How the FT is using hundreds of global events to propel it towards 1m circulation

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

LA mayor Eric Garcetti in conversation with the FT's Gillian Tett at one of the title's global events

The number of live events being staged across the world by the Financial Times is quite staggering.

Today it is hosting a renewable energy summit at the Alvear Palace Hotel in Buenos Aires, featuring 13 speakers and hosted by the paper’s Southern Cone correspondent, Benedict Mander. Yesterday it was at the historic Villa Kennedy in Frankfurt (where JFK stayed in 1963), with comment and analysis editor Frederick Studemann chairing the paper’s latest conference in a series on Brexit, staged with KPMG and featuring the accountancy giant’s head of Brexit, Karen Briggs.

On Thursday next week it will stage three separate events around the world: a forum on risk management in New York, a leadership briefing in Hong Kong in partnership with HSBC, and the second day of a summit on the future of banking, taking place in Cote d’Ivoire and featuring contributions from the FT’s East Africa correspondent John Aglionby and Ibrahim Stevens, deputy governor of the Central Bank of Sierra Leone.

In total, the annual calendar for FT Live runs to a diary-busting 200-plus events in 44 countries across all five continents. It has reached a point where James Gunnell, head of FT Live, admits there may even be too many of these FT-branded gatherings. “For me the overarching strategy is fewer, bigger, better events,” he says. “We do 200 events at the moment and ideally I would like to do slightly less than that but make them bigger and make more money from each event.”

High finance meets high fashion

The FT Weekend Festival is a good example of what he means by “better”. Taking place last Saturday in the lush green surroundings of Kenwood House on the edge of London’s Hampstead Heath, it featured eight diverse stages and was a high-class mix of culture and serious debate, where wine-tasting and wild cooking sessions competed with discussions on Brexit and the economy for the attention of FT readers. It was also “bigger”, drawing 2,649 visitors compared to the 2,000 who attended the inaugural event last year.

The programme included editor Lionel Barber, breaking new ground by publicly discussing forthcoming editorials, and star writers Simon Kuper and Tim Harford talking about how they write their columns.

One of the star attractions was the former columnist Lucy Kellaway talking about her new life as a maths teacher in an inner London secondary school. It might sound like bad marketing to give a headline slot to someone who walked away from the brand to another job but Kellaway still contributes monthly pieces to the paper she joined 32 years ago.

Moreover, as the FT’s vast events programme shows, it is becoming a requirement of modern journalism to appear in a crowded space to voice expert instruction on a specialist subject and hold the attention of an audience. Kellaway’s new career path is less radical than some might think.

Gunnell says that FT journalists are relishing the opportunity to be live performers. “We offer media training to journalists who take part in the events and people want to take part because it’s good for the brand, it’s good for them to be able to get out and meet their readers and the people they write about, and it’s good for their journalist brand as well.”

The FT has been steadily building its events offering for three years and the first B2C offerings were talks with book authors including the football manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The ambition is now much greater and revenue contributed by FT Live grew by 10% last year in a market that Gunnell says is “very competitive and increasingly so”.

The value of B2C events like the FT Weekend Live Festival is that they help sell more reader subscriptions. The FT’s total paid-for circulation, as of June 2017, is 870,000 (up 9 per cent year-on-year) and 666,000 of these are digital subscriptions (rising at 13 per cent year-on-year). Although one might have thought that all the festival attendees were FT superfans, it turns out that 45% of those at this year’s event were non-subscribers. For Gunnell, the chance to persuade such people to have a deeper relationship with the paper “fits in with our FT strategy of pushing towards a circulation of 1 million”.

The FT is diversifying – but B2B remains key

The FT Weekend, with its sophisticated lifestyle and culture content and glossy supplements including the luxury How to Spend It, is a means of extending a brand that, since its founding in 1888, has built its reputation in covering business and finance. The FT has been putting a lot of effort into marketing the FT Weekend offering and it is paying off. Subscriptions to FT Weekend are up 6% year-on-year, while bundled subscriptions that include the weekend product with the Monday to Friday editions are up 13% year-on-year. The FT’s recency, frequency and volume (RFV) data shows that digital engagement with FT Weekend content is up by 26 %in the past six months.

Gunnell describes FT Weekend as a “fantastic asset”. He says: “You meet people at the Weekend festival who only subscribe to the weekend edition and there is an opportunity for us to engage with them and get them onto the weekday (content) as well.”

In May, FT Weekend and the Berggruen Institute staged a Beverly Hills cocktail reception and “fireside chat” between FT columnist and US managing editor Gillian Tett and the mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti, billed as a potential future presidential contender. It was a non-revenue generating brand event and the FT Weekend editor Alec Russell described it as “sparky, thought-provoking and fun”.

But for all the creative pleasure that the FT Live team (which is around 80-strong in total and includes its own content team of 10 people) derives from curating consumer-focused events, it is the summits, briefings and forums aimed at the business community that bring the biggest returns. “We love to do these (B2C) events but there’s a balance and the revenues are bigger from B2B than they are from B2C,” says Gunnell.

Corporate sponsors for FT Live events are offered platinum, gold and associate sponsorship packages. And then corporate subscriptions to the FT account for a massive 460,000 of total circulation (more than half the total and up 16 per cent year-on-year).

'Points of pain'

As the FT looks to slightly reduce its volume of events it is learning to focus on certain business sectors, such as energy, commodities, pharmaceuticals, and banking and finance. “Whereas before we were doing an assortment of 200 different events now we are beginning to get more organised and structured in our approach,” says Gunnell. It makes sense to host a series on the subject of climate finance in three locations: London, New York and Hong Kong.

The key, says Gunnell, is finding the “points of pain”; the major areas of disruption pertinent to a particular sector. As well as consulting its own editorial experts on its events programme, FT Live appoints industry steering committees for its events to ensure they are targeted to current areas of interest. “If you get the points of pain in the industry right then you will get the right kind of people coming to the event to network and take part,” says Gunnell.

While these discussions might be addressing difficult subjects, the FT Live debates are anything but points of pain for the business model of this ancient newspaper.

Whereas specialist publishers in the global events industry are hosting niche programmes over several days, the FT can bring its pink paper kudos to high impact and succinct conferences that become long-term fixtures in the calendar, from the FT Banking Summit to Women at the Top and the FT Weekend Live Festival, which Gunnell says is set to become more “experiential” and grow some more. “We are looking to get next year’s date set and go bigger,” he says. “There’s lots we can do; the more people through the door, the more sponsorship behind the events, means we can get more ambitious with what we do.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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