Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
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“Engagement is the highest it’s ever been”: How AI helped the Times reduce subscriber churn by 50%

The Times UK is using artificial intelligence to boost engagement and reduce churn. The technology is internally referred to as JAMES (Journey Automated Messaging for Higher Engagement). The publisher presents it as a ‘digital butler’ for readers, and it has helped the Times reduce subscriber churn by almost half.

“Without you even noticing”

Danny Lein, Founder and CEO of Twipe, which helped develop the technology, says, “Just like an ideal butler. JAMES observes you, remembers where, when and how you like your news to be served and then does it for you without you even noticing.” 

The defining challenge that all media organizations face is how do you build relationships with someone you have never met, meaningfully, at cost and at scale. Without the right tools, it’s just not possible. Now, engagement is the highest it’s ever been. We have new customers coming in every day, and James has been no small part of allowing us to do that.

Mike Migliore, Head of Customer Value at News UK

JAMES uses data to analyze reader habits and preferences. It includes content preferences, the time when they are most likely to open the newsletter, and even things like whether they want to receive newsletters with images or not. 

Journalism.co.uk reports that the publisher initially sent these personalized newsletters to a group of 300,000 readers, including 117,000 subscribers. A key finding was that 70% of the readers interacted with the newsletter. In comparison, average open rates for email campaigns in Media and Publishing is around 22%. Further, JAMES helped reduce churn by 49% compared to a control group. 

The technology has worked especially well with low- or medium-engagement subscribers. Readers see the added value in the high degree of personalization. This makes them less likely to cancel their subscriptions according to Migliore. 

“Marrying tech with journalism”

The challenge for publishers using machine learning for personalization is balancing it with editorial judgment. Over-reliance on algorithms can lead to filter bubbles. Alan Hunter, Head of Digital, The Times and The Sunday Times, says, “At The Times and The Sunday Times our editorial coverage is data-informed rather than data-led.” 

He adds, “Journalists and editors choose what we cover and how we cover it, but the process has evolved and JAMES complements our approach. Subscribers trust our editorial judgment and focus on quality reporting and analysis, and JAMES helps serve them more of what they like.” Nick Petrie, Deputy Head of Digital, at the Times comments, “This is marrying tech with our journalism.”

Hunter told Digiday earlier, “Our human-curated and human-written editions are hugely important, and [that human element is] what readers tell us they want. It’s our communication and distribution to readers that will become personalized with James. We’re writing by humans, curating by humans, distributing by robots.”

In the future, the publisher plans to use JAMES for push notifications and social media, as well as to deliver more effective advertising. It also plans to white-label the technology for other publishers.

“The high-octane gas” that powers subscription business

Publishers are increasingly relying on machine learning and AI to learn more about their readers and engage with them in ways that converts and retains them as subscribers. Even the poster child of digital revenues, The New York Times, is aggressively building its AI team. 

Speaking at a conference in New York last year, The NY Times’ COO Meredith Kopit revealed the publisher’s plans to hire more people with backgrounds in artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science, and mobile engineering. 

We have an enormous amount of value that we already produce. The challenge is how do we get that value in front of people based on the signal we have, based on what interests them? You will see us get more aggressive about that in the coming years.

Meredith Kopit, COO at The New York Times

The NY Times has had exemplary success in getting readers to pay for content—the publisher generated more than $709 million in digital revenue last year. But it sees many subscribers drop-off after their introductory subscription deals—like the $1/ week offer—ends. The publisher plans to create AI-powered feeds for its readers to boost engagement, hoping that it would make readers see value in continuing with their subscriptions. 

Kopit commented, “The high-octane gas that powers our display and subscription business is engagement. And the easiest way to describe engagement is getting people to make a daily habit of the New York Times and if we get that right, we lift both businesses over time.”

Download WNIP’s comprehensive new report—50 Ways to Make Media Pay—an essential read for publishers looking at the multiple revenue opportunities available, whether it’s to reach new audiences or double down on existing super-users. The report is free and can be downloaded here.

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