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The Financial Times celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, but for a traditional news title with a rich heritage, it is having to face the demands of an internet age.
Editor Lionel Barber told staff at the start of the year that it needs to be a “digital platform first and a newspaper second”.
After a visit to Silicon Valley in the US, Barber confirmed the need to be nimble. “My visit last September confirmed the speed of change. Our competitors are harnessing technology to revolutionise the news business through aggregation, personalisation and social media. Mobile, for example, accounts for 25 per cent of all the FT’s digital traffic.
It would be reckless for us to stand still.” Mobile traffic is now up to 30 per cent and content or subscription revenues for the FT on any platform look set to overtake advertising revenues.
Leading that push from a marketing perspective is Jocelyn Cripps, executive vice-president of global B2C marketing, who took up the newly-created role in 2012 following the integration of the print and digital subscriptions teams. She says the FT has to operate more like an online retail business than a content publisher, particularly regarding engaging readers; her job is to focus on how data can provide a complete picture of readers.
“It’s about offering a better, more complete customer experience,” she says, “because consumers don’t change as a result of the platform they are using.”
The new team structure, which reflects the increase in multi-channel media consumption, encompasses audience development, acquisition, CRM, retention, operations and analytics, and follows the integration of print and digital teams across editorial, sales and B2B marketing. Cripps, who is a direct marketing specialist and started her career at Lowe Direct, is well-placed to meet those challenges.
While some news titles have struggled to implement payment models, it is a strategy that appears to be working for the FT.
It was one of the first news organisations to introduce a payment strategy for online content and it operates a tiered model that allows registered readers to view eight articles every 30 days before being prompted to subscribe. Digital subscriptions surpassed print circulation for the first time in 2012, growing 18 per cent to almost 316,000. According to its preliminary results statement the FT’s combined paid print and online audience is 602,000, a modest increase on 2011.
Cripps is aiming to get readers to use more of its content, which in turn will encourage them to subscribe. “We’re testing something called ‘recommended reads’, looking at what data should go into providing those recommendations. What we’re aiming to do is push people deeper into the content so that they get into a routine of accessing more content – and will eventually fall through into subscription status.”
Having tested many potential influencers, Cripps concludes that behavioural data is the most telling, adding: “It’s what people have been looking at most over a certain period of time, which is the leading indicator” rather than demographic or sector.
She continues: “Each test is done in a controlled environment, and each set of results is combined with other data so that we can progress. Each time, we tweak it more to get the best combination of offers, timing and price expressions, [thus] enabling us to keep improving and increasing our subscriptions.”
Data is at the heart of everything the FT does, and another benefit of integrating the print and digital teams is the larger pool of information it creates, leading to a single customer view.
“We collect a certain amount of data when people register with the site, which is important for us,” she says. “We are appending to that all the time as we learn where people are going, what type of content they are looking at and what type of platforms they are accessing it on.”
As sales become increasingly content driven, payment optimisation, although not typically part of the marketing remit, is a key strategic focus for Cripps.
The FT has carried out a lot of work on the ‘purchase funnel’ over the past six months, looking particularly at why customers drop off before finalising a payment. Cripps predicts that once this is fixed it will generate a 30 per cent sales uplift.
“We have identified a number of areas, which if not optimised, can cause people to fall off [making the payment]. The way businesses charge, the information they provide and the validation process [are all important]. By working closely with the merchants and understanding how money is transferred, we can be a lot smarter.”
Video enables us to distribute news in a very effective way, certainly to social media channels
If the FT sees that someone is experiencing problems, it can serve a relevant message into the sign-up form, or point them towards customer services. It is also aiming to introduce a click-to-call function to make it easier to get in touch from mobile devices.
The integration of the print and digital teams has also given wider scope for product development. Cripps says that one innovation due to launch imminently is Fast FT, which offers short, sharp and informed takes on market-breaking news, reflecting the fact that the traditional newspaper timetable is no longer reliable to deliver news.
“We’ve talked a lot about our digital-first strategy and this is one of the first embellishments of that. The idea is to get the market’s leading stories straight out into that market rather than waiting for them to be published in the paper. You do see that on FT.com but this is taking it a step further. It is not dissimilar to our Alphaville model [a free daily news and commentary service for finance professionals], which has a very committed and loyal community.”
Last week, it also started streaming editorial content to outdoor display screens, tailoring content by location and time of day.
Increasing engagement is a running theme throughout the business and although the CRM and retention team is tasked with boosting people’s propensity to come back by analysing consumer behaviour and alerting readers when relevant content is coming up, no one department is solely responsible for engagement.
People from editorial, product development and marketing are encouraged to pitch in via the FT’s internal blog Neo, which is where new concepts and results are also shared.
