Zipcast Episode 29: You Can Now Texta Santa: Here’s How

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It used to be that if you wanted to get in touch with Santa Claus you had to mail him a letter. And who’s to know if the letter even made it to the North Pole? Thankfully, those days are over. For the past five years, families have been sending their wish lists to Santa via text, and Santa even texts them back. On this episode, we speak with Natalie Schwab, director of content marketing at Zipwhip and Avery Wagar, a developer on Zipwhip’s engineering team. We discuss Zipwhip’s new text Santa experience and interactive chat bot, leveraging AI and Zipwhip’s texting platform. You can text Santa right now at: 844-YO-SANTA or 844-967-2682.

Featuring

Natalie Schwab
Natalie Schwab
Director of Content Marketing
Avery Wagar
IT Systems Programmer
Scott Heimes
Chief Marketing Officer

Scott Heimes:

Welcome to the Zipcast, where we talk about the latest trends in texting for business, customer communication strategies, and technology. I’m your host, Scott Heimes, chief marketing officer at Zipwhip. And thanks for tuning in.

Scott Heimes:

It used to be that if you wanted to get in touch with Santa Claus, you had to mail him a letter. And who’s to know if it even made it to the North Pole? Thankfully those days are over. For the past five years, families have been sending their wish list to Santa via text and Santa even texts them in return. Today, we’re talking with Natalie Schwab, Director of Content Marketing at Zipwhip and Avery Wagar, a developer on Zipwhip’s engineering team. They’re going to tell us about Zipwhip’s new text Santa experience and interactive chat bot, leveraging AI and Zipwhip’s texting platform. Stay tuned for a really interesting show. Natalie and Avery, welcome to the Zipcast.

Natalie Schwab:

Thanks for having me back. I’m excited to be talking about Santa today.

Avery Wagar:

Thanks, Scott.

Scott Heimes:

So, it’s great to have you guys both on the show. We’re going to talk about our Text Santa project, which is really cool and exciting. Natalie, let’s start off with you. Tell us about what you do at Zipwhip. You’ve been on the show before, but just a refresher.

Natalie Schwab:

Yeah. I’m Zipwhip’s Director of Content Marketing. So, my team is responsible for driving awareness of business texting as a communication tool. So, we publish everything from blogs and eBooks to webinars and podcasts like this one we’re doing now.

Scott Heimes:

Yeah. So, tell us about our Text Santa project. What’s the history, how did it get started and what’s exciting about this year?

Natalie Schwab:

Yes. So, this is one of my favorite projects that we get to work on every year. Zipwhip first text enabled Santa’s toll-free phone number back in 2015, because we heard that he was having a tough time keeping up with all of his snail mail at the North Pole. So, to keep the Christmas spirit alive and continue to respond to families, Santa turned to the technology that everybody loves, which is texting. So, his phone number is 844-YO-SANTA or 844-967-2682. And this is kind of what Zipwhip does, we help businesses reach their audiences faster through texting and we help them reduce the need for older technologies that may not be as effective anymore. So, for a business it’s often phone calls. For Santa, it was snail mail.

Scott Heimes:

Got it. That’s a great story. So, what’s the experience when you’re texting Santa?

Natalie Schwab:

Yeah. So, we really stepped up our game this year. Typically, when you Text Santa, you would just get an auto reply. That’s a quick response saying that Santa is really busy and he would send you over to a website where you could watch a video message from one of his elves. This year, we’ve made it much more interactive and engaging and we’ll talk about the actual technology a little bit later. But when we launched his text line in 2015, Santa received around 6,000 inbound texts and five later we’re sitting here on the 8th of December and Santa has already received more than 290,000 inbound texts.

Scott Heimes:

Wow. Awesome.

Natalie Schwab:

So, it’s been a hit to say the least.

Scott Heimes:

So, we also expanded the web experience and some other things, tell us about that.

Natalie Schwab:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, this year is really challenging for a lot of families. We wanted to give families an alternative to going and seeing Santa at the mall, which they’re not really going to be able to do this year. That’s such a big part of Christmas for a lot of kids, is going and seeing Santa in person and being able to share their wishlist, and with COVID, that’s just not going to be possible in a lot of states. So, it’s more important than ever to give kids another way to talk to Santa and experience some of that magic of Christmas at home.

Natalie Schwab:

So, we really stepped up our game this year, in addition to the texting experience, which we’ll talk about more in a little bit, we created our own online Santa workshop. So, families are looking for fun thing … safe things to do at home this year, and this page includes a lot of fun activities. Kids can go see video messages from Santa, there’s downloadable games and coloring pages. There’s a holiday quiz, a cookie recipe that Alison Roman was so nice to share with us. And we even have some downloadable Zoom backgrounds for all the kids who are doing school online this year. So, there’s a lot of really fun things to keep kids busy this Christmas.

Scott Heimes:

Yeah. We’re also donating $1 for each of the first 5,000 texts that come into Santa this year. That’s right.

Natalie Schwab:

Yep. Yeah. Organizations need the help more than ever, so that’s exactly right. We’re donating a dollar for each of the first 5,000 texts that come in and then we’re going to use that money to buy toys and supplies for patients and their families at Seattle Children’s Hospital here in Seattle.

