Learn how the brand uses Attentive AI to make SMS more personalized and engaging for each of their 2.6M+ subscribers.
Hot Topic has been the loudest store in the mall since 1988. You can't walk by it without getting pulled in (or at least taking a quick peek inside). That captivating presence has made Hot Topic the go-to place for band tees, pop culture gifts, and all things alternative.
The brand has designed their marketing strategy to feel just as loud as their stores. They use bold colors and graphics to draw in customers’ attention, then keep it by building relationships that feel like a friendship: fun, engaging, and real.
We sat down with Hot Topic’s Email Marketing Manager, Faith Bukauskas, to chat about how the brand builds these customer relationships, the challenges they face in trying to maintain millions of SMS friendships, and how AI is helping them bridge the gap.
Could you share a little about your career so far and how it's influenced your approach to marketing at Hot Topic?
I've been working in retail for almost my entire career, both as an in-store associate and on the e-commerce side. When I was in person, I got to interact with customers face-to-face, which gave me the chance to learn what customers are like in real life and how they want to be interacted with. You’re able to make things personal, really dig into what someone is looking for, and overcome objections in a way that makes the whole interaction feel really authentic but also gets them to make the purchase at the end of it.
I’ve brought that mindset with me to Hot Topic. I started as an email analyst and worked my way up to manager over the last seven years. We keep that idea of building authentic relationships central to all of our communications. We also added Attentive SMS to our repertoire in 2021, and that’s been a really fun channel to learn and grow alongside email.
What challenges are top of mind for you as a marketer today? How have you overcome some of them?
I think it’s a pretty similar story to what a lot of marketing professionals are dealing with today. We have a lot to do, and often, not enough hours in the day to accomplish it all, especially during the holidays when people are so busy. We need to keep the business moving, but we’re always trying to innovate as well. We have a lot of ideas we want to test or optimize, and finding that balance can be a challenge.
We’re always trying to be creative about how we can put out more content with our existing resources, and that's where Attentive AI has really come into play for us. For example, just recently, we needed to send out an SMS campaign quickly, but it was the weekend and our copywriter wasn’t available. I jumped into the Attentive platform, and even though I’m not a copywriter, I was able to type in a few words about what I wanted to convey and have Attentive’s AI copy assistant turn it into something better and more engaging. We didn’t have to wait until the following week when our writer would be back. We could just send the message out—problem solved.
If you were to summarize your thoughts on AI in marketing into a single sentence, what would you say?
I would say: AI is like having a digital thought partner in the room that helps us take our marketing to an elevated level.
How has AI become part of your strategy, and what does that look like for your team day-to-day?
We’re not using AI to replace anyone’s role or responsibilities. We’re using it to help boost them and give our whole team more bandwidth. Like I said, we really think of AI in terms of having another person in the room to help us get stuff done.
For instance, we work a lot with the copywriting team when creating content. There are times when we need to go back and forth with our them to get our SMS messaging just right—to make it sound more urgent or to make the promotional language more prominent.
But sometimes, that back and forth just isn't possible or realistic because our copy team is busy working on other projects. Now, we have Attentive’s copy assistant to lean on in those moments, with buttons that say make this text sound “more urgent” or “more promotional.” It was a really exciting day when I didn’t have to play that game of telephone anymore.
We’re also testing Automated Campaigns with Attentive. Rather than us trying to find the right time to send a message by setting up A/B tests, we’ll let the AI model figure it out. It removes the guesswork on our side and enables us to send messages at the best time for engagement.
We’ve been trying out AI Audiences as well, and it’s been really interesting. When I’m setting up segments manually, I always wonder who I’m missing or what I could be doing better. So it was really cool when we were approached by our Client Strategy Manager to test out the feature, specifically for identifying people we’re leaving behind who might be ready to purchase. It was encouraging to see a lift in 0-day revenue and ROI, so we’re excited to keep testing.
Letting Attentive AI do some of that manual labor gives us time back in the day to think about our strategy and analyze the results so that we can continue to level up our efforts.
You’ve been an early adopter of a new Attentive AI feature that allows you to personalize every message for each subscriber. Could you share a bit about your experience with it so far?
