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70% of FT readers are outside UK: Here’s how it’s driving global growth

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The Financial Times topped 1M subscribers this year, a goal it had aimed to reach in 2020. When asked about the challenge of reaching the next million, as other publishers also up their game, the FT’s CEO John Ridding said, “The opportunity is well, well beyond 1 million.” 

He could have added that it also went beyond subscriptions, for as the FT charts its growth course, it’s spreading out in new directions like marketing, research, education and consultancy.

We’re happy for fair competition. The more players in the field and acceptance that journalism is something worth paying for, the better. I definitely don’t see a plateau for the FT. The global business is much, much bigger.

John Ridding, CEO at The Financial Times

The FT now generates almost 60% of its revenue from readers. Digital subscriptions account for more than 75% of its circulation. 70% of its audience is from outside the UK and there is still room for growth. 

The FT Ltd’s directors said in a statement, “Whilst we anticipate the external environment to remain challenging in 2019, we expect to benefit from continued growth in digital subscription revenues with print advertising remaining volatile and profits reflecting further actions to accelerate the shift from print to digital.”

The Reuters Institute’s survey on the propensity to pay for online news shows that a little under 5M people in the UK are willing to pay for access. And the FT is employing a multi-pronged strategy to convince them about its value. 

As it continues to grow the newspaper business, the publisher is also pursuing a global growth strategy that goes beyond its traditional business activities. 

“Polls drive the highest click-through”

In the last few years, the FT has doubled down on building reader engagement. It has introduced multiple tools and programs that encourages content consumption. 

The publisher started placing more emphasis on content consumption in 2015 after noting that readers were scanning the homepage for stories but not hitting the site’s metered paywall. This led to the launch of a trial offer which allows readers a month’s unlimited access to the site for $1 (£1 for UK readers). The program has been designed to encourage readers to consume more content without making it free. 

The myFT product allows subscribers to follow specific topics and keeps them updated through email and push notifications. The Knowledge Builder, a tool introduced late in 2018, uses a point scoring system to help readers keep track of how the FT’s journalism builds their knowledge across specific topics. 

Knowledge Builder visualises and rewards reading progress, helping users save time and take control of their research efforts. It allows readers to build expertise in any subject, and in a way that works with their individual schedules. The recommendation feature creates a new incentive to keep reading the best news and analysis in relevant fields. 

James Webb, Group Product Manager at the FT

Recently, the FT began incorporating polls into its email newsletters. While the publisher did not share numbers, it told Digiday that the polls drive the highest click-through rates of all

“Building the paying reader of the future.”

The FT is cultivating future subscribers through a program that encourages students and teachers to read its content. The program has been designed to help students contextualize their school curriculum by reading about relevant, real-life, contemporary events around the world and in businesses, through FT articles. 

The publisher lifts the paywall for participating schools and students who can also create their own accounts to receive weekly curated email newsletters. 

Over a million FT pages were accessed and 34,000 individual accounts created by students and teachers through the program in 2018. 

It’s vitally important for the FT to engage with new audiences at all points on the age spectrum, but particularly at the younger end. We think the FT provides a really important, helpful tool to help young people navigate the world they live in, and help with their studies. And we hope in doing that we are also building the paying reader of the future.

Jon Slade, Group Chief Commercial Officer, The Financial Times

“Calibrated around what drives engagement”

Moreover, the publisher measures everything, from the sign-up of trial users to the speed of its mobile site, to understand how they affect reader engagement. It uses data science to assess content performance. That includes how often readers visit the website, and the number of stories they read per visit. 

The publisher is using a new metric called Quality Reads. It shows the percentage of page views where the reader has read at least half of the article. It’s estimated by time on page, scroll depth, and data on how subscribers interact with similar content. All this data is delivered in the form of desk-by-desk reports and informs content production.

Our whole product development process and way of thinking is calibrated around what drives engagement.

Tom Betts, Chief Data Officer at The Financial Times

Events are yet another way the publisher uses to connect directly with readers. The FT Engage series of events offers readers the opportunity to engage directly with FT editors and journalists on the big, trending issues and people covered by the publication. Its global conferences and events division FT Live, organizes over 200 events in 44 countries, across 5 continents every year. 

Building global reach with an eye to the future

The FT is also building its global reach with an eye to the future as it invests in JVs, partnerships and strategic alliances to extend its commercial offering into a wider set of integrated services.

Some of its acquisitions over the last few years include the research and thought-leadership-based firm Longitude, content marketing company Alpha Grid, and digital media publisher Sifted which focuses on technology innovators and entrepreneurs.

The publisher has also acquired stakes in the B2B fashion and luxury focused media start-up  Business of Fashion (BoF), and events and media company, The Next Web (TNW). Both companies have successful conferences business that can complement FT Live. 

The Next Web’s annual TNW Conference draws 17,500 attendees from around 3,500 companies a year. According to the publisher, these acquisitions are a part of a corporate development strategy to diversify its business in strategic areas.

We have been working to develop a series of specialist premium subject areas because we think that must-have information is crucial to our global audiences. We’re fairly flexible about how we pursue that strategy.

John Ridding, CEO, the Financial Times

“Vital for the future of all traditional media groups”

Media industry commentator Colin Morrison notes in a recent piece that in 2018, more than 50% of the profits of the Financial Times Group came from non-FT operations. He writes, “The UK-registered Financial Times Ltd. made 2018 operating profit of £7.3M – almost double the previous year – on revenues of £323.6M that were slightly ahead. This is primarily the business of the newspaper and a range of ancillary activities including digital-print publications.”

Morrison adds, “The company is keen to emphasise that the ‘Financial Times Group’ made a total £25M in operating profit from £383M revenue in 2018. This means that a number of non-UK and mainly non-newspaper activities, principally in the US, made a cool £17.7M operating profit from revenue of £59.4M.”

The growing network of information services and events across finance, technology, strategy, research, and executive education underline the “runway” strategy that is, surely, vital for the future of all traditional media groups.

Colin Morrison, Flashes and Flames

Greg Harwood, Director at Simon-Kucher & Partners, a Strategy and Marketing consultant told Digiday, “Ultimately it is a question of segmentation. 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.”