting relationships with clients and customers, then a copywriter is probably what you’re looking for.

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By Curtis Batterbee - 4th March, 2017.

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