[ARTICLE] How The Financial Times Reached One Million Subscribers, the North Star Metric

Chief Product & Information Officer from The FT Cait O’Riordan was a keynote at the recent Digital Transformation Conference in London and shared with the audience how they went about attracting one million subscribers and their North Star Metric in place.

Three years ago the Financial Times set themselves a challenge of reaching one million paying subscribers, the target was set for 2020 yet they reached the million mark almost a year ahead of schedule last year. But how was this done?

The North Star Metric

At the heart of the FT’s success was the North Star Metric (NSM) that they have in place. A NSM is essentially another name for the one metric that matters specifically capturing the core value of your product that is delivered to a customer; something that drives the business. The FT looked at many differing things that could have driven the business; revenue, usage, conversion rates and so on, but the biggest factor that determines whether an FT subscriber will continue to use their subscription is how engaged they are with the content and how much value they’re getting our of it. Unlike gym subscriptions people don’t continue to pay for subscriptions they don’t get value out of. The FT knows that they are not a cheap subscription as well so keeping users engaged and offering value is what really matters for the business.

Seemingly the biggest competitor the FT has isn’t other publishers in the UK, or in the US, or anywhere else online, their biggest competitor is attention. They realise that their audience are bogged down in emails, in meetings, writing strategy papers so they have to justify every minute that readers choose to spend their time with them. So when it came down to engagement they looked at many differing factors, were users sharing stories, how much time were they spending on articles. They then determined that the value of the FT subscription came down to recency, frequency and volume; so how recently people came to the site, the frequency in which they came and finally the volume of content they consumed upon arrival. Each user was then scored with their own individual engagement score, if they can score someone over their remarkably precise figure of 18.2 they then become an ‘engaged FT subscriber’, and this metric can be moved by using any of the above factors. Driving up this score would reduce the likelihood that customers will churn, and so with that the FT had their North Star Metric.

A personalised experience

Cait O’Riordan runs the products and technology teams at the FT, so ran through the examples of what they have done to drive that metric and what’s that done to develop the business and move towards one million subscribers.

“So a couple of years ago, we set out to build a feature called myFT which is a very simple personalisation mechanism. If you tell us what companies or entities topics you’re interested in, we’ll personalise your experience on and the apps and will also send you emails when new content is published about topics that you’re interested in”

Cait O’Riordan, Chief Product & Information Officer, Financial Times

Cait and her team hypothesis was that if they made a more personalised FT experience that people will get more value and become more engaged and those using myFT were more engaged. What they really wanted to know is how does the act of becoming a myFT subscriber make you more engaged? So they then looked at two cohorts of people who had similar engagement patterns, some of whom went on to become myFT users and some of whom didn’t. They discovered that the mere act of becoming a myFT user increased engagement by 86%. Becoming a myFT user makes you more engaged; engagement drives and retention reduces churn. From this they clearly realised that they needed to get more users this using the feature, so went on a mission to increase those users. They had successfully increased engagement of those who they had using their new feature.

Another experiment that was put to the test was that of speed. When rebuilding the FT website they took into consideration that if people spent more time looking at content and less time looking at a buffering wheel they would become more engaged as they’d be consuming more content. They set out to build the fastest publishing site in the world, and did just that. However as soon as that was put in place they deliberately slowed the site down again and ran a multivariate test where different people received different versions of the site, versions one second quicker, two seconds quicker and so on and so forth. Each second increased engagement by 5%. That 5% is worth millions of dollars to the FT. It may seem like an obvious exercise but by doing so they were able to quantify numbers and justify investment in speed.

Understanding the data was important to the FT and understanding whether it was driving value for the business was really important. At the heart of it, they had to understand what your customers want and what your customers need. You need to solve problems that your customers have and then you have to get back and talk to them and check that the thing that you’ve built is both driving them the metric and the value that you want, but it’s also making them feel like they get benefit out of what they did. The FT has been tweaking their approach to engagement focusing all effort on those borderline engaged people, people who were reading maybe seven or eight articles, but could be reading nine, because by making them engaged subscribers, that’s where all the value was. If you can move people up the engagement segments, if you can find people who are highly engaged and increase their engagement, you can increase their tenure, and therefore, their residual lifetime value, what they’re worth to the FT goes up.

Cait O’Riordan presenting at Roar Media’s Digital Transformation Conference in London

Understanding your own North Star Metric as a business means that you can all start to head in the same direction. The reason why having a NSM is so important is that it helps you head in the direction that you want to go in whilst increasing your fluid velocity, but most importantly, what it does is fit very closely with a business mission.

The FT’s job is to help successful business folk become more successful by helping them understand business content that is relevant to them. It’s the really exclusive content that you can’t read anywhere else that helps people get value out of their subscription and helps them to continue to be engaged. Therefore, driving RFP and driving engagement reduces churn in the business. That really is the secret to how the FT got to those million paying subscribers a year ahead of schedule.

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