February 12, 2019 by Lucinda Southern
Swedish local news publisher MittMedia is using robot-generated content to drive subscriptions.
Robot journalism has typically been touted as a tool to save time in busy newsrooms, but MittMedia has gained 1,000 digital subscribers across 20 of its local news sites using automated content, over the last year.
The publisher, which now has nearly 80,000 digital subscribers, found that real-estate articles are the most effective at converting loyal users into digital subscribers. At the end of 2017, it launched the “Homeowners Bot,” which writes a short text on every house that is sold in the local market, identifies an interesting angle, like the most expensive house sold in the year, and adds an image from Google Street View.
The company now writes 480 articles a week on home sales, according to the company. Since introducing the tool it has published in total 34,000 articles, which have converted nearly 1,000 paying subscribers. Subscriptions to its titles start at €10 a month ($11.28).
“A really good robot text can have a bigger impact and be more read than a really good news article, but only if it’s a topic readers really care about,” said Li LÉstrade, head of content development at MittMedia. “Each article reaches a smaller group of readers on average, but in total, we get an exchange on par with anything written by our most-read reporters.”
On each bot-written article, the publisher uses the byline “MittMedia’s Text Robot,” and through research, it found that 68 percent of 102 respondents didn’t notice the piece was written by a bot.
Often 100,000 houses are sold in local regions covered by MittMedia’s local press.
Publishers like Bloomberg, Reuters and The Washington Post have also explored robot-written stories that rely on structured data. The obvious benefit is the publisher can churn out repetitive, simple stories at a high volume, leaving the humans to do more of the investigative work. This high volume typically meant using robots to automate things like earnings or sports reports, which would help increase ad impressions and aid coverage in local newsrooms.
The publisher has started automating articles about new companies which are proving popular. It uses algorithms to show the most relevant articles to the right reader at the right time to nudge them to subscribe, said LÉstrade. Because there are a large number of automated articles, the danger is either they will dominate the site or look too irrelevant if they aren’t distributed to a specific group of readers.
“Automated articles are often pretty niche and super interesting to a small number of people. That makes them perfect for a personalized news feed or a niche product,” she said. “It’s key to nail the context.”
MittMedia has a central editorial team that works with data-driven content development of nine people to improve the retention of digital subscribers. According to the media group, bringing more flexibility to unsubscribing has stabilized churn rates. Subscribers can pause their newsletters or unsubscribe by clicking a button, a popular feature for avid followers of seasonal sports like ice hockey. Currently, churn rate is between 12 percent and 14 percent, said LÉstrade.
Robot journalism is hot in Sweden. One of the country’s largest national titles, Schibsted’s evening tabloid Aftonbladet, which reached 250,000 digital subscribers by the end of 2017, has also pushed into automated content. MittMedia has partnered with tech company United Robots on automated content. Along with two other Swedish publishers, MittMedia is expanding the amount and type of automated content it publishes beyond property sales articles to include sports write-ups, texts about company registrations, bankruptcies and traffic and weather news.