Scott Heimes:

Cool. So, before we talk about some of the AI technology behind our Text Santa project, I bet you have some pretty good stories of people texting in, anything you could share with the audience?

Natalie Schwab:

Yeah. It’s actually pretty distracting to have the text line open, so I have to close it a lot of times because I just want to sit there and read all these cute texts that are coming in, but we’ve seen a few different things. The most common texts that we see is kids sharing what they want for Christmas. So, a lot of Baby Yoda this year, a lot of Legos, a lot of kids asking for really nice technology, which I thought was funny. But one of the really cute trends that we noticed right away is that kids are very interested in helping Santa with his naughty and nice list. So, a lot of times it’s a kid saying his little sister did something bad and should be on the naughty list. And then more often I would say, they’re texting in to say that their friend or their sibling deserves to be on the nice list, which is really heartwarming.

Scott Heimes:

Yeah. That’s a great story. Well, let’s shift over to the technology for a minute. So, Avery, you’re on the show today too and tell us about what you do at Zipwhip.

Avery Wagar:

So, two summers ago I came on board as an intern. I started building projects like the Textspresso, which is our text enabled robot coffee arm. So, it’ll make you an espresso when you text it. And here I am now, about a year and a half later, and we’re building stuff like Text Santa, a lot of the backend tools that enable some of these more fun and friendly experiences. So, that’s what I’ve been focusing on with my work here.

Scott Heimes:

Cool. And I don’t usually ask people their age, but how old are you?

Avery Wagar:

I’m 17. I started … 16 when I started here.

Scott Heimes:

Great, amazing story. So, how was the user experience of Santa’s text line previous to this season? What were some of the challenges about it?

Avery Wagar:

So, it was slightly suboptimal for people who were hoping to have a more engaging experience. As Natalie mentioned, we feel it’s really important for families to be able to really connect with Santa this year, rather than just click on a link and get sent to a splash page. And so, we wanted to make sure that some of the Christmas spirit was captured in these conversations that families would be having with Santa Claus. And so, before we enabled this more NLP and AI enabled version of Santa, we would just send a basic auto reply once every 24 hours, which sent a link out, as you had mentioned, to a video. But this year we’re able to capture the, I guess, intent, you could call it of a lot of these messages and conversations that come in and we’re able to give a much more engaging response, that’s true to what the family or parent is really asking of Santa Claus.

Scott Heimes:

How are we doing that? What kind of technology are we using to make that?

Avery Wagar:

So, it’s been a pretty long process to get where we are now, but we really started with a collaboration with the content team to break down what we expected people to talk about with Santa Claus. And from there, we transferred those ideas into a world-class NLP engine from Microsoft called Microsoft LUIS. And LUIS does a really good job of breaking down these patterns in texts regardless of how really long the text is, and then categorizing different aspects from there. And so, you get a confidence score between zero and one, and you’re able to say, “Okay, I’m 95% sure this text is asking about how Rudolph is doing today.”

Avery Wagar:

And so, we started plugging our basic data that we got from the content team in, and then we’ve revised some of those intents and some of that data based on the conversations we’re seeing happen with those first 200 and something thousand texts that have come in this year. And so, from there we’re now able to really refine and see where the holes are and see if our conversation doesn’t go somewhere where we were expecting, we can build out those paths and make sure Santa has a response for the next time.

Scott Heimes:

Right. Essentially training the experience to learn and think, right?

Avery Wagar:

Exactly.

Scott Heimes:

That’s amazing. So, Natalie, you’ve been watching all this activity on Santa’s text line, just a crazy increase in responses this year.

Natalie Schwab:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yep. We’re getting more than 12,000 texts a day, and last year in December, we were getting around 600. So, I did the math on that, that’s year over year growth of 1900%. So, this change that we’ve made to this more conversational bot is really making a big difference in the number of text messages that we’re seeing from each individual user. It’s just continuing the conversation and it’s because we’ve inserted questions and really engaging responses to some of the things that kids are asking us. So, it’s just continuing that conversation.

Scott Heimes:

Cool. Families seem to be having a really good time leveraging the experience.

Natalie Schwab:

Yes. Definitely.

Scott Heimes:

Yeah. All right. Well, before we close, tell us what is Santa’s text number line again, one more time, and the URL where people can find all these cool holiday stuff to do.

Natalie Schwab:

Yep. The Santa line is eight 844-YO-SANTA which is 844-967-2682. And if you’d like to check out all of the downloadables that we talked about, it’s zipwhip.com/text-santa.

Scott Heimes:

Cool. Well, Natalie and Avery, thank you so much for joining us on the Zipcast. It’s been a really interesting conversation and happy holidays to both of you.

Natalie Schwab:

Yeah. Thanks, Scott. Happy holidays.

Avery Wagar:

Thanks for having me.

Scott Heimes:

Thanks for joining us. Ever wondered how email compares to text when it comes to customer communication? We do too. So we commissioned a survey. You can check out the fascinating results at zipwhip.com/email-ebook. Make sure you subscribe to the Zipcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen so you can get the latest episodes. Feel free to text us with topics you’d like to hear about or other feedback for the show. Just send a text to 347-772-3529. Until next time.

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