'It's not about numbers - we want a nucleus of readers'

The refurbished Financial Times offices may have created a news hub, but FT.com editor James Montgomery is used to online being at the centre of the newsroom.

‘For a long time, we haven’t been one of those newsrooms where digital has been on a different floor or a different building,’he says.

‘Digital came into the FT several years ago, so we haven’t had the same sort of transformational effect on the integration of print and online in the way it has been when some people have moved offices.”

The real changes for the Financial Times’s website haven’t been about moving furniture. Half a year after introducing a unique volume-based part-free, part-subscription access model for its website, FT.com is redoubling its efforts with online video and preparing a full redesign.

A nucleus of regular readers

The FT likens its new online access system to a funnel: While opening the site to millions of occasional users, it tri`es to convert readers who wish to access more than 30 stories a month to become paying subscribers.

‘The aim is to monetise regular users who we hope will become subscribers. But just as importantly, it allows us to open the site to millions and millions of random users who might visit casually from an aggregater or search engine,’says Montgomery.

It seems to be working: Google spokesmen in both the US and Britain have recently claimed that the volume of traffic the search engine has sent to FT.com has nearly doubled since the site adopted the new access model.

While Montgomery is happy to have this ‘random traffic’from occasional users who arrive from search engines and aggregators to read the odd story, it is not the FT’s focus.

In its most recent ABCe report, FT.com was up to 6.25 million unique users in September – but as the site’s publisher Ien Cheng told a recent industry conference, numbers aren’t the only measure of success for the site.

‘We are primarily targeting frequent, habitual users,’Montgomery stresses.

‘With FT.com, it’s not about numbers in absolute terms, because we’re never going to win a sort of mass-market game. What we want is to have a nucleus of readers who come to the site at least once a day, and hopefully

more than once a day, and when they do, they read several articles.”

Often overlooked – between the extremes of mass-market free access and the core audience of paying subscribers – is a third type of occasional user. After reading five stories, the FT requires users to fill in a ‘light touch’registration form. It allows the site to track different types of users and develop new forms of targeted advertising.

‘Once we know who our users are, we can target advertising at them, and targeted advertising, we’re finding, is much higher-yielding than untargeted advertising,’says Montgomery.

Since the new system was put in place, registrations have grown at a rate of around 12,000 a week, to nearly 250,000.

‘We can do a lot with registration, given that it’s really about the quality of the audience rather than just the size of the audience,’he says.

Methodical journey for the c-suite class

Following last year’s relaunch of the print edition, FT.com is also in line for a revamp, which is set to be rolled out in stages in the second half of this year.

The relaunched FT.com will include more personalisation functions, Montgomery says, but the major focus will be on maintaining the site’s usability and navigation, to provide an experience similar to what readers are used to getting from the paper – a heavily filtered package of information for a powerful, but time-poor readership.

‘We want to re-create the newspaper experience, which is like a daily briefing for the CEO or c-suite class,’he says. FT.com has to offer the same experience, without forcing users to ‘zigzag haphazardly’though a vast website.

‘You don’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about navigation and browsability. So you have a consistent, methodical journey through the site, at the end of which you’ve got all the news you need for that day.”

One area where the website can distinguish itself from the paper is its multimedia content.

The FT hopes to double the output of its already profitable video operation this year.

Montgomery admits it’s a vague ambition, which could be measured by the number of clips published or the number of hours produced. To run the growing video team, FT.com has already added staff, including Richard Edgar who was poached from Reuters Video last year to become head of video, and is in the process of recruiting several more video producers.

The new positions are primarily behind the camera, production and editing roles – ideally suited to video journalists who can do both.

Avoiding the video ghetto

‘The larger you are as a broadcaster, the more you can specialise, so there’s less pressure for that. But at smaller broadcaster and video organisations like ours, you need to be able to do more than one of those traditional functions,’says Edgar.

In front of the camera, FT.com is primarily drawing on its existing journalists, many of whom already have experience offering commentary on news stories for television from the FT’s in-house studio.

‘We’re making a virtue of our correspondents’ knowledge and expertise – the experience they have in their sectors or the countries they’re reporting from,’says Edgar. In the process, they are also making long-established journalists more familiar to regular readers.

‘When you read their articles in the paper, you’ll hear their voice a bit more,’he says.

Crucially, it’s important not to confine video to one section of a website, but to integrate it with the other media available online, he argues.

‘Being online allows you to have more than just a video ghetto – which is what video often is on a lot of sites. You can have a blend of text, graphics and video, as well the opportunity to create very powerful packages of information,’says Edgar.

While text might be best for in-depth analysis of an issue, combining it with video provides new ways to provide context or back story.

‘One of the most important things that we do is choosing the right medium to tell the right bit of the story,’says Edgar, highlighting a report about the Spanish economy published in the run-up to last month’s general election, when Leslie Crawford visited a former dredging company that now makes offshore oil rigs.

‘It’s not something you would associate with Spain, but it’s incredibly impressive,’Edgar says.

‘It’s absolutely vast and it quickly shows the level of engineering expertise in a very, very immediate way. You could tell the story in words, but here you are seeing the dimensions of this thing.”

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