How to Apply AI to Email at Scale

Erica Salm Rench, Chief Operating Officer, Rasa.io (New Orleans, LA)

Erica Salm Rench is Chief Operating Officer at Rasa.io, a company that supports marketers, business owners, and large associations by applying AI to generate automated, smart, personalized email newsletters. Rasa’s mission? T0 better inform the world through relevant content.

Clients import their subscribers. Rasa plugs in subscribers’ super-relevant content – their own blogs, their own LinkedIn company page, their Facebook page, their Twitter profile – plus relevant external sources. From this rich pool of content, Rasa automatically selects which stories go to which subscribers . . . and refines that selection process as the system learns more about the individual subscribers.

Articles are first selected from sources a client trusts for content, then filtered by trusted keyword and topic. Through an editorial review window, the client can scan the engine-selected articles and deselect those that s/he does not want the AI to “potentially select for one of (its) subscribers.” Using much of publishers’ original metadata/article descriptions eliminates the need to rewrite introductory material or reformat content, saving time and a lot of headaches.

From the Rasa dashboard, a client can see in aggregate its audiences’ interests . . . across any period of time and range of articles and then drill down to see the click-responses of an individual. Rasa provides a way for clients to pull those insights into their own corporate systems.

A couple of years ago, Rasa launched a self-service model that allows companies to try the platform and “DIY the newsletter themselves.” In addition to large and small companies, Rasa works with largescale association organizations that often rely on events as important revenue streams. These need focused personalized email communications to optimize member engagement.

Erica can be reached on her company’s website at https://rasa.io/ or by sending an email to hello@rasa.io or erica@rasa.io

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Erica Salm Rench, Chief Operating Officer at Rasa.io based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Welcome to the podcast, Erica.

ERICA: Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

ROB: It’s excellent to have you here. Why don’t you give us a glimpse into the superpowers of Rasa.io? What do you all do? 

ERICA: Sure thing. At Rasa.io, we do AI for smart email newsletter generation. In the same way that, for better or worse, your social media feeds know what content to recommend to you based on your prior engagement, we recommend relevant stories to you in your emails.

We work with organizations large and small – anyone who needs a newsletter, which is pretty much anyone. They import their subscribers, start to plug in content sources that are super relevant to your subscribers – their own blogs, their own LinkedIn company page, their Facebook page, their Twitter profile. They plug all those things in along with some relevant external sources – maybe Harvard Business Review produces great business content that’s relevant to their space. That content starts flowing in, forms a rich content pool, and then from there we automatically choose which stories go to which subscribers and we get smarter as we learn more about those subscribers.

It’s not only personalized, really engaging content, a great way to engage with the organization’s brand, but it’s also automated, so it saves people a ton of time on the newsletter process. Newsletters can be a really unsexy task, so it makes that unsexy task a lot faster. [laughs]

ROB: I’m sure this exists on an entire spectrum. A lot of AI type work reminds me of self-driving cars and that sort of thing. There’s sort of a ramp-up of trust. First of all, getting somewhere is a lot of work. Writing a newsletter is a lot of work, to the point where people don’t want to do it. You might not walk somewhere that you drive, but you might not trust the self-driving car to get you all the way there. What is this on-ramp for a marketer or maybe a business owner to grow with trust in this system that’s going to send I-don’t-know-what to my customers? What’s it going to say to them? How do you build trust, and what’s that ramp look like?

ERICA: That is such a great question, and we get it a lot. AI is one of those things that you get out of it what you put into it. It’s the same with newsletters. It’s the same with a chatbot. The chatbot is only going to be as good as the training that’s put into it, and it’s the same with newsletters.

Essentially, the first level of trusting that the newsletter is going to be great is the fact that you get to put in your own sources. The AI is not going to go out and do a Google search query to find articles. It’s going to first draw from sources that you’ve said, “These sources produce content trusted to this space.” So that’s one thing.

