Innovator Insights – Sophi

Fathm’s Innovator Insights series explores the bold steps taken by individuals and organisations seeking to increase value and improve quality in journalism, communications, and information sharing and identifies what we can learn from them.

In this edition we spoke to Sonali Verma, Director, Business Development at Sonali works with publishers all over the world to help them understand how to use data for culture change and business transformation, and with the Sophi software development team to build tools that solve clients’ problems.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about what Sophi does and what its capabilities are?

Sophi is an AI-powered automation, optimization and prediction platform designed by The Globe and Mail to help publishers identify and leverage their most valuable content. It is made up of four components: 

Sophi Content Paywall Engine: Using complex natural language processing routine, this system paywalls only those articles where the subscription revenue opportunity is many times greater than the advertising revenue forgone. 

This technology has resulted in 10x more subscription revenue than the advertising revenue given up by hard paywalling The Globe’s articles and has brought in several million dollars incrementally — without changing how its journalists do their jobs. 

Sophi User + Content Paywall Engine: This fully dynamic, real-time, personalized paywall engine analyzes both content and user behaviour to determine when to ask a reader for money or an email address, and when to leave them alone. 

As a result, The Globe saw a 222% increase in registrations, a 53% increase in reader loyalty and a 51% increase in subscription conversions. 

Sophi Site Automation: An AI system that autonomously curates digital content to find and promote a publisher’s most valuable articles. Sophi looks at all the content as it is published and at all the traffic, to find the hidden gems that customers value most. It looks beyond pageviews and what content is popular, instead finding the most valuable content – the pieces that drive business goals, such as acquisition and retention of subscribers.  

Sophi was born at a newspaper, where safeguarding the brand is the most important criterion for our editors. To ensure this, the editors specify what kind of content is eligible for which parts of the page. They have total control over the system and can easily override any algorithmic decisions.

“Sophi automatically places 99% of the content on The Globe’s digital pages. It has done so almost four years now, and not a single reader has noticed.”

Sophi-Powered Print Automation: This revolutionary solution powers automated, template-free print laydown, bringing an hours-long process of print publishing down to just minutes at the click of a button. Through its three CMS partners — Naviga, Stibo DX and Eidosmedia — Sophi’s smart AI designs printed pages that look and feel as if they were produced by experienced editors and page designers.

Q: Why did you feel there needed to be changes to newsroom operations and how did you identify AI as the solution?

The media industry has grappled with shrinking resources over the past decade and newspapers have faced a choice: Innovate to find new ways to fund journalism — or risk oblivion. The Globe and Mail wanted to be less reliant on advertising revenue. It also wanted to give some time back to its editors to focus on finding important news, rather than having them move content around on the website or speculate about which articles to place behind a paywall. The Globe decided to invest aggressively in innovation and data science starting in 2012.

Q: How has using Sophi improved the day to day workflow of journalists and editors?

The Globe’s editors no longer need to place content on its digital pages while juggling other demands of the job. They can now focus on shaping important stories that form the backbone of the national conversation.

“Editors also used to decide which articles to place behind a hard paywall, a decision that involved a great deal of speculation and loose mental math about how many pageviews that content would bring in and comparing that to how many subscriptions it may drive. Sophi now decides that.”

Q: What were the biggest challenges in developing the service and how did you overcome them?

When we put in a paywall in 2012, we were facing the business problem of managing the tension between ad revenue and subscription revenue. We also had several sources of data – and every business stakeholder who had a KPI to hit would cherry-pick the metrics that told the story they wanted to tell.

We needed better data, and we needed to change our culture as well as our revenue mix. Most importantly, to tackle these problems, we needed the right people, which we also didn’t have. So, at this point, we hired a few data scientists from Research in Motion, the company that introduced the smartphone to the world, and asked them how to solve these problems. And that was a game changer – they brought a completely new perspective on data to a traditional media company and managed to bring about real culture change by working with our editors and revenue stakeholders and building technology that actually solved our problems. And those problems turn out to be common problems in the media industry, which is why we are now commercializing Sophi.

Q: How do you measure the impact of what you are doing? What have you found out so far?

Dollars and cents is the best way to measure it – and Sophi delivers in spades when it comes to driving revenue and keeping a lid on costs. But the other way to measure it is by talking to editors, who are pretty relieved to not have to make decisions on what to paywall any more (it’s generally not their core competency or why they chose to become journalists, and some of those decisions are politically fraught). They are also generally happy to be doing higher-quality work that actually changes the world, instead of moving articles up and down on a webpage by watching analytics.

Q: What have you learned so far and how will you use that learning?

We’ve learned a lot about different approaches to problems in the media business, since every publisher tackles them differently and has experimented with different solutions in the past. We’ve also seen firsthand how important personalization is to many publishers.

“We can also now see that Sophi really moves the needle when it comes to money, which is something that most newsrooms in the world need right now. We would like to see our peers in the media business thrive, and we are excited to help them learn from our mistakes.”

Q: Can you share 3 top tips to help others considering undertaking similar transformation projects?

  1. Decide what to build and what to buy. Tech resources are finite; business problems are not. You cannot build everything.
  2. Listen to your users. That’s actually how we ended up building Sophi Print Automation.
  3. If you want to change the outcome, you really have to change the inputs. You can’t always get where you want to get with what you’re doing right now.

We think is at the cutting edge of using Artificial Intelligence in service of audiences and sustainability. If you’re interested in thinking more about incorporating AI in your newsroom, get in touch about our AI Strategy Lab.