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May 27, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 7:50am

Times titles halve digital subscriber churn with tailored emails from AI named ‘James’

By Charlotte Tobitt

Digital subscriber cancellations at the Times and Sunday Times fell by half during a trial of new artificial intelligence software which creates email newsletters tailored to readers’ interests.

The “digital butler” known as James (Journey Automated Messaging for Higher Engagement) creates individualised emails by predicting content that subscribers are likely to be interested in, then sending it in their preferred format at the time they are most likely to read it.

The News UK titles carried out a nine-month trial of the new AI technology last year after receiving almost £1m in funding from Google’s Digital News Initiative alongside software company Twipe.

Announcing the results of the trial today, the Times and Sunday Times revealed 70 per cent of 117,000 randomly chosen subscribers interacted with James by either opening or clicking on the newsletter.

The number of subscription cancellations, or churn, fell by 49 per cent among these subscribers compared with a control group which was not exposed to the James AI.

The technology was most effective with the least-engaged Times subscribers, with highly loyal readers more likely to already be happy with how they receive their content.

Mike Migliore, head of customer value at News UK, said: “James created habits among the lowest engaged groups which are the hardest groups for us to retain.”

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He added:The aspiration for James was to help us meet this challenge to individualise the way we we distribute the content of our editions to readers but use self-learning algorithms and bespoke artificial intelligence to do so, so not just get the right content to the right person but do so at the right time and in the right format.

“If we were able to crack this we suspected that it might mean higher engagement for customers, which is great because it means that those customers are seeing far more value in our product and great for us because we know there’s a strong link between engagement and churn.

“The more engaged you are, the less likely you are to leave.”

James has so far only been used for emails, but will expand to channels like text messaging and push notifications in future and could also be used to better personalise targeted advertising.

The James technology will now be made available to other newsrooms through Twipe, although Migliore said there are no immediate plans for it to be used at News UK stablemate The Sun.

James was developed by a team of 21 people, including ten from News UK’s data science team and contributions from some Times journalists.

Alan Hunter, head of digital at the Times and Sunday Times, said it was important for journalists to be involved so they could learn what content engages best with readers, and how their stories can best be distributed.

Hunter told Press Gazette: “Journalism is changing very quickly and the use of data is getting much more widespread and I think the more journalists you can get engaging with data, both in terms of their own work and in terms of how we distribute their work, the better.

“Journalism on its own is absolutely essential to driving a subscription product but you have to work collaboratively with your colleagues in marketing, technology and commercial to make it really fly.

“Also you need to be able to see where your journalism is reaching and how it’s reaching people and the prospect that you can learn from what individual groups are really looking at.”

Danny Lein, founder and chief executive of Twipe, added that journalists were able to check that James’ decisions made sense, so that it met the level of curation that Times readers expect from the brand.

But Hunter said the Times’ three daily online editions are still its most important methods of reaching readers, and that the emails function as a way to get them there.

He added: “At the Times and the Sunday Times our editorial coverage is data-informed rather than data-led.

“Experienced 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 judgement and focus on quality reporting and analysis, and James helps serve them more of what they like.”

The Times now has 286,000 digital-only subscribers after digital overtook print for the first time last year.

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