Increasing customer engagement during the pandemic | Interview with Head of Digital Editorial Development

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Oct 2020

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How can companies create new digital sources of revenue and better customer engagement through the coronavirus pandemic? We interview Renée Kaplan, Head of Digital Editorial Development at the Financial Times.


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Renée Kaplan

Jenny Stark

Jenny Stark

Creating digital customer engagement & loyalty during COVID-19
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Podcast Transcript

Podcast Transcript

Jenny Stark: Hello, and welcome to the FT Strategies podcast, bringing you the latest thought leadership about digital strategies in the business world. I’m your host, Jenny Stark, and in this episode we’re going to talking about digital relationships: how exactly leaders can create new sources of revenue through better engagement with their customers, specifically during the coronavirus pandemic. Here joining me today is Renée Kaplan, Head of Digital Editorial Development at the Financial Times. Renée leads the digital strategy team at the FT, specialising in creating innovation in the newsroom, developing valuable digital content, and monetising the FT’s journalism. Renée, thank you so much for joining us.

Renée Kaplan: Thanks for having me on, I’m delighted to chat today.

Jenny Stark: Renée, I’m going to jump straight into the coronavirus lockdown. During lockdown, the FT did remarkably well. Page views went up 97% on last year, and the FT hit their subscription goals for the entire year in three months which is incredible. Why was that the case?

Renée Kaplan: What was interesting is that most of our peers or our competitors (and we know this from research that’s quite open and public), most of their traffic levels have actually gone back to more normal traffic levels. Whereas ours has remained sustained. We are still experiencing, months after the first peak of the pandemic and indeed the peak in audience traffic, we still have an above average level of engagement and traffic. And I think one of the reasons is that we really tried to pay attention to what some of the signals were within that traffic, and within some of the user habits. So what do I mean? Well, we very quickly, when we were seeing these peaks, began to analyse exactly what that traffic was doing, so that we could see - are there any insights to glean about specifically what the behaviour of the users were. So - when were the people coming? How were they coming to the content? How often were they coming back? What were they specifically engaging with in terms of topics? Was there a broad variety? Was there a specific geography? Was there a specific time of day? In short, we tried to get a really broad snapshot of exactly what the user behaviour was, to then understand - well actually, what does that user behaviour tell us? Does it tel us about a particular demand that perhaps we could develop strategies or a product to fulfil? Does it tell us something about what we’re not doing, that we ought to be doing more of? Does it tell us something specific about something that is particularly successful? And really, that kind of really frequent user feedback loop around user behaviour, analysis, insight, action, was what was very successful for us.

When we were seeing these peaks, we began to analyse exactly what that traffic was doing, so that we could see - are there any insights to glean about specifically what the behaviour of the users were.

Jenny Stark: So, where were these users coming from? Were they anonymous? Were they subscribers?

Renée Kaplan: We saw that a lot of the traffic that we were experiencing in that enormous surge was anonymous traffic, so it wasn’t necessarily subscriber traffic, although we got massively higher subscriber traffic as well. But we suddenly experienced a huge surge in traffic from many users who had never come to the Financial Times before. We wondered, well, how can we try to get them not just to come once or twice but to come back. And so, we created a strategy of what we called a daily free to read, where one of the aspects of our business model which is both unique but important, is that we have a paywall, and we have a paywall for a product that’s a relatively premium product. And one of the challenges in terms of bringing in new users and new readers is creating occasions for that content to be sampled. So we want to make our content free only when we know there’s appetite specifically for it, and only when we know it will be engaged with, and this was the perfect occasion.

We want to make our content free only when we know there’s appetite specifically for it, and only when we know it will be engaged with

So we began to make one to two pieces of coronavirus related content free to read a day, and to specifically promote it as free to read, so that people might not just happen to encounter it through search or social or sharing, but actually might begin to see in a systematic way that the specific coronavirus related content is something they could come back to see and to sample multiple times, with the idea being that we know for a fact - the more time an anonymous user comes back, the more likely they are to become a prospect, and the more likely they are eventually somewhere down the road on their second, third, fourth, fifth visit, to actually maybe take a trial or indeed a subscription.

Jenny Stark: I just want to pick your brains a little bit about this idea of loyalty. We know that the market is saturated and full of competition. How do you create a strategy that creates loyal users in this day and age?

