Inside the social media strategy at The Financial Times

Source: Digiday

Recently, an industry website called The Drum reported that The Financial Times, the London-based business publication, is projected to hit 1 million paying digital subscribers by next year. This is impressive, not just because only a handful of publications have hit this milestone, but also because The Financial Times has done so while maintaining a hard paywall.

Unlike companies that use metered paywalls like The New York Times and Washington Post, The Financial Times hits users with a subscriber login page on the vast majority of its articles. This presents a challenge for a social media editor: how do you promote content when not all of your followers will be able to see it?

To get an overview of The Financial Times’ social media strategy, I interviewed Jake Grovum, its head of social. He told me about how the Times has leveraged Instagram stories, what metrics his team is judged by, and why the newspaper hasn’t invested resources into Snapchat.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.

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A transcript is below.

Simon Owens: Hey Jake, thanks for joining us

Jake Grovum: Thanks for having me.

You run social media for The Financial Times. How did you end up in this job and what were you doing before it?

Before, I was actually in Washington, DC. I spent most of my career, during and after finishing college, as a political reporter, mainly doing state politics reporting. I was in DC working at the Pew Trusts working on a project called Stateline, basically covering state politics and policy around the country. It was a pretty small staff and I got involved in social media there. That was how I started bridging the gap between being a more traditional reporter and working in social.

Ended up moving to New York and had to find a new position since Pew isn’t in New York. Found a position here at the FT and applied, and started working here about three years ago.

I was an editor at US News & World Report, and back then the role of social media manager was like a glorified RSS feed. It was about posting links to stories. You were in a traditional reporting role. Do you think the social media editor role, now that platforms are getting more robust in terms of hosting native content, that the social media team is playing more of a journalistic role these days?

Yeah, that’s definitely why I moved into social myself, and it’s the direction we’ve been trying to go here. We’re trying to, as opposed to just having links to stories and trying to get people to click through, we’re really trying to tell stories on platforms and give people experiences that are native, that they can consume and share and click through if they want to. All these platforms are increasingly making new ways to do that, whether it’s Instagram stories, threads, Twitter moments, whatever. There’s consistently new tools to do that.

I want to talk a little more in a second about your use of Instagram and Instagram Stories, but under the purview of your current role, what are all the platforms you oversee at The Financial Times?

Our main ones, like most places, are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. We have a smaller and more experimental project around Whatsapp. But the main ones for us are the big two, Facebook and Twitter, and Instagram is catching up as a third. It depends on how you measure it, whether it’s engagement or audience or traffic.

The Financial Times is somewhat unique compared to a lot of mainstream publications. It has a subscription business model, but it wasn’t a recent outgrowth. You’ve had a paywall of sorts for pretty much the entire existence of the website. Unlike The New York Times or The Washington Post, which just recently launched subscription strategies. And you’ve long had a hard paywall, not a metered paywall. And I saw a recent article that you’re projected to hit 1 million paying subscribers soon. So I’d love to hear about the role of the paywall for a social media strategist. How does that make your social media strategy any different? Do you approach social media strategy in a different way because you know a large percentage of the potential users who might see a social media post might end up hitting and bouncing off that paywall.

I don’t think necessarily that we approach it differently, but it does dovetail nicely to an approach that involves telling stories natively on a platform. There’s an advantage where you get something out of following us on social, even if you don’t click through as often as we might like you to. You’re getting something out of that experience of following us and interacting with us on these platforms. But also there’s the additional chance that someone clicks through, and there are limited ways that people can click through to read. We do generate some new subscriptions from social, so that’s part of it as well.

There are all kinds of studies that show that even for free publications, the majority of people who retweet or share an article, they don’t actually click through themselves to read them. And sometimes the headline is a pretty good delivery of the information that’s going to be gleaned from the article. So maybe that’s a testament to you don’t always need to read the articles to glean value from a publication’s social media account.

We would love to think that everyone who follows us and sees our stuff on social is reading every article we link to, but I think we’re obviously well aware that’s not the case. But putting this stuff on social in a compelling way, a shareable way, in a way people like and want to engage with, is a good practice for us. It gets our journalism out in front of more people than it would otherwise. And also it helps us reach audiences we wouldn’t otherwise.

