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Financial Times: Driving towards a million digital subscribers one second at a time

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Financial Times

Cait O'Riordan, chief product and information officer at the FT, talked to Hot Topics about the importance of speed and personalization for her data-driven publication.

For publishers, the transition to digital has upended many conventional wisdoms. That said, it’s made one ‘truth’ more pertinent than ever.

Time is money.

And the beauty of digital is that it can tell you exactly how much time and how much money. In the case of Financial Times, the equation is simple:

One second equals five per cent.

An explanation. In 2016, the tech team at the FT re-launched FT.com and decided to make loading time a central focus. It sensed that a quicker site would correlate directly with more reader engagement.

Cait O’Riordan, chief product and information officer at the Financial Times, says: “Our hunch was that if we could make the site load faster we could increase engagement. But we didn’t just take that as read. We set out to build the fastest publishing website in the industry – and when we did that we slowed it down again to test what it did to engagement.

“By running a multi-direct test where each group got the site one second, two seconds, three seconds slower etc, we proved that by speeding up by one second you could increase engagement by five per cent.”

So there it is: one second equals five per cent.

But so what? Why the excitement about engagement? Simple. It correlates directly with revenue. O’Riordan explains: “The metric that drives growth in readership is engagement. We know that if you can get people to read more often, read more when they come and visit several times in a set period, they are less likely to churn. We know from our data analytics that there’s this direct relationship between engagement and revenue, so we could go after speed with great gusto.”

The FT had a similar hunch about personalization. It sensed that tweaking the experience for individual readers could also drive longer dwell times and more return visits. The result was MyFT, which invites the reader to select the companies, sectors and topics they are interested in. The FT then shows him or her a personalized version of the site and sends alerts based on the same parameters.

“We know if we can encourage a user to become an MyFT user it can increase engagement by 80 per cent,” says O’Riordan. “All the value is in getting the borderline-engaged into becoming engaged.”

These strategies have helped the FT to become one of the few ‘old’ media brands to flourish in the digital era. The company was among the first to pioneer a metered form of paywall, a combined print and digital subscription and a modified mobile site/app.

As a result, by 2013 the publication saw digital subscribers reach 300,000 – more than those in print. At the same time, digital revenues accounted for half of all sales across the FT Group.

By 2016, another milestone was reached. The FT achieved a record high circulation of almost 850,000 across digital and print, with digital subscriptions up 14 per cent to 650,000, more than three-quarters of the total paying audience.

O’Riordan is confident that the best is yet to come. “In 2016, we made more money from digital than print, and also more from content than advertising. The FT is a phenomenally metrics driven organization. We are now committed to delivering one million paying subscribers within a couple of years, and we are on course to do that.”

O’Riordan has learned that achieving this is not just about the decisions you make. It’s about how you make them. She says the fact that her role embraces both technology and product is very significant.

“In the past, the FT had a different set-up where product was separate from technology,” she says. “This creates a barrier to progress and innovation and collaboration. So for me it’s the right set up. It means we have a single decision maker and a position on the board. It means I can represent all of technology and balance things like cyber security and product innovation. It moves those conversations to a single place.”

O’Riordan argues that making decisions based on ‘neutral’ data rather than instinct has also helped the FT to avoid conflict. “Because we have data driven approach, it means were having a conversation about data and not whether my idea is better than yours or whether someone in the product team’s idea is better than someone in the editorial team’s idea,” she says.

This harmony is important because there are hard choices ahead. Not least, says O’Riordan, what to do about voice-enabled user interfaces. Clearly, the rise of devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home, and also interfaces like Siri and Cortana, pose huge questions for media organizations.

O’Riordan says: “We’ve made huge strides with FT.com, but it is still a version of what we’ve been printing for 130 years. That’s not the case with voice UI. We are starting to see that hockey stick growth in voice that we saw in mobile ten years ago. Our readers are engaging with this, so we have to ask: what is the FT product when there is nothing to look at?”

She admits this poses a tough challenge. But equally, it’s a chance to take ‘reading’ the FT into new areas. “Voice makes it possible for us to take FT content into spaces where we couldn’t before: when you’re cooking or washing up or driving,” says O’Riordan. “Our readers don’t have much time. If this opens up more time in which we can improve their relationship with the FT, that’s a huge opportunity for us.”