Furthermore, you can take each of those sources and filter them down by trusted keyword and topic. To use the HBR example again, you might say, “I really like Harvard Business Review as a source, but only if HBR hits on the topic of marketing,” for example. From there, we’re pulling in the most relevant articles from your relevant sources.

After that point, you also can include an editorial review window where you can just scan the articles that have come in from the engine and deselect anything that you don’t want the AI to potentially select for one of your subscribers. So, there are lots of levels of control. The AI is selecting stories, but only from the list of stories that you’ve said, “These are okay for my subscribers.”

ROB: I see. At times am I picking the articles? Or have I done that just by picking the keywords and everything else? Can I mess with the newsletter before I send it just to make sure I like the articles that are in there?

ERICA: Absolutely, and most people do. Maybe you have 50 articles coming in from your preapproved sources; you might deselect a few of those that aren’t perfectly on brand. Or some people do reverse-engineer it and say, “These are 50 great articles, but I’m going to choose the 5 that I want everyone to get.” So, you can override the AI in that way. We don’t recommend it, but you certainly can use the system to your benefit because the curation aspect of our system is also really powerful.

ROB: Got it. Talk to me about the copy a little bit. What goes into the newsletter to describe the articles? If I’m fearing the Terminator and the machines taking over the world – 

ERICA: [laughs] Killer robots, right?

ROB: Yeah, I’m afraid of the article summaries too, and the headlines. How does that part get decided? What’s going to show up in the newsletter, what’s going to get clipped, what’s going to be linked out afterwards, that sort of thing?

ERICA: That’s another great question. We look to the publisher. We’re going to take in the publisher’s metadata or their published description of the article. In a lot of cases, that is a rich description that the blog publisher writes themselves, or sometimes by default it might be the first couple sentences of that blog. It’s going to be the publisher’s title that they assign, and it’s going to be the publisher’s primary image that comes along with that blog.

We’re going to pull in all of that great data, and, obviously, the publisher is going to want their article to look great, so we’re pulling from data that is really carefully thought of. And you can make tweaks to that if you want. You can impact the description of the article and have it be your own commentary on the article if you want, but you certainly don’t have to. So, it eliminates a lot of the newsletter production time that goes into rewriting article descriptions and resizing images and redoing a lot of the data that already can be done for you.

ROB: Not that we want to play around with the product all day, but I kind of do – when we get into the user, the recipient, clicking on the article, do we know what they clicked on? Do we even get a sense of how much they read it? Are we launching the article in a way where we can track what they do with it?

ERICA: To a certain extent you can do that within the dashboard, and then we also have an open API and several integrations that allow you to draw those insights into your own systems. What we’re doing with each article when it comes into the system is using natural language processing to “read” it and conceptualize it and say, “Okay, this Harvard Business Review article is about marketing and SEO and brand management.” So then when Erica or Rob engages with that article, we know that Erica and Rob are interested in those topics.

From there, in the Rasa dashboard, you can see on the aggregate what your audience is interested in across many, many, many different articles, across whatever time period you want. Then if you want those insights on the individuals, you can look up the individual and see what they’re clicking on. But if you want to say bring those insights into your own CRM, you could fire off a campaign based on everyone who’s interested in marketing.

ROB: Got it. Let’s get into the origin story a little bit. How did you come to be involved in Rasa, and where did the platform come from?

ERICA: There’s definitely a story around that. When I was in business school about 10 years ago – I can’t believe it’s been that long – Amith Nagarajan, who is the Chairman of Rasa, came to speak to one of my business school classes, but about his former company. So, I actually had engaged with him and talked to him about working for his former company called Aptify, a really popular association management system among many, many huge, largescale associations out there.

I still had school to do; I had another job that I had to finish out. So that opportunity didn’t quite work out and the timing wasn’t great, but then about four or five years later, he was spinning up this exciting Rasa opportunity, and he engaged me and talked to me about the potential of getting involved in email. For me, I was actually working at a digital agency at the time. I worked in a kind of agency that probably a lot of your listeners are working at, where we did everything online – SEO, front- and backend web dev, paid online ads. We did everything online. But the one thing that we didn’t touch was email because email is so hard to do in a quality way and at scale.

