The FT will next year hit 1m subscribers, 17 years after putting up its paywall

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.

The Financial Times believes it will complete its “march to a million” journey to 1 million paid subscribers next year after a positive response to a change in its access model.

The FT revealed it now has 930,000 paid subscribers, with 740,000 of those (79.6%) being digital subscribers and the remaining 190,000 having a print-only deal. Digital subscription is up 11% year-on-year and overall subscription by 7%.

The realisation of the longstanding 1 million target would be a significant vindication of a paywall strategy that began with its first digital subscriptions in 2002 and continued in 2007 with the introduction of the FT’s first metered-paywall. Its chief executive, John Ridding, recently recalled how that decision met with a “pretty hostile” response from digital futurists, who warned the paper that “the internet wants to be free”.

In reality, that 16-year quest behind the paywall has been conducted without a definitive map. The FT has tweaked and re-tweaked its navigational dials as evolving technology has given it new insights into reader behaviour and the paths it must travel to find new audiences.

The metered paywall, which gave registered readers three articles free per month before they were asked to pay, gave way in 2015 to a “reach and return” strategy that increases accessibility through paid-for trials that allow new readers to sample the content with one month’s access for just £1 (or $1), in the hope they will develop a habit. Pedlars of addictive substances might nod knowingly at such an approach.

The trials are still offered but the FT model is being honed. Most new users hit a hard paywall. But, rather than making a demand for credit card details, it offers the potential subscriber (known as “prospects”), a sample of FT-content matched to the subject of the original piece they alighted on.

The approach is bearing fruit, says Fiona Spooner, the FT’s global marketing director B2C, as she explains the paper’s growth strategy to The Drum. "To get us to the one million, (we must) make sure we have the right access model,” she says. “We have recently changed our acquisition campaigns to include much more of the content. It’s the product people need to see – what the value of that subscription is and what they need to be reading.”

Rather than a blunt “call to action” (ie a request for money), readers are tempted with more of the FT’s wares, according to their personal interest and geographical region. “If they are reading about Brexit we talk to them about what Brexit coverage they can read if they subscribe, or in the US we talk about the value of a subscription for a US reader.”

Spooner says she expects the FT to reach its seven-figure target next year. “On our march to a million, the number we are on at the moment is 930,000. [The 1 million figure] is something that we are really excited about and is a significant milestone for us.”

US marketing drive gets underway

While such a big number is unparalleled in UK news publishing it is less impressive in the American market in which the FT also operates. The rival Wall Street Journal is homing in on 3 million subscribers (across the Dow Jones portfolio of which it is the flagship). The New York Times has grown to 3.8 million subscribers (2.9 million digital) and its chief executive Mark Thompson (the former director-general of the BBC) said this month that he believed there remains “significant runway to expand that base substantially”.

The FT also thinks that America offers major potential for growth. It has had its “Open Minds” campaign slogan for its FT Weekend edition on continual display in Times Square, as part of a “city-centric” marketing drive that began in Manhattan and is being extended to Washington and then to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago over the next six months.

“We are seeing really high engagement from the US audience and a growth in digital subs,” says Spooner. “We have also been price testing there because we have a lot of competition but we think that we are that non-partisan view that the US audience is really looking for at the moment.”

She says that the high-profile Trump era marketing campaigns by serious American titles are valuable to the sector as a whole, and “help consumers understand the value of paying for good content”. The FT sees itself as “complementary to those other publications” as an additional read, as well as a head-on competitor.

As part of its US push, the FT is pursuing a first click free strategy that it doesn’t offer universally. Its use of a “dynamic barrier” that shows American prospect subscribers a personalised range of the FT’s content has increased conversions by 17% in its first month. Spooner claims that the paper is only “scratching the surface” in terms of its potential reach in the US, which already generates the FT’s largest digital audience by country. In the US the FT has recorded 38% digital revenue growth year on year, and 19% print revenue growth.

Last month the FT, now owned by the Japanese publisher Nikkei, reported global operating profits above £20m, double those for the previous year.

Also revealed was a £510,000 pay rise for Ridding, whose annual compensation of £2.6m caused some dismay on the newsroom floor. The chief executive – who was formerly the paper’s deputy editor and Hong Kong bureau chief – later announced he would be reinvesting his pay rise into the paper “to support the advancement of women into more senior roles”.

Female and teenage audience grows

Women readers are a potential audience “growth opportunity” for the FT, says Spooner. The paper is already increasing its female readership at a faster rate (16% year-on-year) than its male one (up by 11% year on year).

This is partly due to the Long Story Short newsletter, which launched last year and has proved popular with women readers (with a 35% female readership, compared to 24% across all FT newsletters).

Introduced at the top of the newsletter by female FT journalists, and carrying their byline headshots, Long Story Short links to some of their favourite FT stories of the week. It has a 50% open rate (compared to 31% among other FT newsletters) and a 9.92% click-through rate (compared to around 3% for other FT newsletters).

School subscriptions are another important part of the FT future strategy. Introduced last year at the suggestion of a 16-year-old intern, Krishan Puvvada, the free subscriptions have so far been extended to 20,000 16 to 19-year-olds attending 2,000 schools worldwide, under a scheme sponsored by Bank of Tokyo- Mitsubishi UFJ. “We thought it was a great idea,” says Spooner. “We want people to read great journalism from a young age and… it wasn’t a quantum leap to make from the FT being a business tool to also being an education tool.”

The paper hopes to deepen relationships with readers – and existing and potential new subscribers – on 8 September when FT Weekend stages its third annual festival, across nine themed stages at London’s Kenwood House Gardens. FT editor Lionel Barber, deputy editor Roula Khalaf and star writers Martin Wolf and Gillian Tett will attend alongside a line-up of political, media and lifestyle figures including TV chef Yotam Ottolenghi and anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller.

Having “loads of engaged customers in one place” is a chance not simply to acquire new subscribers but to give existing ones an experience that might mean they become advocates for the brand, Spooner says. For the first time the festival will have a distinct area for subscribers, where they can meet FT staff. “The thing they really get excited by is access to the journalists and the festival is a great chance for them to meet them.”

Spooner has been with the company when the first metered paywall went up and the FT began its odyssey of digital experimentation. She was made head of digital subscription acquisition in 2010 and has been refining the model to hit sometimes “slightly daunting targets” for the past eight years. “I would never have imagined (in 2010) that I would be sitting here working to a target of a million one day,” she says. “The fact that it’s within our reach is really exciting.”

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

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