For instance, we have a much more heavily US, American based following on social than if you were to just look at our core website audience. And certainly a paper audience. That’s part of it too. We reach different people, new people, whether those are subscribers, potential subscribers, or just people who like what we do on social. All those things come together. It’s all good for the organization, one way or another.

You, like other financial publications, deal with a lot of numbers and data. I’m sure there are lots of opportunities to repurpose charts and graphs and stuff like that. Is that stuff that’s already been created for the articles, and you’re just repurposing it? Do you have access to designers who can take information in an article and put together a quick chart for you? How do you repurpose and use images from the actual articles and also come up with images of your own?

It’s a combination of all those things. About a year and a half or so ago, we developed what we call a social chart template. If you see them, it’s the black background, as opposed to the pink background for most things on the website and print. That was developed just for social. We asked the data graphics team to make us versions of charts they’re working on sometimes. We have tools where we make our own that are original, and apart from everything you see on the website, that only live on social. And sometimes it’s just adapting to what goes on site to a simpler version that fits a mobile screen, whereas the full desktop version may be some long graphic you have to scroll through to see the whole thing.

I remember, circa 2011, 2012, when I was working in magazine journalism, we subscribed to all these services like Getty Images and syndicated political cartoons. We wanted to start cross-posting that content to Facebook, because at the time Facebook was putting a lot of emphasis in its algorithm on native images. And there was this pushback from our lawyers, we didn’t know whether these contracts were written so we were allowed to post there. I’ve seen some good photography on your Instagram page. Where are the parameters that you’re working with there? Has the landscape changed where that automatically figures in to when you’re negotiating this image rights stuff?

We have set rights agreements for the images we use on social. For instance, there are some images that will appear in the paper that we can’t use on social. There are certain ones we have agreements on that we can use on social. Obviously we credit all those. Those are really important for us, especially with stories where we don’t have a photographer there to do original photos for us.

And then you mentioned political cartoons. We have a couple inhouse cartoonists. We make a lot of use of their work as well. And that works well for us.

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How often is the analytics staff monitoring which social media sites lead to the most paying subscribers? Are they actually able to trace back those metrics?

We are able to. The social team sits among the broader engagement team within the newsroom. So it’s totally an editorial team. Generating subscriptions or conversions, however you want to talk about it, it isn’t something we look at as a metric for success for us. But it’s something that other parts of the business are aware of and we can measure and keep an eye on. We’re aware of it, but it’s not the goal of the social team to generate new subscriptions.

Are you guys required to put on URL tags so when someone clicks on a link from Twitter, it’s easier for the analytics team to track the journey of that user?

We have some tagging and ways to go about that. To be honest, I’ve sat with some of our analytics people. There are a couple people who sit with the audience engagement team fulltime, as well. And so I confess I don’t know the entire ins and outs of how we track those users, but we are able to tell when people are coming and when they’re returning. We talk about quality visits, which is someone comes back within a certain timeframe.

So all those things are how we measure what we’re getting out of social media beyond a visit here and there, a visit to that story or this story. We’re trying to put together a narrative of some kind, so we can have a measurement of what we’re getting out of it long term.

Have the analytics people you’ve spoken to shared with you which of the platforms have the highest conversion rates in terms of paying subscribers?

Off the top of my head I don’t recall. I think, if you looked at it just from a volume standpoint, my guess is that it would correlate with the networks that we get more traffic from. On a given month, if Facebook is the biggest driver of traffic, chances are you’d see more conversions from Facebook.

Speaking of Facebook, it’s become accepted wisdom that people don’t go on Facebook to read industry or work-related news. Obviously you’re an industry oriented publication. Do you think that’s the case? Is Facebook less important to you guys than it might be for a publication that was less industry oriented?

It’s funny, the broader question of how important Facebook is for us is probably different, given our subscription model. We’re a sound business without Facebook, so it’s an added bonus what we get from it. But there are 2 billion people who use Facebook, so to paint a broad brush of how everyone uses it to get this kind of news or that kind of news is oversimplifying it. You can find your audience, or people who want to interact with you, wherever they may be.