That’s why I thought to myself, “Oh, this Rasa.io thing, there’s some meat to this, because if you can do email at scale and personalize it without a ton of effort, there aren’t many people doing that.”

ROB: What role did you come into the business in, and what does the journey up to COO look like?

ERICA: I came in in more of a customer success and marketing capacity, and then as we grew, I really focused in on that customer success and helping our enterprise-scale customers succeed. We put in a lot of time in those campaigns. Something that’s interesting about AI tools is that, like you mentioned earlier, you really get out of them what you put in. We wanted our early customers to do exceptionally well, and I worked with my team on that.

As we grew the business, I evolved eventually into more of a business development role, and then more recently even more of a leadership role, and that’s what brought me to COO.

ROB: As you’re unlocking the COO role, what are you learning about the business and how to make it function well that might’ve been harder to see from elsewhere in the organization?

ERICA: Oh gosh, that’s such a great question. In my prior marketing agency role, I worked much closer with the developers. When I first started at Rasa, I didn’t work as closely with the developers and the engineers, and now, in this evolution to COO, I’m working again closely with developers and engineers, which has been really great. It’s allowed me to connect the dots – when I’m talking to a prospect or when I’m supporting one of my team members talking to a prospect who’s interested in the tool, there’s more of now, in my head, a direct connection with “Oh, let’s go talk to these folks who can directly impact the development of the product.” Being able to more easily connect those dots for me has been great.

And then of course all the financial stuff. It’s what I went to school for, so now I’m doing the nitty-gritty of the numbers. [laughs]

ROB: Sure. To pull on a little bit of a thread, since you are a product company, a lot of our guests are certainly on the services side; they talk about the pride of bootstrapping. That’s mostly the option you have as a services company. It’s not like a lot of agencies are – there’s some interesting stuff going on in funding and acquisitions, but mostly not the case. How are you and Rasa.io thinking about funding growth in the business? Do you have investors? Will you have more investors? How does that look?

ERICA: We are privately funded. We had the resources we needed to get off the ground, and now an exciting engine for growth is a self-service model that we launched a couple of years back which allows folks to come in, try the platform, DIY the newsletter themselves. So that’s another revenue stream for us, and then we also have the largescale association organizations that we work. The revenue from those has really fueled our growth as well.

ROB: That’s such an interesting market, those associations. I’m sure they’ve all needed email; now they just might not have as many events to talk about as they used to.

ERICA: Yeah. If you’re familiar at all with the space, you know that the events for associations are really important revenue streams, so they’ve had to look to outside tools, to digital tools like email, like personalized Rasa.io emails, to make sure that member engagement is still optimized.

ROB: What are you seeing from that vantage point? I know I certainly greatly valued our local marketing association, some of those meetings, some of those speakers, some of those conferences. They seem to be coming back slower than almost anything else out there. What are you seeing from your vantage point in when these associations are firing up? How many of them are doing events, how many of them are not doing events? What’s the trendline looking like?

ERICA: That’s a great question. The majority of the organizations that we work with who did virtual events in 2020 are now either doing hybrid or entirely in-person events for late 2021 and now 2022. Obviously, with the ascent of first Delta, then Omicron, there was a lot of uncertainty, so I think that’s why people still hung on to the dual virtual and in-person. We did also see that doing both is really hard. It’s like running two entirely separate conferences at the same time. I think the evolution is slowly but surely back to in-person events for folks that those were important revenue streams and tools for member engagement.

ROB: It’s been interesting. I’m in a dues-based membership organization where I think they feel the pressure to keep some sort of event going to drive value for members. They were doing hybrid for a while, and then they stopped. We have a distributed team, so some of my distributed team wasn’t getting their content anymore. I asked them why they killed the virtual option and they said that people were not showing up in person at all, and they were just coming in – if it was a two-hour event, they’d pop in for 30 minutes and disappear. So, it’s interesting seeing some of the hybrid stuff go further back than I ever thought it would, and go away in some cases where I thought we would continue to have an online option.

