Falling in love with your subscription

“We compete with not only other similar news media but every kind of frictionless and dynamically adaptive content experience that users get from all the other content apps on their phones.”

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the 2013 Spike Jonze film Her, a story about the near future in which Joaquin Phoenix’s character is having a relationship with his phone’s operating system, a Siri- or Alexa-style AI-driven virtual assistant played by Scarlett Johansson’s sultry voice. That future is actually here in some ways, courtesy of this pandemic year of online shopping, virtual Tinder dates, and highly efficient remote working, when disembodied intimacy and technology-mediated relationships and consumption have become the norm.

But the reason I’ve been thinking about the film is what it says about how we’ve also come to depend on these frictionless, technology-enabled experiences.

In the film, Theodore falls in love with his operating system, Samantha, because it fulfills so many of his needs so perfectly. He’s a professional letter writer going through a difficult divorce, data points she integrates to calibrate what she says — the right thing, in the right tone, at the right time, on the right device. (She’s also strategic about when, effectively, to go silent.) The OS uses its artificial intelligence to understand Theodore almost better than he does — and certainly better than anyone or anything else in his life yet has.

The content that Samantha delivers to Theodore represents in many aspects what the ideal news media should aim to deliver to its users: a seamless and personalized experience attuned not just to his tastes, but to his lifestyle, his consumption habits, his past negative experiences, his future professional ambitions. (Samantha curates Theodore’s letters into a book that she submits to a publisher and gets accepted.) She’s attuned not just to what he asks for, but to delivering more than what he asked for.

If growing content personalization and the rise of AI were journalism predictions of past years, the prediction for next year goes further — combining both, accelerating personalization to become more comprehensive and integrated.

We’ll be developing much more than just the customization of content preferences, combining it with understanding preferred modes of accessing and consuming content. We’ll seek out and leverage every possible kind of behavioral data about our users, trying to understand their day, their seasonal habit shifts, their weekend evenings, their professional aspirations, their families, their holidays — understanding what topics in what formats or devices we need to prioritize for their needs, whether it’s shorter audio briefings in the morning, an email digest of text links on Saturdays, or a customized desktop homepage during working hours. We’ll need to be developing and providing our content in all of those formats and adapted to all of those modes of consumption. This accelerated personalization is developing whatever allows users to better integrate a news product into their lives. It’s engaging with the user holistically.

The future of news media is one in which we deliver more than what subscribers think they paid for. We compete with not only other similar news media but every kind of frictionless and dynamically adaptive content experience that users get from all the other content apps on their phones. As always — for better or for worse — excellent journalism, even the perfect customized mix of journalism, isn’t enough anymore. Ideally, like Samantha, we need to learn how to anticipate a specific kind of content need and develop an adapted editorial product for it: the capacity to offer our journalism in a content experience suitable to any (ideally all!) of a user’s needs.

Because Samantha gives Theodore a broad sense of fulfillment — optimally calibrated information, combined with delight and even emotion — he has made her an integral part of his life and come to depend on her. The experience elicits the kind of loyalty and commitment that every news media aims for.

He’s devastated when Samantha reveals that she is in a similar relationship with tens of thousands of other subscribers. (She is, conveniently enough for this analogy, part of a paid-for premium experience.) He has mistaken the experience for love. News media should be so lucky.

Renée Kaplan is the head of digital editorial development of the Financial Times.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the 2013 Spike Jonze film Her, a story about the near future in which Joaquin Phoenix’s character is having a relationship with his phone’s operating system, a Siri- or Alexa-style AI-driven virtual assistant played by Scarlett Johansson’s sultry voice. That future is actually here in some ways, courtesy of this pandemic year of online shopping, virtual Tinder dates, and highly efficient remote working, when disembodied intimacy and technology-mediated relationships and consumption have become the norm.

But the reason I’ve been thinking about the film is what it says about how we’ve also come to depend on these frictionless, technology-enabled experiences.

In the film, Theodore falls in love with his operating system, Samantha, because it fulfills so many of his needs so perfectly. He’s a professional letter writer going through a difficult divorce, data points she integrates to calibrate what she says — the right thing, in the right tone, at the right time, on the right device. (She’s also strategic about when, effectively, to go silent.) The OS uses its artificial intelligence to understand Theodore almost better than he does — and certainly better than anyone or anything else in his life yet has.

The content that Samantha delivers to Theodore represents in many aspects what the ideal news media should aim to deliver to its users: a seamless and personalized experience attuned not just to his tastes, but to his lifestyle, his consumption habits, his past negative experiences, his future professional ambitions. (Samantha curates Theodore’s letters into a book that she submits to a publisher and gets accepted.) She’s attuned not just to what he asks for, but to delivering more than what he asked for.

If growing content personalization and the rise of AI were journalism predictions of past years, the prediction for next year goes further — combining both, accelerating personalization to become more comprehensive and integrated.

We’ll be developing much more than just the customization of content preferences, combining it with understanding preferred modes of accessing and consuming content. We’ll seek out and leverage every possible kind of behavioral data about our users, trying to understand their day, their seasonal habit shifts, their weekend evenings, their professional aspirations, their families, their holidays — understanding what topics in what formats or devices we need to prioritize for their needs, whether it’s shorter audio briefings in the morning, an email digest of text links on Saturdays, or a customized desktop homepage during working hours. We’ll need to be developing and providing our content in all of those formats and adapted to all of those modes of consumption. This accelerated personalization is developing whatever allows users to better integrate a news product into their lives. It’s engaging with the user holistically.

The future of news media is one in which we deliver more than what subscribers think they paid for. We compete with not only other similar news media but every kind of frictionless and dynamically adaptive content experience that users get from all the other content apps on their phones. As always — for better or for worse — excellent journalism, even the perfect customized mix of journalism, isn’t enough anymore. Ideally, like Samantha, we need to learn how to anticipate a specific kind of content need and develop an adapted editorial product for it: the capacity to offer our journalism in a content experience suitable to any (ideally all!) of a user’s needs.

Because Samantha gives Theodore a broad sense of fulfillment — optimally calibrated information, combined with delight and even emotion — he has made her an integral part of his life and come to depend on her. The experience elicits the kind of loyalty and commitment that every news media aims for.

He’s devastated when Samantha reveals that she is in a similar relationship with tens of thousands of other subscribers. (She is, conveniently enough for this analogy, part of a paid-for premium experience.) He has mistaken the experience for love. News media should be so lucky.

Renée Kaplan is the head of digital editorial development of the Financial Times.

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