Video is a key driver of engagement and will become increasingly prominent this year as the FT looks to bring its products and services to life, says Cripps.
“Video enables us to distribute news in a very effective way, certainly into social media channels. When we have new products we will work with journalists and put them on camera to explain how they will make a difference to our customers. We’ve got some things coming out in the next month or so which will demonstrate that effectively.”
Although the FT is quite advanced within the publishing industry, when it comes to digital development, the business is not blinkered and still looks to other more digitally-driven industries to gain insight.
“Gambling and casino businesses are fantastic at collecting money, up-selling and cross-selling,” says Cripps. “At the time of purchase there is so much opportunity to get someone to do more, or for us to collect more data. When people come in and sign up for a standard subscription, for example, there is huge potential to up-sell to a premium subscription, if it is done at the right time and with the right message.”
And as the paper is firmly established in the UK and Europe, where sales are consistent, there is still room for growth in the US, which is one of the reasons why Cripps is based in the US and more teams will be moving there.
“The way the brand is perceived [in the US] is very different to the UK, Europe and even Asia,” observes Cripps. “There are different levels of brand maturity and a different environment for global business news. The US is such a huge market and there are already well-established players [like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal], but the people who love the FT love it for its global perspective.”
The FT Group, which is owned by Pearson and accounts for around 10 per cent of the business, reported a 4 per cent increase in revenues during 2012 to £443m, but pre-tax profit dropped 36 per cent to £49m, due to advertising being ‘generally weak and volatile with poor visibility’.
There have long been rumours that Pearson is looking to sell the FT business, with speculation that it does not align with the rest of its more education-focused portfolio, but new chief executive John Fallon has denied such claims. Pearson has announced a £200m restructuring over the next two years, to free up cash to invest in emerging markets and digital businesses (see Q&A).
Asia is one of those emerging markets. Having worked for the FT in Hong Kong for six years prior to taking up her present role, Cripps believes the marketing approach is different as the market is so condensed in comparison.
“Hong Kong has a big ex-pat community and it’s a financially driven market. The status of the brand is also very strong. It’s not as if The Wall Street Journal has a huge circulation or a digital footprint that’s bigger than the FT. Everyone is on a par.”
Although it is important to have a consistent overarching brand message across all regions, the FT also takes on board local trends.
For example, Cripps says: “Asia is particularly mobile-oriented, so it’s about looking at how we can take advantage of that, which could be mobile sign-up forms or mobile payments. Those are the types of things starting to come down the line and we are going to be testing them in some of the Asian markets first.”
Mobile has been a huge growth area for the FT over the past few years with mobile devices now accounting for 30 per cent of FT.com traffic and 15 per cent of new subscriptions. But as the market develops, Cripps says it is now becoming more about the ‘phablet’ – an amalgamation of phone and tablet.
“It’s still about platforms but there’s not the huge acceleration of technology [that there was three or four years ago]. We’re still seeing all these devices but they’re condensing. It’s not a mobile phone, it’s not a tablet, it’s a midway and a whole lot of interactivity is going to be built into it. For us, that means we need to have customised content, responsive design, mobile payment options and shorter forms for signing up – all those things that are optimised for mobile platforms are really important.”
The FT has made big strides in mobile development, particularly following the launch of its web app, which was done independently of Apple after concerns were raised over data-sharing when the tech giant changed its terms and conditions.
The app, which has more than 3.5 million users, enables the FT to offer a single login across all devices, which in turn allows it to build more detailed audience profiles. Another widely speculated reason for the decision to side-step Apple is the fact the news organisation no longer has to pay the 30 per cent commission demanded by the tech company.
However, Cripps insists it does not mean it has dismissed Apple altogether.
“We’re very device-neutral and open to partnerships,” she insists. “While we’re not in the iTunes store for subscriptions, we are for some of our other titles like FT Chinese and How To Spend It [magazine]. We haven’t ruled it out for ever, it was a decision at that time. We always look at the opportunity and where that audience is and that’s what leads us to the strategy.”
The FT has clearly come a long way since its inception 125 years ago. The business then, compared to now, is miles apart in terms of strategic focus and product offering, but the underlying sentiment of the brand remains the same. What happens over the next 125 years remains to be seen, but continued innovation and forward-thinking remain firmly on the agenda.
CV: Jocelyn Cripps
2012 – Executive vice-president, global B2C marketing, Financial Times (based in New York)
2006 – Marketing director APAC, Financial Times (based in Hong Kong)
2003 – Director of marketing intelligence, Financial Times
2001 – Head of global direct marketing, Financial Times
1999 – Marketing manager, direct marketing and subscriptions, Financial Times
1996 – Account director, Lowe Direct, managing customer acquisition and retention for clients including News International and Lloyds TSB