How The Financial Times Successfully Made The Digital Transition

The paper reports that its digital subscribers have exceeded its print buyers. Chief Executive, John Ridding, shares his thought on why.


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “How the Financial Times achieved a digital milestone” was written by Roy Greenslade, for guardian.co.uk on Tuesday 31st July 2012 11.59 UTC

Five years ago I recall listening to the Financial Times’s chief executive, John Ridding, as he outlined his paper’s digital strategy. It was under way by then, of course, but the FT was moving faster and more enthusiastically than many papers – including its major global rival, the Wall Street Journal.

In practical terms, the FT’s transition from print to screen was highlighted by its integration of print and online operations. And the year before the FT had launched its live financial markets blog, Alphaville, which has since prospered by attracting a regular audience and winning awards.

These initiatives can now be seen in the context of what Ridding calls “the journey of transformation” during which continued experimentation has carried the FT to an important milestone. It was able to report last week that the FT’s digital subscribers have exceeded its print buyers.

Here are the relevant statistics of Ridding’s “growth story”: the FT’s combined paid-for print and digital circulation during the three months up to June this year was 598,698, up 2% year on year (and, incidentally, the largest daily audience in the FT’s 124-year history).

Breaking that down, the average global print circulation was 297,227 compared to the digital circulation of 301,471. It meant that the number of digital subscribers increased by 31% in that April-June quarter compared to the same period in 2011.

Just a couple more facts: the FT’s average daily global audience has grown to a smidgeon under 2.1m while print has stayed flat. There has been a 30% improvement to the online desktop audience and treble digit rises for both tablet and smartphone audiences (from low bases of course).

These figures bear out Ridding’s expectation that ink-on-pink-paper would continue its sales decline while the future was digital. He may not have been alone in foreseeing that, but he certainly adopted an internal strategy aimed at smoothing the digital path.

By erecting a paywall, while gradually increasing the cover price for the print platform, he also ensured a flow of revenue that has resulted in the FT making a profit every year since 2005.

No wonder Ridding is able to tell me that the digital strategy is working. The FT has survived what was undoubtedly an existential crisis to be confident of its future, well, as confident as any paper can be nowadays. “If we had not made those changes,” he says, “we wouldn’t have got through.”

Not everything worked, of course. Its attempt last year to follow Alphaville with an online emerging markets service, called FT Tilt, didn’t last much more than six months. But that’s the nature of digital game. It is important to experiment.

By contrast, the FT’s various apps have been very successful indeed. Its web app alone has had 2.7m users since its launch. The importance of building apps – and not being reliant on Apple or needing to give it a giant cut – led the FT to acquire a development firm, Assanka, in January this year. Three months later it was rebranded as FT Labs.

“We’re no longer trying to do everything ourselves,” says Ridding who recognises that digital journalism can benefit from non-journalistic involvement by developers and data analysts.

Listening to customers and knowing who they are

In a world where top-down journalism is no longer relevant, listening to customers’ demands is paramount. One big advantage in the digital world is that it is easier to hear what they are saying and therefore know what they want. Ridding points out that in the old newsprint days “we didn’t know anything about our readers.

“Now we know their professions, their locations, what they’re reading, what they like. This information enables us to do a much more effective job. And the more subscribers we get, the information we get and the greater the engagement.”

One major initiative involves the building of future audiences through encouraging business school students to use the website. MBA Newslines enables the students (and their tutors) to comment on FT articles and see comments from other schools.

And ForToday, an FT partnership with the Wall Street Institute, uses FT articles in language classes. It has just launched an educational game app designed to help people learn English.

And there is also tagging to the FT’s ultimate parent, Pearson, which is one of the world’s biggest educational publishers.

Then there are specialist services and publications, such as China Confidential and Brazil Confidential. The exploitation of the FT brand to generate extra revenues appears to have endless possibilities.

There cannot be any doubt that, given its specialist content, that it made sense for the FT to introduce its paywall. It serves an affluent and educated audience that is happy to pay for the privilege of access.

It is not in Ridding’s nature to boast. But I’ve rarely heard him register such obvious delight at the way things are going. So is the FT on the verge of abandoning print altogether?

Not at all, he says, arguing that newsprint is undergoing “a new lease of life” because there are people who, despite accessing content digitally, through desktop computers, mobile phones and tablets, who still enjoy reading papers too.

That may not be forever, of course. But, for now, it makes sense to keep publishing on every available platform.

Source: Telephone interview with John Ridding Hat tip: Media Week

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