How to harness human bias in algorithmic content curation

How to Harness Human Bias in Algorithmic Content Curation

Algorithms that curate content are a popular villain. We know now how Facebook has repeatedly used them, both in politics and personal life. They are well known for amplifying human biases – because algorithms run on data, and it is humans that pick the data that is used and also how it is applied. But what if we could harness human bias to run an algorithm that actually made humans’ lives better? What if we could find places where it’s a good thing to have human views and to ensure that they actually matter more than what the algorithm considers important – while the algorithm takes on tasks that rely less on the power of human discernment? This is what we set out to do when we created Sophi Site Automation, an AI system that incorporates the best of human judgment as well as machine learning, with safeguards built in to prevent the machine from descending into clickbait hell. Let me explain. Sophi Site Automation places content on publishers’ pages according to what is most valuable to them (where “value” incorporates subscriber acquisition and retention as well as reach on search, social and other platforms). But most importantly, Sophi will only place content on a page within constraints specified by editors. In other words, the humans entrusted with safeguarding the brand and mission of a newspaper are the ones who decide the parameters for what is eligible for placement on a digital page. This makes logical sense. Editors are the stewards of the brand. They work for your publication because they care about what you do -- and about what they do. They are detail-oriented and mission-oriented professionals. That is why you hire them. If you want your website to look as though it is being run by thoughtful humans who understand your brand, it is important that you take their thought process into account when setting up an algorithm to do the work of content curation. So, editors decide what kind of content can go where – the mix of topics, how old an article can be, and so on. We encode this in the algorithm. Then, we let Sophi do its work. We let it optimize the placement of content so that the most valuable articles are getting exactly the right amount of promotion on the right spots of the page and being served to the right segments of the audience. We are now experimenting with true one-to-one personalization. Does it work? As a journalist, I was surprised to see how well it works. We have been using Sophi Site Automation to place 99 per cent of the content on The Globe and Mail’s digital pages for more than two years now. Our click-through rates and subscriber acquisition rates are dramatically higher. But the most remarkable result is that not a single reader has noticed that it is an algorithm placing content on the page. We have received not one complaint or question from our readers (and I can tell you that they are generally not shy about complaining or questioning our news judgment!). By running our digital pages for us, Sophi has given our editors time to work as journalists, to find news and use their superior story-telling abilities and news judgment to shape coverage. They are back to doing what humans do far better than any machine can, bringing about change by holding the rich and powerful to account. But does the algorithm ever make questionable decisions? Yes. Our editors don’t love every single decision that it makes. In those rare cases, editors can override Sophi’s decisions by using a simple Slack command that takes a few second to execute. This is generally used about one to four times a day, which is impressive, considering that we produce hundreds of articles a day. As an aside, what has been really interesting is to see what the algorithm has taught us. We had assumed that our news content had a short shelf life. We had assumed that readers did not value our service journalism as highly as our news content. We had assumed that wire content would never be as valuable as our proprietorial journalism. And we were wrong on all three counts. There was a lot more value in our content than we had imagined, and it took an algorithm that channeled human intuition to unlock it.

Organizations need a strong first party data strategy

The Best Way to Activate Your First Party Data Strategy

Google deferred the death of the third party cookie until 2023, but that only means you have a little extra time to take ownership of your relationships with your audience and get to know your customers within your own site. If you go to many sites today, within a few seconds you‘re immediately presented with a giant popup window asking you to sign up for a newsletter you’re not currently interested in given the value you haven’t yet received from that site. It’s ultimately an irritating barrier to what you’re trying to accomplish on that website. Now there is hopefully some A/B testing behind that registration popup, but it’s definitely not the most effective way to get signups and build relationships – by asking (bothering, really) everyone, all the time. “That’s a common first party data strategy these days, but the likelihood of success just isn’t very high,” said Gordon Edall, Co-Founder and CRO of The newsletter bar may be lower than when you’re trying to drive registrations or logins or an account-type relationship, so it’s easier to be more… should I say persistent, and care less about scaring visitors away. But this is all part of a chain of actions you take to get your users and customers to tell you more. You need them to login so you can develop a first party relationship. Gordon explains: “Sophi Upsell, very similar to Sophi Dynamic Paywall Engine, treats this as a problem of progressive disclosure – how do you get from one piece of data about your visitor, to two pieces of data, to a completely different relationship with higher loyalty, retention and engagement.” The key here is that Sophi understands when and where some of these steps can be skipped in order to get a consumer to your end goal faster. Companies usually follow the ordered steps of first asking a user to register, then asking for their credit card for a sale or subscription, and so on. All these steps are great opportunities to activate your first party data strategy and learn about your customer, but not every consumer needs to follow those steps in that progressive order. Making everyone follow the same path regardless of who they are and where they are in the buying cycle is a slow, ineffective process that can be optimized using artificial intelligence and machine learning-powered solutions like Sophi Upsell, which has visible advantages over more progressive data strategies. Sophi’s technology system is designed to get you to the highest value state as quickly as possible. Don’t ask someone to sign up for a low value newsletter when you actually want them to take out their credit card and make a purchase. Sophi Upsell is fully dynamic and personalized in real-time. Sophi can tell you – through your offer management system – how often to ask for an account signup first and bypass the newsletter all together. Or for people who signed up for a newsletter and haven’t given you their name or income yet for example, Sophi can tell you as soon as there’s a chance to trigger ‘tell me more about you’. Once Sophi understand the tiers of your offers (for example: do nothing, ask for a registration, get a credit card number), it understands the goal and automatically goes after as many victories as possible, looking at each individual user and their propensity to say yes to a given tier of offers at that particular moment in time. “Sophi takes your value proposition and gets users to the higher levels of value in their relationship with you, as quickly as possible.” – Mike O’Neill, Co-Founder and CEO of It’s highly portable too as it’s a lightweight trigger engine. It doesn’t replace your marketing technology stack; it integrates into it. It enhances the systems you already have in place, making them work better to achieve your goals more effectively. Sophi Upsell can also be used to drive ecommerce sales directly to grow revenue, but that’s a whole other conversation. To recap, Google has postponed the death of the third party cookie, but it is still dying. If you want that invaluable relationship with your customers, you need to start building it now by developing a robust first party data strategy within your own platforms. This inevitably means moving to a registration-based relationship where users tell you what you want to know. And they aren’t just going to do that on their own. You need to convince them to do that, to tell you their gender and their income and so on. Your competition is working on this now, so don’t handicap yourself by not taking those steps today. Feel free to reach out to discuss enabling and optimizing your first party data strategy.

