In March this year, Financial Times launched its next-gen editorial analytics tool Lantern to provide its journalists
access to real-time data for measuring reader engagement and help them gauge the impact of their stories. The publication is now gearing up to re-launch its website by the end of September, with a focus on personalisation. In an interview with BrandWagon’s Ankita Rai, on the sidelines of the second edition of Zee Melt, Tom Betts of Financial Times talks about the importance of data in newsrooms and how social media has changed news distribution.
How has investing in data helped Financial Times (FT) increase its subscription revenues?
We began our journey in data in 2008. Back then, FT had not invested heavily in data as was common for most publishers. In print, you don’t have a direct relationship with the reader and the newspaper is distributed by a third party. However, data allows us to connect the dots with what we do editorially with commercial results. It is true that data is expensive but you don’t have to do everything, right at the beginning. At FT, we first started with a focus on monetisation and increasing subscription revenue. With the help of data, we could target the right people at the right time, with the right message and creative. In doing so, we created a whole ecosystem of campaigns that happened automatically. Every day, we profiled the prospects on FT.com and looked at their behaviour to understand the right time to approach them with subscription offers and whether they needed some incentive. We used emails and overlay advertising to promote subscription to individuals. Collectively, subscriptions now make up for
15-20% of our customer acquisitions.
Apart from subscription, we looked at targeted advertising. By using first party data, we achieved higher yield compared to untargeted inventory. Traditionally, newspaper organisations think that subscription could lead to substantial downsizing in advertising because fewer people are able to see it. Instead, targeted advertising can achieve a higher yield compared to untargeted inventory. Encouraging users to register or subscribe can help you grow both advertising and subscription revenue.
How does Lantern help in making editorial decisions?
Lantern makes real-time customer data available to the newsroom. It helps journalists understand how readers interact with their stories, providing a holistic view of the newspiece irrespective of whether one sees it via instant articles on Facebook, Google, other third party platforms or through any channel be it mobile phones, tablets, apps or desktops. The journalist has access to all of that information on one screen. This helps understand the effectiveness of content in different environments. What is unique about Lantern is that it provides insights to journalists in a language familiar to them. By integrating analytics into editorial work, do you think there is a risk of the newsroom being overrun by analytics?
Especially given that news stories are now being judged by their shareability…
In many markets, social is rapidly becoming 50% of the news consumption. News organisations today are not just competing with their peers but with every activity that vies for our attention such as checking emails, social networking etc. I do think in some newsrooms there may be a danger of being led by numbers. It depends upon your constitution and your goals as an organisation. If you want to grow the reach for the sake of it, then I can definitely say there may be a temptation to focus on volumes. At FT, we are not playing a volume game. We care about engaging our readers with quality journalism.
A majority of news is now being consumed on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Does this require a rethinking of newspaper business models?
We don’t really know yet. I think the key is being able to test and learn what works. It doesn’t make sense to have an editorial strategy that doesn’t reflect your commercial strategy. At FT we are interested in using these social platforms to grow both our reach and brand. But we are looking for reach with return. We don’t want to create an environment where readers consume our journalism outside our platform without us having the ability to monetise those reads. There is an argument of using social to grow reach. But research suggests that consumers reading news on such a platform remember the platform, not necessarily the news site from where the content originated. So, that’s a big challenge for publishers to overcome. But it is important that these social platforms know about publishing and media, because ultimately, publishers need to attract more direct reader revenue in addition to advertising revenue. These platforms need to think about how to facilitate this for publishers.
What should the social media strategy for publishers be?
The biggest challenge with social media platforms is that they all provide different data. And success is defined not by how a publisher sees it, but how the platform sees it. At FT, we have been trying to turn this on its head by building a unified view of what works and what doesn’t, so that we can judge equivalently. For instance, a story might do really well on Twitter but may not work on Facebook or vice-versa. And understanding the drivers behind this is tough.
The danger is if you are just looking at page impressions or unique users. The question you need to ask is if the audience is loyal to the publisher or the platform. If you build a loyal audience of your own, the platform just becomes a vehicle or a distribution channel. Whereas if you rely on it as a distribution channel to reach those users, and you don’t know who the users are, you are actually starting to go back into the old world of newspaper distribution where there was an intermediary who had a relationship with the end user and you didn’t receive any feedback apart from sales information. We live in a world of reach and real-time feedback. It would be a shame to sacrifice that.
So, is social media a promotional tool or a distribution platform? What is the right way to look at it?
It depends upon how you monetise it. If you can leverage advertising technology on third-party platforms, social media is a distribution mechanism, and not just a promotional mechanism. The big challenge for publishers is how to build a scalable business, if they are effectively publishing natively into these platforms. It remains to be seen whether social actually becomes a place where you can consume all your news or whether it is just a sampling mechanism. In the future, there may be a possibility that we may have less control over distribution. At the moment, we control the curation. But on a social platform, the curation is never our responsibility.
At FT, we are trying to build explicit personalisation of our next-gen website. If you can build personalisation on your platform, then the role of social media just becomes a vehicle to deliver that to the end user. For example, chat bots are just an interface that people use to receive news, just like getting a notification on phone or email. In the future, we can receive news in more diverse ways.