The new feature has been really cool and effective for us so far. We have all these journeys, like cart and browse abandonment, but the tricky part has always been that they’re sort of static. There are only so many ways you can say, “You left something in your cart, we saved it for you,” you know? It can feel unnatural, especially when we’re communicating over text, where customers are used to talking with their friends. We want our messages to feel like they’re coming from a friend, too. Something that sounds more “corporate” doesn’t fit the experience we want our customers to have.
My best friend will often send me links to stuff she’s seen and say, “Oh my gosh, this is so cute. You should definitely get it.” And that’s what I like about this new feature we’ve been trying—it has that same kind of vibe. Our abandoned cart message now isn’t just saying, “We saved your cart for you.” It’s saying, "Hey you checked this shirt out and it would look so good on you. Don’t forget to grab it.” It feels more like a friend you know and trust hyping it up than a company pushing for a sale.
We’ve seen that same conversational element really light up with Attentive Concierge™ powered by Attentive AI as well. I’m always checking out the conversations inbox in our Attentive account and I see that our customers want to engage with SMS like they would their friends or family. We’ve sent browse abandonment messages and gotten replies saying, “Yeah, but you don’t have my size.” It’s been a game-changer to see the AI messages overcome that problem by suggesting a store nearby or recommending another shirt that’s available in their size.
Usually, the advantage that stores have over e-commerce is that there’s an opportunity for face-to-face interaction. If you’re a sales person and someone is signaling that there’s a reason they’re not ready to buy, you can work with them to overcome it and get them what they want. This new AI feature from Attentive is mirroring that in-store experience in a really positive way.
Why were you interested in testing this new AI tool? What results were you hoping to achieve?
We’re always interested in testing new things, especially when it comes to AI. If you’re a marketer, you need to be constantly looking for new things to test and new ways to innovate. As for why we wanted to test this feature, it’s pretty simple: AI is the future and we want to make sure we’re setting ourselves up for success. As an organization, we’re always looking for ways to incorporate AI into our processes, so it was an easy decision to test these new features when given the chance.
As far as what we were hoping to achieve: of course, we wanted to see if it would drive higher conversions and additional revenue, which it did, but we also wanted to see how it might improve the customer experience.
How do you see the role of AI evolving in the marketing landscape, and how do you think it will influence your approach moving forward?
I don't think AI is something to be scared of. We have lots of platforms and tools that we rely on to make our jobs easier, and AI can be that too. With the overall landscape, I think we’re going to see a lot of people adopting AI into their day-to-day, but it’s going to take a while for them to get it right. Maybe they won’t use it enough at first, or they’ll use it too much and have to pull it back. But eventually, you’ll start to see communications from your favorite retailers that are ultra-catered to you. It’ll have you question, “Is this someone talking directly to me or a machine?” And the answer is both.
We definitely see more AI in our future at Hot Topic and not just in our SMS and email strategy. It already makes things easier for us, so we can focus on higher-level work that requires more of a human touch. We’re really focused on trying to incorporate AI throughout the organization, to see where it fits in the best and can have the biggest impact.
AI makes a lot of sense for SMS because we want to talk to our customers like people we’re building relationships with, which gets challenging. I have a hard time managing a circle of five friends in real life sometimes. To have millions of friends that I want to communicate with every day is a huge undertaking and can get overwhelming. That’s where AI shines. It can talk to them for me, in a way that feels natural, and I can catch up later in the conversations tab.
That natural tone and messaging helps in email too, but I’ve been really interested in how AI helps us boost its effectiveness as well. It can help us figure out the best time to send an email, what content to include, and what offer (if any) we should include to reach the customer when they’re most likely to buy. AI for email isn’t new in retail, so the question for us isn’t whether or not it makes sense to use, it’s what can AI do with email that we haven’t thought of yet?
What advice would you give to fellow marketers who are considering incorporating AI into their strategies?
Do it! Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid of AI—the machines aren’t taking over. And anytime Attentive offers you a chance to test something, just say yes. Attentive AI has elevated our marketing game. It's like having an always-on assistant, personalizing messages at a scale that would be impossible otherwise. I’d say, try it out and see what Attentive AI can do for your team and your SMS and email program.
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