Editors note: We are republishing an article by Faisal Kalim that dives into how AI helped the Canadian Publisher The Globe and MAil in improving its performance. This piece was originally published on What’s New in Publishing.
An artificial intelligence system has helped Canadian publisher The Globe and Mail generate millions of dollars in incremental revenue, increased subscription conversion by 51% bringing in 170,000 subscribers, and more than doubled email registrations. It has also increased return visits and engagement among registered users, according to Sonali Verma, Senior Project Manager, G&M.
The suite of tools which was developed in-house and named Sophi has achieved all this by efficiently automating several important publishing decisions. These include the curation of content across the Globe’s website and social media, and managing its dynamic paywall to maximise conversion.
Sophi uses deep-learning techniques to curate 99% of the content across The Globe’s home page and other sections. It also takes care of much of the social media posting (especially on Facebook), helps with newsletters and layout of the print edition—the algorithm accomplishes in a few seconds what two people used to take two hours to do.
Further, Sophi’s powerful predictive capabilities help it determine which pieces of content should go behind the paywall, and when to present a reader with one. These are critical decisions for publishers seeking to grow subscription revenue.
“When any news organisation starts down the path of paywalled content, one big question that they face is the question of which content to paywall?” says Verma.
How do you tell readers that they will now need to pay for something that they had typically been able to access free of cost? Worse, what if you ask them to pay after they’ve just been browsing through content that they don’t really value?Sonali Verma, Senior Project Manager, The Globe and Mail
Speaking at the Online News Association’s annual conference in June, Verma explained how Sophi works. It analyses both content and user behaviour to determine when to ask a reader for money or an email address, and when to leave them alone.
She said a reader who mostly consumes general news and recipes might be less likely to subscribe compared to one who reads a lot of business-related content. Sophi might present such general news readers with a paywall. However, if they don’t subscribe, it will not hit them with the same message again and again. Instead, it might ask such readers to register with an email. “It knows when to give up. It knows when not to bug someone because they’re not going to get money from them anyway,” said Verma.
As a result, we’ve increased subscription conversion, registration – and, paradoxically, also loyalty and engagement, because we’re not alienating readers who would never pay by asking them to pay.Sonali Verma, Senior Project Manager, G&M
She added that Sophi has no evenly applied article limit and some readers might never face a paywall. For example, someone who mostly reads car reviews which are a strong source of ad revenue for the publisher. Others might see a paywall on every visit. Sophi’s actions are driven by factors like propensity to read, device and location.
It can also distinguish between different types of coverage. Like for Covid-19 content, articles on when vaccines will be available at various locations are free for everyone. But those giving advice on which vaccine makers are worth investing in will be paywalled.
More from The Fix: How AI and data boost journalism sustainability
Publishers trying to generate revenue from both ads and subscriptions face a confounding dilemma. And that is assessing the difference in value between an article that was behind a paywall and brought in dozens of subscribers, versus one that got thousands of page-views (and commensurate ad revenue). Sophi solves this problem by scoring every piece of content according to how much value it can bring to the business.
The left-hand side of the bar above reflects the different ways in which an article can bring in advertising revenue. The right-hand side shows the role of an article in driving new subscriptions as well as in retaining existing subscribers.
“Sophi revealed to us that our readers saw the value in many articles that we published,” explained Verma, “value that our editors had not recognised because no human being can possibly stay on top of every single article that we publish and get the math right every time.”
Since content curation is not entirely based on pageviews it also discourages click-bait. Verma added that “no reader has complained or asked if a computer was behind the site.”
The software has “helped the Globe move from a 70% advertising revenue and 30% reader revenue split, to a 30% advertising and 70% subscription revenue split, and we’re not losing market share on the advertising side,” according to a company spokesperson.
Moreover, the subscription revenue gained through Sophi is 10x greater than advertising turnover that has been given up as a result of having a paywalled website.
The publisher is now aiming to reach 350,000 digital and print subscriptions by 2023, up from around 270,000 at present. The Globe and Mail is now selling Sophi as a service to other publishers and companies in other industries as well, opening up a new revenue stream. More than 50 titles from 11 different publishers will launch Sophi on their sites this year, Gordon Edall, VP, Sophi told Digiday.
This outsourcing of time-taking decisions to a well-designed software has also freed up the Globe’s journalists to spend more time on creating better content.
“The newsroom of the future is one where journalists can focus on finding and telling great stories – something that machines can’t do,” says David Walmsley, Editor-in-chief, G&M. “This is why we asked our data scientists to automate the webpages, slowly and carefully testing the results before gradually implementing it across practically the entire site.
“And I’m very happy with the results.”
More from The Fix: Building a modern and sustainable news outlet is easier than ever