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Q&A with Rob Grimshaw, Managing Director, FT.com on Subscription Model Success

January 23, 2014 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

This Q&A is part of OPA’s “Three on Three” series where we ask three industry executives the same three questions on a topic to uncover actionable insights. Today’s Three on Three is with Rob Grimshaw who is the Financial Times Board member responsible for the commercial development of the FT’s B2C digital business and product portfolio.

Rob Grimshaw HeadshotQ: When conceiving of a subscription-based model, initiative or product, where should you begin strategically?

A: I think the key things are: First, think about what is unique and different about your product. What are people going to come to you for, as a publisher, that they won’t go to anybody else for? Perhaps it is a particular columnist or topic that few other people do. Identify something that differentiates you in the marketplace and that’s how you’ll approach it from a content point of view.

Second, take advantage of the flexibility that the web environment offers. You don’t have to put up a gigantic blank door on the site that says “pay to enter”. The web offers many ways to do these things: You can build sampling in, you can use these freemium models. Many publishers find that once the paywalls are in, you don’t see advertising suffer at all, which has been our experience.

Thirdly, look to third parties that can help with the task of building your subscription offering. It can be quite challenging technically, certainly more difficult than running a free access site. There is an ecosystem of third party providers that can help you with these projects and help you shortcut some of the processes to get something out to market more quickly.

And one last bit of strategic advice is to consider the wider benefits of having a subscription model and how to take advantage of these. Subscriptions create a direct relationship with your audience. You learn so much about them including demographics, onsite behavior and other information that can be very powerful from a marketing and advertising point of view.

Q: Please describe one of your subscription-based initiatives and the way in which you feel it is particularly innovative.

A: We’ve done many at FT.com. A recent one was fastFT, a feature we launched earlier this year, in May. fastFT is what I would call the FT’s intelligent first response to the news. It provides a continuous stream of content, managed by a team of eight journalists based around the world—in London, New York and Hong Kong—so they can maintain the output 24 hours a day. The goal was to boost engagement on FT.com.

Engagement is absolutely critical to the success of subscription models. We see very clearly that people whose usage of the site drops off are far more likely to cancel and, of course, those who don’t use it in the first place don’t subscribe: a simple equation there.

When we were thinking about increasing engagement, we factored in how competitive the web environment is. We need to communicate to our subscribers that they’ll never miss anything on FT.com so they aren’t tempted to look for information on other sites. This product marked a radical departure for the FT including changes to our newsroom culture and changes to the editorial process. With fastFT, the emphasis on speed-to-page without sacrificing accuracy, authority and all things that make the FT great.

I think that this product offers an excellent example of the commercial needs of the business being creatively translated to a product.

Interestingly, we’ve seen that over half of users come through mobile devices and a third of subscribers who visit fastFT stay longer than 10 minutes on the site.

Q: What advice would you give in terms of approaching subscription models creatively?

A: I would give two tips:

The first one is to look outside of the boundaries of the publishing industry. Think about it: The news publishing experience with pay models and online retail, which is what this is, is relatively new. There are others who have been in this game much longer. You can gain a lot of inspiration by looking at or talking to people from the online retail industry and others pioneering the space. Look at the gaming model and the way they’ve set up things to get you to make in-app purchases. They’ve developed brilliant ways to ease payment and even make you feel like you aren’t paying anything.

The second thing I suggest is to test, test, test. We are in a world where there are a multitude of multivariate testing tools available. These tools allow you to test different page designs and sign-up forms against each other live on line. The insight you gain from those processes is tremendous. Often what you discover can be counter intuitive. The data helps you understand what is really happening and design better offerings as a result.

In his role as Managing Director, FT.com, Rob Grimshaw is the Financial Times Board member responsible for the commercial development of the FT’s B2C digital business and product portfolio.

Note: This Q&A is part of OPA’s “Three on Three” series where we ask three industry executives the same three questions on a topic to uncover actionable insights.

Also in this series:

Q&A with Michael Crosby, Chief Operating Officer, The Deal on Subscription Model Success

Q&A with Interview with Sarah McConville, Vice President of Marketing, Harvard Business Review Group

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