ERICA: Right. Yeah, they’re not just making their revenue from people paying fees to come join a conference, but they’re also making a lot of money from people like myself and other vendors who are interested in working with their members. Doing that virtually is much harder than having vendors come in person and share their services and have a booth. So yeah, I think there’s a lot of reason to eventually migrate back to in-person for the big associations.

ROB: Erica, with some time on the product side, with some time on the agency side, now with an ever-rising level of responsibility, if you were to go back into the agency world, what are some tools and some lessons that you would bring to bear in running a services organization, knowing what you know now?

ERICA: Oh gosh, that is such a good question. This is going to sound – this is very biased, but I would include something like a Rasa newsletter in all of our online packages because there just wasn’t a tool to do email well back in the day when we were developing our packages for clients.

I would also have wanted to be one of the earlier adopters of lots of those integration connectors. We use Zapier at Rasa. There was just a lot we did – we processized things really well at my agency, but I think that if we knew more about Zapier earlier on, or an Integrate leader or all those awesome connecting tools, our processes would have been so much tighter than they even were. So yeah, I think that would’ve been a major game-changer for us too.

ROB: Do you think that’s been more a matter of timing, or was some of that also being in more of a product mindset and maybe more of the team is more technical in a software company versus an agency?

ERICA: That’s a good question. I think it was both. I think it was a matter of timing because we developed a lot of our processes before tools like that were more mainstream. And I think you make a good point; even though we did have a bunch of developers on the team and we did have a bunch of technical analysts and technical SEO folks, we did still have a lot of content and graphic design and creatives who might not have been as comfortable with the integrator tools. But I think once those integrations are set up, then it becomes looped. Then anyone can use them.

ROB: Talent is always hard – you’ve mentioned working with developers in both roles. Competition for developer talent may be among the hardest of jobs to find people for, to keep people for. How do you think about creating an environment and a pattern of success for talent in general and software developers specifically? Because I have been one, and we’re a bit of a different breed.

ERICA: It’s so hard. We try to be really purpose-focused at Rasa. We try to really focus on our greater mission of better informing the world through relevant content. When people are rallied around that, it becomes much more exciting than getting emails out the door. So, we try to align our values to that greater purpose. We try to align a lot of the decisions we make to that greater purpose. It allows everyone a really good framework with which to make big decisions. I think that’s definitely helped at Rasa. We have a really good average employee tenure.

ROB: Very interesting. Email has been such an interesting channel over time. I think it falls in and out of fashion almost seasonally like the color white. It’s really something. Where do you think we are in the ebb and flow of email? What do you think it is that keeps us coming back to email?

ERICA: Oh, that’s such a good question. Email is not the fancy new car. It is not the Tesla of the digital marketing world by any means. But time and time again, it shows up as one of the top channels for encouraging transactions, for driving people to a website. Landing in people’s inboxes is a completely separate conversation, but your chances of landing in someone’s primary inbox as an email versus catching a glimpse of their eyes on a social media channel when you’re not doing paid is still much greater. For better or worse, people are glued to their inboxes. They wake up with their email, they go to bed with their email. We know that from the data. So even though it’s a dinosaur, it still is effective. [laughs]

ROB: It’s a really helpful dinosaur.

ERICA: It’s a helpful dinosaur, yes.

ROB: You probably think almost equal parts about artificial intelligence and email. Those are two very interesting things to pair together. Where do you see this kind of technology expanding? You’ve got this Rasa core of applying AI content to email, but where does it start to go next? What’s coming up?

ERICA: I don’t know so much if it’s next or just the way I’ve seen AI influence marketers’ lives. Even if it’s not the predictive piece of it – that’s not as tangible in terms of making people’s lives better – the automation that’s inherent in AI has made so many marketers’ lives better. Of course, there’s the Rasa tool, but then in terms of social media tools, back in the day we used Hootsuite to schedule our posts, but now there are so many intelligent social tools out there that recycle posts and also generate the snippet to social media. That’s just a little bit smarter than what I was doing five years ago.

