The Financial Times now has 1 million paying readers, reaching its target a year ahead of schedule, thanks to a long-term view and a data-first approach that balances building products for new audiences while retaining current readers.
According to the publisher, digital subscriptions now account for more than three-quarters of the FT’s circulation. Last year, the FT Group recorded revenues of £383 million ($502 million) with profits of £25 million ($33 million). CEO John ridding attributes the success to its subscription model and investment in digital transformation, plus authoritative reporting in an age of fake news.
In the pivot to paid era, while many publishers are spinning up their own reader revenue strategies, the FT took 17 years to reach 1 million paying subscribers, moving from a meter to a month-long trial for a reduced price in 2015.
“That’s what long-term planning and long-term investment looks like,” said Douglas McCabe, CEO at Enders Analysis. “Of all the businesses we have spoken to, the FT has the closest to what I would call a ‘first principles’ approach. They do not employ hundreds of people on the subscription funnel, but they do have a very clear strategic framework and clear decision-making criteria for understanding trade-offs.”
The FT’s audience engagement team makes a significant difference in tweaking, nudging and evolving the right experience for readers and the right attention on readers services by journalists, he added.
For instance, the FT is using data science to connect the dots from certain metrics, like how content has performed to how often people visit the FT, how regularly and how many stories they read per visit, subscriber acquisition and retention, which are centered around people and how they behave.
A new metric, called Quality Reads, shows the percentage of page views where the reader has read at least half of the article, estimated by time on page, scroll depth, and what it knows about how subscribers interact with similar content. The news desks then get weekly, desk-by-desk analytics reports.
The FT has also used different types of formats and stories to attract new audiences, like through data visualizations, interactive games and multimedia approaches that incorporate art into its journalism, like the “Cry from the Irish Border” featuring commissioned original work from a poet and an audio reading recorded from the border. This extends to live events, with more experiences on stage for a theatrical newsroom showcase in the upcoming FT On Stage.
Reaching younger readers has also been a well-established initiative through its long-term program to get school kids and teachers regularly reading FT content. It’s adapted and evolved its Explainers articles through new templates after feedback from younger and female readers has shown that sometimes the FT can be inaccessible.
“Newsletters and personalization features like My FT [where readers can select preferred topics and save stories] are a key part of its strategy, but all of that is driven by data,” said Nic Newman, editor of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report.
The FT has launched Long Story Short, which is aimed at and written by women, as well as driven more regular reading through newsletters like mergers and acquisitions-focused Due Diligence. According to sources at the publisher, the FT launched push notifications in the second half of 2018 and which has increased the recency, frequency and volume of articles read.
Media analysts don’t anticipate the FT is nearing its subscriber ceiling yet. “The Reuters Institute data on the propensity to pay for online news shows that a little under 5 million people in the U.K. are willing to pay for access, so I don’t think we are anywhere near the ceiling,” said McCabe adding that the ceiling is expected to rise as publishers improve their offering. The FT has said that already 70 percent of its readers come from outside of the U.K. Thirty years ago the title’s audience was almost exclusively U.K. readers. Equally, having more readers from businesses paying for content, as the FT does, is more sustainable than just consumers.
That’s not to say that growth for the next 1 million will be easy, especially when more publishers are developing their own reader revenue strategies. Incumbents like News UK’s The Times of London hit half a million paying subscribers last summer. Last November, the Guardian said that more than 1 million readers contributed financially to the title, although the range of those contributions varies. The weekly title The Economist has 1.6 million print and digital subscribers, according to the Audited Bureau of Circulations.
“Ultimately it is a question of segmentation,” said Greg Harwood, director at strategy and marketing consultant Simon-Kucher & Partners. “The key will be to invest in the right way, continuing to test and learn from new initiatives, develop a deep understanding of the wants and preferences for the audience that currently remains untapped and how best to communicate this to get them over that hurdle.”
The FT was unable to comment by press time.