Just as an example, we write a lot about professional services, the big four auditing firms. And that is consistently one of the most engaging topics for us on Facebook. KPMG, McKinsey. All those stories about that get a ton of engagement and are some of the most successful posts we’ve had since I’ve been here. Even how AI is changing consulting. All those things we see a ton of engagement on, on Facebook, even more so than we see on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Facebook is changing and might not be the news hub that some of us thought it was going to be, even a couple years ago, but there are still people there, and if you can find ways to reach them and engage with them, you can still get what you want out of it. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that what you want to get out of Facebook, as opposed to what they want to give you.

Tell me about Instagram. I read about how your team uses Instagram stories to craft visual narratives out of Financial Times articles.

Instagram has been a huge growth platform for us. A few years ago when I started we had around 40,000 followers. It was something we didn’t use that often. And I came in just with an interest in it. We just crossed 900,000 followers this week. We’ve seen incredible growth and followers. The stories have been a big part of it.

It’s kind of the same general approach to everything else. We have self-contained stories, whether it’s an explainer or an event, we tell the entire story that you want to consume or interact with. Give people what they need to know about whatever it is we’re covering. And then let them swipe up to read more if they want to go more in-depth.

It depends on the story, how much time or effort that goes into producing them. Some are more complicated than others. But it’s been a really experimental platform. For a while, they disappeared after 24 hours, so it was really easy to try new things because after a day it was gone forever. We just have been able to do a lot of experimental things, and it’s worked out really well for us, contributing to the growth. We get some decent traffic from those as well. Not just from topics that you’d think are Instagram friendly. Some of our most successful stories have been around the future of cash, business school rankings, political stories, the Apple iPhone launch. More core FT topics do quite well for us. It’s been nice to see that the stories we want to tell and are important to us in editorial can be successful on a platform like Instagram.

What about for the main Instagram feed? Instagram is famous for not allowing URLs. You see all these publications say, for the story, click the link in our profile. It always seemed like an inefficient way to go about it. Especially there was this question of what happens when Instagram becomes more algorithmic, because you could say click on the link in our bio, but that post could be two days old because it’s out of chronological order.

But I’ve found myself actually clicking through when it’s enticing enough. Clicking on those links, it looks like publications now have a landing page for their Instagram links, so that takes care of the chronological problem. Do you find users are actually going back to the profile and clicking on that link?

We can see in the analytics how many people click through based on a certain post that they’re seeing. It depends on the post. It’s never a huge number. We can see some people do. For us, we just have a link to our homepage in our bio for the time being. Driving clicks through the link on the bio page hasn’t been something we’ve tried much. The posts have always been — they are what they are. They’re extending the brand. We’ve just been focusing on growth for a while.

We are looking at developing one of those landing page strategies. We have 900,000 followers now. A pretty big audience. We’re getting people super engaged on the platform. We are trying to think now of how there’s more we can do with the feed post. We post a lot of charts there where we see on the backend that people are saving them just as much as they’re liking them. Which is interesting. That shows that people are going out of their way to be able to refer back to them. That tells us that we’re providing something that people find useful and really informative, and that chances are they will want to click through and read more.

What about LinkedIn? They’ve been doubling down on editorial. They’ve hired away all these financial journalists to serve as editors there. We’re told that more and more people aren’t just using it to host their resumes, that they’re using it as an actual social network, returning to it on a daily basis. Seems like The Financial Times, reporting on industry and career stuff, would be perfect for that platform. What are you guys noticing as LinkedIn doubles down on financial news?

We’ve gone through a couple iterations of LinkedIn strategy. We have a whole working careers section. That type of content we find does do quite well. For us, LinkedIn can sometimes be kind of random as to what does well. We have a random feature called Life of a Song. And last year, one of our best performing LinkedIn posts was a Life of a Song story that went out on LinkedIn through an auto feed that was about the TLC song, No Scrubs. If you can explain to me why that caught on with our LinkedIn audience, I’m not really sure.

It performs well for us on some things that you’d expect would do well. We have seen recently, and I’m sure you’re aware, LinkedIn is doing more editorial curation on their trending stories lists, and pushing content themselves to their users. That we do see quite a bit of engagement and traction on the stories that get picked up by those curators. Even that can be, on any given day, maybe just a big business story. It could be a column from our management columnist. Anything. That’s done quite well for us too.