And then there are tools like MarketMuse that do really great semantic optimization. Back in the day, SEO was a lot of keyword stuffing, and now there are tools out there that help you intelligently write content so that the search engines will identify it as authoritative, trustworthy, you look like the expert. It’s making things a little bit smarter. Nothing I’ve noticed has blown away the marketing world yet, but it’s these incremental adjustments that AI has helped with that have made things faster and smarter.

ROB: I’m so glad you mentioned MarketMuse. It was on the tip of my brain, and Aki from MarketMuse is a previous guest on the podcast. He came in to talk about it.

ERICA: Cool. I just did a webinar with Jeff Coyle over there.

ROB: I met Jeff first, actually. Jeff was the person people pointed me to, and then that led us to also having Aki on the podcast.

ERICA: Awesome.

ROB: I’m glad we closed the loop on that. Number one, I couldn’t remember it; number two, if they were your mortal enemy, I didn’t want to bring it up, perhaps. [laughs]

ERICA: Oh, no, not at all. We have an awesome tech exchange with them. We use their tool for our content and they use our tool for their newsletter.

ROB: Definitely have used their tool as well. You mentioned some tools to bubble up and bounce social content. Is there anything that’s most effective for you in that mindset? Any tools you’d recommend?

ERICA: Yeah. We use MeetEdgar, we use MarketMuse. Oh, I don’t know how much AI they’re using, but we use SEMrush too, for just looking at general search volume, keyword ranking. For anyone who hasn’t really done a lot of SEO or diving into the SEO world, I love SEMrush. It’s a great place to start with your keyword strategy.

Other tools – oh, for you, I’m actually curious if you’ve heard of – there’s an AI tool that’s on the tip of my tongue, but it’s for audio. They ingest your audio, they read the file, and then you can type edits. What is it called? It’s totally escaping me right now.

ROB: I do think I have seen that. I do not recall off the top of my head. We keep an eye on it. We put transcripts of every episode on the page with our episodes, but we actually looked at a bunch of AI tools for it, and when we first started, the quality just wasn’t there.

ERICA: It wasn’t there yet. Got it.

ROB: I haven’t reevaluated that recently; we have a phenomenal transcriber who hopefully will hear this. I don’t talk to her enough, but I hope she’ll be encouraged, because she’s just remarkable. Hopefully, she’ll be encouraged here, but we have a great human who transcribes.

ERICA: A great human. That’s so good.

ROB: And some things are really, really hard for AI – something like Rasa.io, the computer might not transcribe correctly, or something like MarketMuse. And then you get into SEMrush and you just totally blow their minds. They just don’t know what to do. But it’s all getting better. It’s going to get there.

ERICA: It’s getting better, right. It’s nothing like blowing people out of the water yet. I thought of the name of it. It’s called Descript. Have you heard of it?

ROB: Yeah, that’s right. The letter “D,” is that right?

ERICA: Yep. So, you have the same experience; there are a lot of tools out there that might not be complete game-changers yet, but just making people’s lives a little bit easier right now. And soon I’m sure there will be game-changers.

ROB: Absolutely. Erica, when people want to get in touch with you and with Rasa.io, where should they go? Although I think I tipped your hand on the second part.

ERICA: You can feel free to reach out to hello@rasa.io. You’re welcome to email me directly; I’m just erica@rasa.io. I’m always happy to answer people’s questions or direct them to folks that can do a better job than I can. [laughs]

ROB: This is great, Erica. Thank you for coming on. Thank you for helping us understand this topic.

ERICA: Sure thing.

ROB: We’ve got to keep on figuring it out, and you’re helping us. Congratulations on all that you all are doing at Rasa. I wish you the best.

ERICA: Thank you so much. Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate the time.

ROB: All right, be well. Thank you. Bye.

ERICA: Thank you.

ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.