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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

It’s time for publishers to leverage AI like social media giants do

September 16, 2022 | By Tim Ruder, Principal of Audience Development – Taboola @Taboola

The publishing industry has undergone a serious transformation in the past five years. It’s moving away from an all-out push for scale and toward earnest efforts to create meaningful relationships built on trust with online readers. It’s not just about eyes on the page. It’s about loyalty.

A loyal audience is more likely to subscribe, attend events, and engage with relevant ads — ultimately increasing revenue. To succeed, newsrooms will, of course, need to rely on the editorial and ethical foundations that have made journalism a pillar of society. But to truly compete with global powerhouses like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Netflix, news organizations need access to data on the same scale that those tech companies have.

To increase loyalty, journalists and editors need to be armed with data and AI-based tools that guarantee a great experience for each visitor every time. These tools tell publishers what topics their readers are interested in and help writers create engaging headlines. These tools also surface the right content to the right person at the right time, whether it’s editorial, sponsored content, or an ad. It’s a tall order. But this marriage of old and new worlds will undeniably fuel the most powerful newsrooms of the future.

Keeping up without compromising

The algorithms that power the world’s most popular social channels master the art of personalization. They give users a never-ending flow of content and ads they find interesting, relevant, and downright addictive. And, perhaps most importantly, they help social media platforms rake in revenue.

According to Statista, Facebook generated $114 billion in ad revenue in 2021, and that number is expected to reach $200 billion by 2026. TikTok is also poised to triple its ad revenue to almost $12 billion this year. Meanwhile, The New York Times’ advertising revenue has been steadily decreasing for years. In 2021, the publisher earned about $309 million in digital ad revenue.

According to research from Gallup, 45% of respondents said they use social media as their primary way to stay informed on current events, while only 14% said they turn to online news websites. But despite turning to social media the most, respondents also expressed distrust for it. They reported that they’re twice as likely to trust the authenticity and validity of news sites over social media.

This presents the news industry with a monumental task. Publishers need to build sustainable systems that allow them to keep up with the new wave of user experiences ushered in by social media. Thanks to these social platforms, today’s consumers expect personalization from both their editorial and sponsored content. And publishers have to deliver those customized experiences if they want to attract and retain new audiences. But at the same time, they need to maintain the integrity and values that make journalism so important.

The solution to this challenge is strategically designed and applied AI. Publishers can harness the power of massive databases and sophisticated predictive algorithms while maintaining editorial controls.

AI’s role in digital news

Research from Reuters shows that AI’s various use cases are already widely embraced by news industry leaders. A whopping 85% of respondents said AI will play an important role in automated content recommendations and personalization for users, including sponsored content like native advertising. However, it’s not all about content delivery or personalization; 70% think AI plays a significant role in investigating or finding stories through patterns in data. And 81% believe AI can help speed up and automate workflows, like content tagging, interview transcription, and assisted subbing. Meanwhile, 69% believe AI will help with commercial strategies and revenue growth, like identifying “high-propensity” readers or future customers who are more likely to purchase a subscription.

5 tips for building the ideal AI-powered newsroom

To meet today’s challenges, publishers need a 360-degree approach. In addition to involving engineering and data science teams, it’s critical to involve editors and journalists every step of the way. Ad ops teams will also play a vital role in the AI-powered newsroom since they have the tools to optimize ad campaigns for increased revenue. This comprehensive approach ensures that every player’s needs and perspectives are suited while designing UX and algorithms.

Plus, the insights and best practices offered by editors and journalists are the secret sauce to ensuring that these tools meet ethical standards. Here are a few guardrails and features that can help build ideal AI tools and workflows for the newsroom:

  1. The ability for editors to influence how algorithms make decisions. This involves reviewing and moderating the logic that “teaches” algorithms how to make automated editorial decisions.
  2. The ability for editors to craft “definitions” that dictate the content mix. This way, personalization isn’t able to hide or remove any content areas, regardless of the user’s interest in them.
  3. Allowing AI to power your website ads. Use AI-powered automation to programmatically deliver targeted, personalized ads in the most relevant placements for your audience.
  4. An interface that allows flexible personalization on certain parts of a website, for example, the homepage. Users can see dynamic and personalized content based on their interests and preferences while still allowing curated content based on the news cycle and current events on a local, regional, and global level.
  5. A focus on original content as opposed to syndicated and aggregated content. This helps to reduce information bubbles while staying in line with consumers’ tendency to trust news over social media and other forms of aggregated content.

Better user experience, better business outcomes

In the face of cold and calculated social media algorithms, many of today’s news sites are struggling to keep user attention, drive engagement, and build loyalty. It may be a hard road ahead, but it’s possible to stay in the game while maintaining your journalistic integrity and building scalable, sustainable models.

The newsroom of the future is powered by strategic teams and comprehensive databases that feed highly-specialized algorithms. The result: personalized experiences that rival those of social media and the business metrics to prove it.

About the author

Tim Ruder is the Principal of Audience Development at Taboola. Tim works with editorial teams at premium news publishers, helping them incorporate data and AI-based engagement and personalization solutions into news operations and workflows. His experience in personalization and audience engagement includes working with publishers like the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Hearst Newspapers and many others.

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