Most publishers design their sites in secret, then pull back the curtain for a big reveal. But the Financial Times is taking an altogether different approach.

Subscription revenue is core to the FT’s business model — paid-for content accounts for more than half of the revenue — and the publisher has been pushing time-based ads where advertisers are charged based on how long an ad is in view rather than how many people saw it. So how long readers stay on the site is critical.

That’s why for the next-gen site, dubbed NextFT, the FT is taking its time. NextFT has been in the works for a year, and there’s no hard date for a full public relaunch. In that time, it’s been bringing readers under the hood — about 15 percent of users are seeing NextFT — and tinkering as it goes. There have already been four homepage redesigns, based on reader feedback online and in focus groups.

“This is a much more customer-focused process than we’ve had before,” said Bede McCarthy, director of product. “With our last redesign, it was much more about our personal ego. That’s just not how a good digital company operates now.”

As a result of this process, the FT said its opt-out rate — the rate of testers choosing to go back to the current version — is declining. Here’s what the FT has done so far and what it has learned:

Speed
The faster you can get people to news that’s relevant to them, the more they’ll read, and the more they read, the better the chances they’ll continue to subscribe. So the FT, like other publishers, has been combing its site for code that slows down the load time, risking impatient readers abandoning the site, getting rid of code in some cases and building its own with speed in mind.

By doing this, the FT has cut its start-render load time (the amount of time it takes for the reader to see the site in view) to 1.2 seconds on Chrome from 8 seconds, and the FT is aiming to cut that down even more, to 1 second. It has built a core experience so that if a user is using an older device or has a poor connection, the site will still load fast. “We still have customers who use Blackberrys,” McCarthy said.

current ft homepage
Above, the current FT homepage
NextFT homepage
Above, the homepage of NextFT, which is available to 15 percent of the audience

Content marketing
Again, attracting and retaining subscribers is critical to the FT’s business, which is why the FT has a 30-person data team focused on consumer research. “Selling them on the benefits is kind of an upsell thing,” McCarthy said. “More broadly, our entire model rests on getting people engaged and getting enough value from their subscription to make sure they renew their subscription.” So future readers can expect to see more messages reminding them what they can get from their subscription or pitching them an upgrade.

Personalization
NextFT has a new section called MyFT that lets people follow specific topics and writers and they’ll populate a “MyFT” feed. They can also choose how they’re notified if there’s news on those topics. Readers also can expect to see more prominent and relevant story recommendations related to the story they’re on.

Video
Among the design changes to NextFT — a new logo, simplified navigation and mobile-responsive design given half the audience is coming on mobile devices — is video. While other publishers are blowing up the size of video players to goose video views, NextFT pushed the video lower down the page and replaced one big unit with four smaller ones.

“There’s still a lot that the FT provides that’s easier to consume in text form, and our customers are still reading a lot,” McCarthy said.

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