How the FT puts 1 million readers at the heart of product development and the business

By Monica Todd, Director of Customer Research

For over 130 years, the Financial Times has been providing information and news for the business and financial community. Our readers are leaders and those who aspire to leadership, or who in general want to broaden their perspective.

We reached a record of 1 million paying readers last year. That is a big deal for us; 14 years ago (when I first joined the FT) readership was half that and predominantly print subscribers. Today 3/4ths have digital-only subscriptions.

Our daily readership is nearly 2 million, which means there are a lot of people out there sampling our content and deciding on the value it gives them. We have to think very carefully about the strict paywall we operate. People see a headline or story and want to get straight to it. We have to think carefully about any barriers, links, clicks, messages or steps we put in-between them and the content, or we’ll lose them. So, while historically we are a publisher — commercially we are a digital subscription company. As such, we are not just competing with traditional media players, but with the likes of Netflix, Apple, Facebook and many others, for people’s time, attention and hard-earned money. Subscribing to the FT is a big investment. It’s £468 for a premium digital subscription. You could get Netflix, Sky Sports and Amazon Prime for that (£466). You can get news for free on Apple and Facebook and for much less from other publishers.

How does the FT stand out?

From my point of view, a key part of becoming a profitable digital media company has been through a process of becoming increasingly customer-centric over the past 14 years.

What do I mean by customer-centricity? Well here are some things people mean:

  • Knowing who your customers are and all about them — ‘what makes them tick’
  • A way of doing business that drives customer satisfaction — a north star metric
  • A culture of thinking about customer needs in the products and services you sell

It’s the last point that’s most relevant to the FT — having a culture of thinking about customer needs in the products and services we sell. A culture where business areas ask — how do customers use my product? What’s working for them and what’s not? How can we better serve their needs?

Sounds obvious but it’s been a real change for us. 14 years ago, when the FT was still an advertising-funded publisher of printed news, our view of customers looked like this — glossy stats and averages which explained the profile of our audience and how relevant they are for advertisers.

Corporate Audience (FT)

That is still important, but our relationship with customers changed when our business model changed. We need honest insight about why people value our products, why they choose to spend their hard-earned money, why they cancel and what’s not working — the good stuff and the hard truths.

Culture is about visible, tangible artifacts and the underlying values they support. Here are five activities that manifest our belief in being subscriber-focused and thinking about user needs in the products and services we create.

Segmentation/ Personas

Segmentation is the activity of dividing a broad group of people, in our case FT readers, into sub-groups based on some type of common characteristic, for example, a shared behaviour, goal or mindset. Personas are the fictitious characterisations of user groups, such as segmentation sub-groups, based on real customer knowledge. We have used these many times since 2008 for teams to build empathy with readers and focus on their needs when exploring different ways to create value or improve readers’ experience of our digital products. For example, some readers are interested in the full breadth of content and really value the editorial curation of what’s important. Other readers have a sharp focus on particular content areas and would prefer for these to be more prominent. The concept behind MyFT (getting people to the most relevant content quickly) was born out of the latter user's need.

Fusing personas and motivations with data analytics can be very powerful as well. When looking at why people trial a news subscription we found three different motivations each with very different behavioural patterns. There is no single view of the truth. You need to understand the variations in needs and behaviours, and ideally synthesise insights from both user research and data analytics to understand the size and context of potential opportunities for your product or service.

Demographic Audience Clusters (FT)

Customer feedback program

While customer satisfaction is not our north star metric, we care a lot about reader feedback. We collect feedback from eight different touchpoints across various customer journeys, for example at the end of a trial, during a web site or app visit, after a customer service query, after cancelation, and annually to influencers and purchasers of corporate licenses. The feedback themes range from macro, brand level comments to micro-level comments about pain points in the customer experience. For example, a recurring cancelation reason turned out to be from people whose company had signed up for an FT subscription. These customers were really looking to transition their account to a different subscription status, but our digital experience did not allow for that. A cross-functional team has formed to understand more about this user journey. It’s important for customer feedback to be democratised so that teams who can act on such insights have them at their fingertips. We share anonymised feedback in a number of ways throughout the FT — on self-serve dashboards, in Slack channels, on office TV screens and in presentations.

Feedback Sources &Categprisation, 2019

Quality Experience (QX) score

When you are collecting feedback in a number of places, and from different teams, it can be a challenge to get an honest, balanced picture of which customer pain points have the greatest impact on the quality of our digital experience. So we created a Quality Experience (QX) score from customer feedback. The QX score is based on product and technology feedback only and weighs themes by a number of factors to determine the priority that theme has on the digital experience from a customer perspective. We use consistent thematic tags and look at recency, volume and source context to score each theme or feature out of an index of 100 and track it over time. The score helps to understand the relative importance of themes but as a metric it’s less useful — once you make an improvement, other improvement areas emerge. It’s constant, nothing gets past readers. Last year we addressed QX feedback on the podcast player, our data privacy messaging and the login experience. But there’s more to do still on app navigation and other areas. We have to remain alert to the real experience customers are receiving and relentlessly keep trying to raise the bar.

Product Discovery

Product development at the FT is made up of Product Managers, Product Designers, Business Analysts and Researchers — all separate teams reporting equally into the CPO and who work collaboratively alongside a fantastic engineering team. We follow a build, measure, learn cycle that is experiment-driven and both user and data-centric. Increasingly we are making more time and space for discovery — a period where we evaluate opportunities for business growth and customer value before we fully commit investment to development. Having an untarnished customer voice is an important part of this process. It means you know from the start who you’re building for and the context around what they are trying to achieve, how and why. This gives a more holistic view of what success looks like from both a business and a customer perspective.

FT Discovery Process

Customer closeness initiatives

We invite readers into our offices, go out to speak with them in the city or at conferences or at their places of work. This is an important part of our discovery process but equally important is to be continuously learning and discovering customer needs. It’s important for teams beyond product and tech to be hearing from customers as well. Last year and app product managers had a goal of having a direct conversation with at least two readers per quarter — 90% of them did. For the past two years we’ve had members of the FT’s senior management group — +60 people including the editor, columnists, board members and directors of all business areas including Finance, HR and Operations — hold a customer research interview with an FT reader in different locations around the world. FT leaders are setting the direction, vision and targets for the company. That vision and strategy needs to align with customers. Now that we’ve reached 1 million paying subscribers and we look to what’s next, customer closeness initiatives help keep planning and direction, as well as opportunities for new services, features and improvements, grounded in what matters to readers.

Within our Customer Research team, we are looking for new User Researchers to join our team. If you’re interested to find out more, please click here to find out more:




A blog by the Financial Times Product & Technology department.

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