I’ve heard they have a Slack channel that gives them a direct line to the editors at a lot of publications where they can pitch stories to them.

Yes, that’s true.

I’ve seen some of your competitors like Cheddar and Business Insider, they do native video on LinkedIn. It seems to do quite well, where they’ll do a video with music in the background, and it’s some kind of cool job or invention. Have you done any experimentation like that?

We were part of the pilot program on LinkedIn. We posted basically video that we had for Facebook, we would use on LinkedIn as well. We moved a bit away from that just because — on Facebook, with video, you sometimes see a gain in reach or engagement around high performing videos, or you might see higher click-throughs from a video you post. We weren’t seeing as much of the returns from video, and we weren’t getting the in-depth data and engagement numbers that we wanted to see. So we just moved away from it.

We still post some of our video to there. We had an interview with Bill Gates around some of the Gates Foundation work that they’ve been doing around Africa and global poverty. We put that on LinkedIn, because that seemed like a good subject for that audience. We do more strategic and selective video posts to LinkedIn, but nowhere near the volume we were during the pilot program or what we would do on Facebook.

How do you collaborate with the news team? How reactive are you? Are they bringing you in as they’re developing stories? Or are you waiting for the articles to come out and then thinking how do we craft additional content around it?

In New York, I sit at the center of the news desk, right next to the executive editor and right across from the news editor. I’m right in the middle of the commissioning and editing process. In London we have a seat on the main news desk. We’re as involved as we can be in that process as things are coming together, being commissioned, edited, published.

On bigger projects, it depends. We get asked how early do you want to be involved? Sometimes there’s only so much you can do as something is coming together. Trying to figure out how to work together and manage those projects is something I’m guessing a lot of social teams have to tackle. It depends on the story and how quickly the news is coming together. As far as stories go and the news, we try to stay as closely plugged in with the news teams as we can be. We attend the editorial conference calls every morning.

Do you have any formal collaborations with the platforms? I know some of your stuff is repurposed for Medium. There are all these news headlines every day about Twitter forming some kind of video deal with BuzzFeed or Bloomberg. Or Facebook Watch. Are you guys developing any exclusive content for anyone else? Does that not really fit into your subscription-based business model?

Not at the moment. We produce exclusive content for platforms, for our own accounts. Those are things that are of our own initiative. So we don’t have our own agreements at the moment.

Is this a purposeful thing? Or so far it just hasn’t organically happened?

We have our core audience that exists on our own platforms, that’s always the main priority. When you start talking about putting resources into something for a different platform, it’s always push and pull in terms of trying to balance that with whatever we’re trying to do. Even with video, it’s a matter of, if we’re producing video to meet some kind of Facebook agreement, what else aren’t we doing that might serve our onsite audience?

I don’t know if it’s purposeful. But it’s always trying to keep in mind our broader engagement and business objectives around who we’re trying to serve, what we get out of the reach and off-platform engagement that we’re doing on all these different platforms.

Is Snapchat just not worth dealing with if you’re not an entertainment-oriented outlet? Especially now that Instagram is bigger and has all the same features, and has cut Snapchat’s legs out from under it. Do you guys even bother with Snapchat?

We’ve never actually done anything on Snapchat. It’s a resource thing. Not being sure how much time to dedicate to it. Also not being sure where we fit or what approach. We didn’t want to jump in and just start doing whatever. There’s that and, I think, early on it was a hard platform to produce off-platform for. It wasn’t like Stories allowed you to upload something easily. Everything had to be done live or natively. And for us, a lot of the stories we publish aren’t a case where you’re out in the field, something you can do live as you’re on a red carpet or covering a protest or something. That’s not as easy to do when you’re covering a big merger or deal. Whatever it may be.

Once they developed Discover, and a number of organizations jumped into it, to me it became clear that that was the place for publishers. Those were places that had teams of half a dozen to 12, 15 people producing something every day. That wasn’t something we were ever quite interested in doing. It didn’t seem like much of a fit for us, and it was never clear what we’d get out of it.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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