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More products, better treatment: How and why the Financial Times built a digital FT Weekend

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Financial Times Group, Digital Media, Mobile, Newspapers


More products, better treatment: How and why the Financial Times built a digital FT Weekend

You've built one of the handful of successful digital news subscription businesses around, but how do you keep growing?

The FT's launch of a digital FT Weekend section of its app earlier this month suggests part of its answer involves slicing up its content to create new products.

This digital version of FT Weekend features lifestyle-heavy content from the Saturday and Sunday versions of the newspaper, which were made available as a separate print subscription earlier this year. The Weekend app is already available to existing FT digital subscribers, but will also soon be offered as a standalone digital subscription.

It's a bit of a departure for the FT, which has built a strong tiered subscription offering but until now hasn't split out its digital content. It is however an approach another pioneer in paid for digital news subscriptions, the New York Times, has begun doing with its NYT Opinion, Now and Cooking packages, which provide access to more limited selections of content at a reduced price.

FT senior product manager Chris Smith tells TheMediaBriefing that some cannabalisation of full FT subscriptions is to be expected with people who only want the Weekend content online. However, he says by creating a digital product given the same distinctive treatment FT as the print version of Weekend, the FT can bring in new subscribers who wouldn't otherwise pay for digital editions and significantly improve the experience for full subscribers:

Yes we were worried about cannabalisation and we think there is a small extent to which that will happen, but based on the analysis we do we don't think that will be a huge number of people. 

We think the potential of getting pure lifestyle subscribers is greater than that, and we think that actually we've had a huge amount of positive feedback about Weekend from existing subscribers and registered users, particularly the ones who know the paper as well, who've seen it's not been getting great treatment digitally.

All in one

While the FT appears to be following the NYT down the path of increasing the options for subscribers to drive growth, it has taken a different approach in deciding to build Weekend content into its core web app, rather than splitting it off in a separate container.

The app was initially conceived around 18 months ago as a standalone product, but after user testing, the team decided a unified approach would be more effective for existing subscribers and new ones. The move also offers a good opportunity to upsell Weekend customers to the full subscription, which makes sense for a company that pays such close attention to how it acquires new paying digital customers:

We've come to a final destination of Weekend which has its own place, is very visually distinct, has its own feel, but also sits inside FT.com. The reason we came to that approach is that, yes we are serving those who otherwise might not have subscribed, who want to subscribe to a weekend subscription, but we have an existing subscriber base to our premium and standard subscriptions who already have access to all that great content and they need to know they are getting the most out of their subscriptions. 

Once they knew what they were building, a lean FT team of around a dozen product, editorial and developer staff began work on the app in February. The process hasn't been quite as quick end-to-end as the development of FastFT, but it's still an impressive example of a legacy media business moving with speed.

The next stage?

Will the FT follow the NYT in further slicing and dicing its content to expand the range of digital products it has to sell?

There are no public plans yet, but Smith says that the underlying infrastructure of the FT's content management system means the company can do so if it sees an opportunity:

One of the things (FT chief technical officer) John O'Donovan talks about a lot is universal publishing and that's about the FT being a platform and being able to surface our content any way the client needs. So whether or not it's about the lifestyle content, or any other part of our content that's relevant to a particular company's vertical or a particular industry, people should be able to come to the FT and pick up our APIs.

The same APIs will be available to us to cut content in the same way. That very much is what we see as the next step for the FT and work is already well on the way towards that. 

The FT's slightly narrower, business-focussed coverage doesn't immediately lend itself to the same slicing and dicing the NYT is engaged in, but there are areas such as opinion which could work as standalone products. Smith's comments also hint at the possibiltiy for more B2B style offerings, which would also fit with the FT's continuing focus on building its corporate subscriber base.

And despite being arguably the most successful, or at least most advanced, example of the metered paywall approach to digital news, the FT is clearly aware that its digital subscriber base isn't going to keep growing on its own.

There's a lot that can be done with good content, clever marketing and international expansion, but having a few more options to draw people in is a powerful way to make sure the number of paying customers keep ticking upwards.

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