An unusual challenge: Grow the value of a customer base that’s been hit with a windstorm of record-breaking engagement.

The savvy solution: The most transformative technology to come along in years: artificial intelligence.

For Nick Rockwell, CTO of the New York Times — and a featured speaker at MB 2017 coming up July 11-12 — AI is foundational to his game plan to blow up the digital Times until it blots out the sky. His team is leveraging analytics and machine learning to create the kind of personalization strategies that can grow an audience hungry for more.

It all started during last year’s presidential election, when a screaming, tantrum-throwing orangutan raced against arguably the most qualified candidate to ever throw their hat in the presidential ring. The public was horrified, fascinated, terrified — and hooked. In the wake of the new normal, readership of The New York Times skyrocketed.

Though the electoral winner makes continuous claims that the media giant is “failing,” the numbers tell a different story. During the last three months of 2016, the Times gained 276,000 net digital-only subscribers — or more digital subscriptions in three months than in all of 2013 and 2014 combined. Digital advertising revenue, which makes up about 42 percent of the Times’s total revenue, rose 10.9 percent to $77.6 million in the quarter.

And Nick Rockwell, the minty-fresh brand-new CTO of the New York Times, was handed unprecedented success, but also one of the biggest challenges of his career: Keeping that momentum alive while killing the always-lurking specter of churn.

Join Rockwell along with leaders from Coca-Cola, Airbnb, Pandora, IBM, Walmart, and other chieftains of AI at MB 2017 in San Francisco, July 11-12. Register by May 22 to get 50% off early bird pricing. 

Another facet of the challenge: The Times is a subscription-first business, which means they’re not interested in maximizing clicks, selling low-margin advertising, or winning a pageviews arms race. Unlike some digital-first publications, the often-maligned, puzzlingly successful clickbait headline strategy isn’t going to do the trick.

This means the appointment of Rockwell to CTO and the ascendence of AI could not be better synchronized. Yes, traffic to the NYT is breaking records, but it still takes three to five years to turn a casual reader into a subscriber — and AI is now the secret sauce for accelerating that.

History of innovation

Rockwell’s been redefining what’s possible in the digital world since AOL CDs were a valuable commodity. In the mid-90s at the media startup, SonicNet, he helped destroy the limits of what online video technology was capable of, which caught the eye of MTV Networks. He served as senior vice president and CTO of digital media and digital technology at MTV, went on to become a tech leader at numerous startups, as well as the CTO at both and Conde Nast.

In 2015, when Rockwell was tapped to become the New York Times Company’s CTO, it signaled a seismic shift in the media company’s focus: The future would be digital.

Aggressive adoption

You don’t meaningfully evolve an iconic brand without taking risks. “We’ve historically been conservative as CTOs and CIOs,” Rockwell said in a recent interview.  “We’ve been trained to keep the lights on and make sure nothing breaks. It’s defensive and oriented towards future-proofing, and maximizing ROI. But we need to get super aggressive and adopt new technology.”

Rockwell will be talking exactly about that at this year’s MB 2017 as well as sharing innovative strategies and insights he’s picked up from his time in the trenches. It’s time to move from just-a-trend, AI as flavor du jour, into actionable strategies that transform how business is done.