Many publishers remain nervous about the impact generative artificial intelligence could have on their business models, but some are developing their own AI features using the technology in an effort to grow engagement with their audiences and add value for paying subscribers.
A handful of publishers are now using their content and data to “train” proprietary chatbots, which they hope will present opportunities for audiences to interact with their editorial output and brands in new and more dynamic ways. Why should audiences stop at just reading a publication when they can chat with it or put it to work on their behalf, the thinking goes.
Last week, travel industry news publisher Skift launched an AI-powered chat function called Ask Skift, which it says was trained using 11 years of content from its archives including daily news stories, analysis, research reports, and more.
The idea, according to CEO Rafat Ali, is that Skift’s audience of travel professionals might turn to the chatbot for answers to industry-related questions, to easily surface facts and data points from Skift’s reporting and research, and even to help analyze competitors’ strategies and tactics. Readers could use it to get a quick overview of how AI might affect the short-term rental market, for example, or to return an estimate of Expedia’s ad spending in 2022.
Ask Skift is still in an early experimental phase, but Ali said the company sees the potential for an AI-based interface to change the nature of Skift’s relationship with its audience – and with its paying subscribers in particular.
“I think there’s something here that could be transformative for our business,” Ali told Toolkits. “Short-term the most important part is deepening engagement with our current subscribers and attracting new ones, but broadly I think there’s an opportunity for us to move from a reader or audience-based relationship to more of a user-based relationship – one that’s based on queries and tasks.”
Ask Skift is currently available on a freemium basis: Users are granted three questions per month for free, and further use is reserved for subscribers to the company’s SkiftPro product. The company developed the feature in-house using OpenAI’s GPT-3.5 models, and says it’s now working to add additional features including report and chart generation, and research report and earnings summaries.
A rush to chatbots
Other publishers say they’re also preparing to roll out AI chatbots in the coming weeks. It’s likely those features will be folded into existing subscription products in many instances, as publishers hunt for ways to make their offerings more “sticky” as they prioritize subscriber retention and monetization.
Chatbots could sit nicely within the existing positioning of many publishers’ subscription products, which often promise the ability to “go deeper,” to “unlock additional insight and information”, or variations on that theme.
Spiritual and emotional wellness publisher Ingenio says it plans to launch a “tarot card reader and spiritual guide” chatbot later this month, for example, which will personalize content based on a user’s birth chart and other data. The “Veda” chatbot will initially be accessible for free on Ingenio’s Astrology.com property, but will likely be offered as part of its Astrology Plus subscription product down the road.
“Certain types of chatbots are perfect for a subscription business,” Ingenio’s president of media, Josh Jaffe, told Toolkits. “We do think wrapping Veda into Astrology Plus could help drive subscription conversions and retention,” he added.
Marketecture – which publishes video interviews with marketing technology executives – also launched a chatbot on Thursday which it says was trained with transcripts from its interviews. The feature is currently available for free, but the company’s chief executive Ari Paparo said it plans to move it behind its paywall.
A new era
Publishers have experimented with chatbots in the past but with limited success. Quartz, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Business Insider and HuffPost all dabbled with different flavors of chat and messaging features over the past decade before abandoning those efforts almost entirely after lukewarm audience reception.
This time could be different, though. Some publishing executives say the current wave of chatbot experiments portends a more fundamental shift in how audiences will interact with publishers and media companies over the next decade.
AI technology has improved dramatically in recent years, making chat features more accessible, but also more useful. More importantly, moves by Google and Microsoft to bake generative AI experiences into search results could quickly and drastically alter the way audiences expect to interact with digital products and services generally.
Publishers are hoping to ride that wave with AI offerings of their own, rather than being washed away by it. It remains to be seen how useful or appealing those features will prove to audiences, however, and success stories could be few and far between.
Owning a niche
Publishers broadly remain concerned about the effects generative AI technology will have on their business models and their access to audiences. Some high-profile publishers and media executives are now banding together to fight back against what they view as unfair use of their content, or at least to secure systems where publishers are compensated for the use of their content via royalties or other means.
“It’s a terrible mistake for publishers to allow [AI] to suck up every known piece of work that has ever been done,” IAC chairman Barry Diller said last week. “Unless publishers say, ‘You cannot do that until there is a structure in place for publishers to get paid,’ you will see another wave that is maybe even more destructive.”
But others believe their own AI features can compete alongside those offered by major platforms, provided they have strong brands that serve specific and target audiences and/or needs.
“The value of brand for us is essential. If we are synonymous with intelligence in travel then people will come to us,” said Skift’s Ali. “The way I think about it, nobody is going to Google News to read about the travel industry. Let ChatGPT and Google Bard do whatever they do, but you’re still going to come to Skift if we continue to offer great quality editorial.”
Ingenio’s Jaffe holds a similar view. The only way for publishers to create a “moat” around their businesses in an age of generative AI could be to maintain strong brands and offer highly differentiated experiences.
“It could be a losing proposition for many publishers if they try to stop the use of their content [to train AI]. Few publishers have content that’s that unique,” he said.
Ultimately, the ability to cultivate strong brands and genuine audience relationships remains crucial for building sustainable long-term media businesses. Distribution waves come and go and technology is shifting faster than ever, but publishers with clear editorial missions and identities remain best positioned to navigate those changes most effectively.