Innovations in News Media World Report 2022 features

Innovation in News Media World Report 2022 highlights

Co-authors Authors Juan Senor and Jayant Sriram highlight Sophi as an example of innovation in 3 categories: business models for monetization, paywall strategies for acquisition or retention, and digital product innovations publishers can take inspiration from (where they highlight Agderposten’s use of Naviga Publisher powered by, our AI-powered, automated print solution). The authors write, “At the very cutting edge of this approach is the artificial intelligence system called Sophi, developed by Canadian publisher The Globe and Mail. Sophi powers a fully dynamic, personalised real time system that decides when, or even if, to show a paywall. The unique thing about this paywall is...” Read the full report here.

WAN-IFRA's Digital Media Awards Worldwide Winner is
News Wins at WAN-IFRA Digital Media Awards Worldwide 2021, The Globe and Mail’s artificial intelligence-based automation, optimization and prediction engine, won WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media Awards Worldwide 2021 in the Best Paid Content Strategy category for Sophi Dynamic Paywall, its real-time, personalized paywall engine that analyses both content and user behaviour to determine when to ask a reader for money or an email address, and when to leave them alone. The judges unanimously selected Sophi Dynamic Paywall as the winner, with one judge commenting: “What Globe and Mail did is state of the art – absolute fantastic job. I appreciate most that The G&M permanently tested against the OLD paywall, so those results are really sustainable! Well done!”, and another adding “An outstanding entry and it is brilliant to see that it exceeded expectations and goals by a significant margin. Congratulations!” The World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA)’s Digital Media Awards Worldwide is the news media industry’s global digital media competition. The worldwide winners are selected from the winners of the regional Digital Media Awards in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, North America and South Asia, which together provide news publishers with regular showcases for best-practice innovation in digital publishing worldwide. The awards recognize and celebrate the best of digital media. The competition was fierce and we applaud the regional winners. Sophi is an artificial-intelligence system that helps publishers identify their most valuable content and leverage it to achieve key business goals. The Sophi suite of tools also consists of Sophi Site Automation which autonomously curates content across all of a publisher’s digital properties and Sophi Content Paywall which uses complex natural language processing routines to analyze every piece of content and select articles to put behind a paywall, ensuring the subscription revenue opportunity is greater than the advertising revenue forgone. Publishers on five continents now use Sophi’s AI and ML technology to power paywall decisions, website automation and print automation.


Simon Owens interviews Gordon Edall, VP of

Simon Owens recently spoke with Sophi’s Gordon Edall about how Sophi Dynamic Paywall, Sophi Site Automation and Sophi Social are helping publishers around the world generate more revenue. Here’s a peak at what they discussed: “This triggered a lightbulb moment. “David Walmsley, our editor in chief, was looking over the shoulder of his best and brightest assigning editors, the people running the home pages, and they were basically nudging the red circles down and nudging the blue circles up on our pages all day long. So in a moment of shocking awareness of the potential to change the way his people were doing work, he actually reached out to the data science group to say, ‘what would happen if you guys just let the computer start to make some of the decisions about which stories should run where?’” In other words, the newsroom was volunteering to give up homepage control to Sophi. Since then, Sophi has taken on more and more functions, from recommending content on pages to even scheduling out social media posts. Flash forward a few years, and the results speak for themselves.” Read the full article here, and listen to the podcast here.