Croatia’s largest news publisher was an old-school newspaper organisation where “mad men” pulled all the decision strings, relying on “senior experience.” Today, 24sata is a fully digital operation heavily using data and analytics in all decisions on all levels of the organisation.
In a Webinar on Wednesday, CEO Boris Trupcevic explained to INMA members how 24sata transformed and why it is about to almost fully automatise and personalise its product with its own AI solution.
Styria Media Group, the company under which 24sata operates, has a diversified portfolio across Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria. 24sata is the most sold and read Croatian daily news publisher, with 1.9 million unique monthly users to its Web site.
“What is interesting about us is that our strategy today carries a working title of digital-only,” Trupcevic said. This change came about after the decline of print publishing in recent years — to be sustainable even when print is gone.
Gut feeling versus data analytics
The old way that 24sata, as well as other publishers, did business was by gut feeling. “This is the key method, experiential, that we used for decades. This was measured by just two KPIs: readership and circulation. That was a pretty simple business, just two numbers. The rest, how people use content, was more or less guesswork. And of course editors knew best, though this was just their wishful thinking.”
What 24sata tried to do was apply the same principle of those two KPIs to the digital world. “This actually did not turn out well, to state the obvious,” Trupcevic admitted. “Somebody told media that clicks were most important, and everybody took that bait.”
Once the company realised this was a false measurement to use on its own, 24sata took a look at what really mattered: time.
“Time is the only true measure of what we are in the lives of our readers,” Trupcevic said. “We decided for our company, that time will be the master KPI. Along with that is frequency. We kept the data on real users and page impressions, but now we observe that on a daily basis.”
While these things might be obvious today, they were not so three years ago when 24sata underwent this change. “By putting all of our focus and effort on the most important metric of time, we had a dramatic increase in our users,” Trupcevic shared. In three years, its Web site saw an increase of 2.3 times in the amount of time spent.
The news brand did this, Trupcevic explained, by hiring what he calls “Incredibles” to be the ambassadors and evangelists in data-driven decisions. One thing this team did was to create a data brand performance report that is produced daily.
“We took the time to become data-obsessed throughout all of the company,” he said. This included realisations that click-bait readers are irrelevant, and it’s the frequent-use reader habits that should drive all their decisions.
The company also trained the rest of the staff, outside the Incredibles team, so that everyone across the organisation understood data and its important implication on everything — technology, human resources, sales, etc.
“Today, we regularly observe more than 130 different KPIs in the organisation, and we use more than 40 tools to generate that data,” Trupcevic said. The company is constantly evolving this and evaluating what KPIs it should use and how to gather and analyse data. “This job basically never ends.”
Before this transformation, Trupcevic estimated only a quarter of employees used data. Today, 95% of them do. Yet the team realised it needed to do even more. This led to the creation of a 24sata Artificial Intelligence (AI) team of 12 people in 2015.
“We learned that we are sitting on really huge amounts of data and data sets, and we wondered what we should do with that,” Trupcevic said. “We learned that we can accomplish breakthroughs with machine learning and data if we hired the right people.”
The 24sata team has received numerous awards for this work. “We saw that with a very small team and a lot of resource limitations compared to giant technology companies, you can really do a lot,” Trupcevic added.
He shared the cutting-edge work that the AI team did, including visual search for object recognition. This resulted in an app that allowed a user to take a photograph of anything and have results returned of everything on the digital marketplace that matched that item. It was the first such app globally, and increased user engagement by over 300%.
“We not only beat the big guys in being first in the marketplace but also in quality and results,” Trupcevic said. That app led to the next AI object recognition tool, which allowed users to upload a photo of anything and get all of the information possible on that item, down to details such as model numbers, etc., with more than 90% accuracy.
The team also achieved a number of other accomplishments, including a contextual recommender at 24sata.com, creation of its own publishing platform, automating the 24-hour news tagging system, and Big Data/Deep Learning achievements. There have also been many pilots and proof of concepts developed, from contextual spell checkers and natural linguistic processing to pattern and facial recognition.
“That’s not the end,” Trupcevic said. “We have many future plans.” These include helping the editor-in-chief use AI to do his job, generating some articles completely automatically. The team has already been experimenting with this, as part of the Embeddia project funded by the European Union.
The team also will focus highly on personalisation and a tagging system. “Our team has won a grant from Google of half a million Euros to create a personalised platform for regional news publishing,” Trupcevic said. This includes not only its own content, but that from other publishers.
“Not everybody gets everything by a shotgun, but rather a selection based on their browsing history and what they are used to consume. We will target them not only with content they are interested in personally, but avoid that which they aren’t.”
In March 2020, 24sata will undergo the most radical transformation of a media platform digitally worldwide. This full re-launch will mean that most of the users, for the first time, will receive their own fully personalised feed. Some editorially chosen content will still remain on the home page regardless, for all readers, though this will be just a few pieces. “I think it’s going to be the most radical experiment in personalisation in the legacy media industry.”
Time spent at 24sata.com is four times higher than what anybody else in the market has as a benchmark, and Trupcevic that the team achieved this by focusing on the data. “In frequency, we are also the dominant player in Croatia, and we are also the video champion, getting close to 100 video views a month. Google made an analysis of the Croatian market and came to the conclusion that our digital advertising is 57% more effective than any other.”
Google trends also shows 24sata has truly become the main destination for news in Croatia — above Facebook and Google.
“For us it was really a hell of a ride, because it was a huge transformational process in the company,” Trupcevic concluded. “We needed to switch many minds, but finally we managed to do this and make people understand how this could make their lives easier and their jobs more successful by relying on data and insights.”
INMA: When you first started this, there must have been some scepticism, or did everyone buy into the philosophy? How did you convince them?
Trupcevic: We did that gradually, and of course not everyone agreed. I’m not against gut feeling. It’s valuable, but it can also be highly misleading. I think the most important thing was not forcing people to use the tools, but let them get into it gradually. Many myths were busted (content importance, what the audience wanted). The data insights themselves are what convinced people.
INMA: How did everybody learn how to read the data?
Trupcevic: For the key people, we did serious trainings. For many of the general staff we did a more general training to explain to them which KPIs we have and why they are important. The most important thing is to give the people the “why” — without that, they will simply not buy this. We want to make sure that everybody understands at least the top five KPIs. They also do not ask people to use data, but let them know that it’s mandatory.
INMA: How many people do you have in your newsroom, and what are your most important KPIs?
Trupcevic: We have roughly 150 people in the newsroom. The most important KPI is time, and they get rewarded primarily for achieving results in time and frequency. We also look at page impressions per section or journalist, and we observe on a daily basis the most clicked articles and specially observe what articles generate the most time spent. Going deeper, specifically video, have specific KPIs.
INMA: Would you be willing to share the 133 KPIs in the report your team is using?
Trupcevic: Sure, I could share that. It’s no big secret. We gathered all the KPIs we could find and put them into a book, which at first looks overwhelming. But it’s broken down and distributed to different people responsible with different tasks.
INMA: Is the technology you’ve built for other companies to use?
Trupcevic: Some of it is, and some is not. We use the technology that we developed, but also many services and tools developed by others. More than 20 key technologies. As far as I know there’s an open door in the area of object and visual search. We do have external clients on that technology. The personalisation is meant to be used by others, so if we survive this huge experiment we are happy to share this with other media outlets.