‘Distribution is something computers can do better’: The Globe and Mail’s AI startup begins to make in-roads

robot nurture

After almost eight years in the oven, The Globe and Mail’s homegrown artificial intelligence startup Sophi came out hot in 2020.

Originally launched inside the Canadian news publisher’s internal tech incubator, the technology suite, which uses natural language processing and machine learning to do things like assess the likelihood that particular users or pieces of content will convert to subscriptions, had an enviable first year, winning awards from both WAN-IFRA and ONA; it continued that streak last week, picking up two awards from INMA, including Best in Show for North America and Best Use of Data to Automate or Personalize. 

And over the past six months, Sophi has put itself in position to be adopted by large chunks of the digital publishing world, joining the WordPress VIP Technology Partner program and integrating directly into ArcXP, the Washington Post-owned CMS that has recently focused on tech partnerships as it seeks to expand beyond digital publishing.

Globe and Mail’s chief executive, Phillip Crawley, credits Sophi with driving much of the news publisher’s recent subscriber success — the paper now generates 70% of its revenues from subscriptions, and it has set a target of 350,000 total subscribers by 2023, up from around 270,000 today. 

The CMS-level partnerships will also help give Sophi make a mark on the digital news industry as the year wears on. More than 50 titles spread across 11 different publishers will launch Sophi on their sites this year, Sophi vp Gordon Edall said.

But just how much of a mark Sophi can make will depend partly on how ready the industry is to embrace automation, even automation that, its creators point out, is designed to free up resources for more reporting and producing stories. News publishers, even as they have tilted more in the direction of subscriber revenue, remain wary of personalization, having spent years going back and forth on its merits. 

“Distribution is something computers can do better,” said Gordon Edall, a long-time Globe and Mail executive who now serves as Sophi’s vp.

Though Sophi has only been available commercially for about a year and a half, it has been in development for close to a decade, when the paper began hiring artificial intelligence experts to help innovate around the paper’s paywall. Sophi now employs around 50 people, 10 of whom have PhD-level degrees in fields such as artificial intelligence and data science, Edall said. 

The Globe and Mail also took its time introducing Sophi to the newsroom. Before allowing Sophi to automatically decide whether a piece of content should be put behind the Globe and Mail’s paywall, for example, the software made recommendations to editors and staffers via Slack instead. 

After editors and staffers developed a sufficient level of trust, it let the software make those decisions itself, but only with stories that got little traffic: wire stories, for example, or second-day stories on minor topics. It began with the bottom third of content that the Globe and Mail published digitally every month, before moving to more popular stories. 

The publisher took a similarly cautious approach when it rolled out another of Sophi’s features, which curates content visible on a site’s homepage. Every ten minutes, a homepage editor would get a pair of snapshots on Slack, one a picture of the human-curated homepage, and one with what Sophi suggested instead. 

Over time, Globe and Mail editors built enough trust to largely hand that work over to Sophi. Today, 99% of the articles on the publisher’s site are chosen by the software.  

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The software has learned how the Globe and Mail’s content will fare externally as well. For the past two years, Sophi has made the decisions about what to publish on Facebook, which allowed the Globe and Mail to lower its cost per acquisition on Facebook by 41%. Sophi will soon be tasked with making similar decisions about Twitter, said Sonali Verma, Sophi’s director of customer success. 

The fact that Sophi’s capabilities were built and tested with extensive newsroom input “puts them in a great position to talk to other newsrooms,” said Ryan Sholin, vp of business development for WordPress VIP, the platform’s enterprise arm. “This isn’t some tiny little tech company coming in that says, ‘You should automate your homepage.’”

Whether that perspective makes it compelling to non-news businesses is a separate question. Just like ArcXP, Sophi’s long-term goal, Edall said, is to move beyond the media business, and it has made inroads with non-media clients; Sophi has added the financial services company CIBC as a client, Edall said, using the software to automate its marketing messaging.

“A paywall isn’t a paywall — it’s a sequencing engine,” Edall said. “Any business that’s founded on understanding interaction over time, the technologies we’re building can plug into any of those.”

This story was updated. An early version incorrectly stated that half of Sophi’s employees have PhD-level training. That ratio was in place before the Globe and Mail decided to make it a commercially available product.

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