Renée Kaplan: For us, loyalty is always going to come down to a question of - are we fulfilling a need? Are we doing something that is not just better than the competition or unique to the FT, but that is specifically tailored to a need that we know our users might have. Because, if we’re not just doing something well, if we’re not just best in class, but we’re both good, relevant, best in class and really attuned to the way a user is consuming content, or some form of editorial need, then you’re ticking multiple boxes. Not just for the uniqueness of our content but of utility. Of servicing a particular need. Of actually - the sheer value of actually getting someone’s attention (the fact that we’re competing with everything else). So I’ll give you a concrete example. A lot of our subscribers were also engaging with coronavirus content, and what’s interesting about our subscribers in particular, and we noted this behaviour was different obviously from the anonymous users, was that they were coming back much more frequently in a given time period than they had before. So clearly, there was a real sense of coming back for updates a lot - have I missed something? Is there something new in the coronavirus news? Is there something I need to know? There’s, for obvious reasons, a lot more urgency around staying updated.

Not just for the uniqueness of our content but of utility. Of servicing a particular need.

So we thought, well actually, why don’t we help them feel like they’re not missing out. There’s clearly that sense, that concern, manifesting in the behaviour of not wanting to miss out but of perhaps even fear of missing out. So we thought, well, what would be the best strategy we could try that could help respond to this notion of - we know you’re coming to us for this content, and you’re coming a lot for fear of not missing out, so can we help you get a sense of comprehensive coverage. Can we give you a sense of really engaging with a topic that will make you more loyal. And we thought - well, why don’t we create a newsletter that will be a three times a week update on the most important stories around coronavirus from that week. So that - you not only might be coming back frequently, but you might also feel reassured that if you subscribe to this newsletter you will definitely not be missing out, and not only will the subscription give you a sense of reassurance, a sense of a need being fulfilled, and probably grow your trust and the value of the brand itself, but actually we also know for a fact that a newsletter as and when you do subscribe is a proven way to create loyalty. So we did just that. And it proved to be not just highly popular in terms of signup rates, but it’s been a very valuable driver of engagement, of spending more time with the brand and of consuming more coronavirus topics, both of which we know are correlated to more loyalty.

Jenny Stark: Let’s talk about data. Data sits at the heart of the FT’s digital strategy. What techniques and metrics can businesses use to harness their data and find out what their customers are telling them?

Renée Kaplan: You know, understanding and leveraging what customers are telling you with data is a little bit more of an art than a science. But it always starts with understanding what a business’s commercial and editorial objectives are, and then understanding how you can be measuring whether or not you can be achieving those objectives. And that might seem kind of counter-intuitive, especially for businesses who are beginning to understand how to measure and have a leverage are thinking well, you know, what data do I have? Okay so what does my data tell me? The better way is to start first with what do I need to know. What is most valuable for me to understand about what I’m hoping to achieve and hence, what am I hoping to achieve, number one? In order to understand whether I’m achieving it, what do I need to measure? And thirdly, how do I measure that? So it’s slightly reversing what might be a more intuitive order of things. Instead of starting with the data, you’re starting with the objective and then figuring out what you need to measure.

The better way is to start first with what do I need to know. What is most valuable for me to understand about what I’m hoping to achieve

Jenny Stark: So, is there any one particular measurement that stands queen above the rest, or does it depend upon a case by case scenario?

Renée Kaplan: There’s no one best thing to measure. What a business really needs to understand first is - I’ll give a concrete example. What is my business model? Well, if my business model is about getting readers to begin to pay for my content if I’m launching for the first time a subscription model after having been mostly an advertising based model, what I really need to understand is what leads to a user first paying for content. What was their behaviour? Was there a repeat pattern - that’s one thing you always want to look for - that lead first to a conversion? Was there a particular kind of user, whether it was a geography or a demography or indeed a source of traffic that is predominantly common amongst users who are first subscribed? So, looking for recurrent trends is probably one of the best ways to understand what you want to measure when you’re measuring success. So if my objective is conversion, then I want to look at the particular behaviour of readers who converted, and look for the top two or three trends that are recurrent across that behaviour. And then - okay, if I measure that, I now know what the positive behaviours are that I want to incentivise and I can begin to develop a strategy on the back of those insights as to how to then lead to that positive behaviour.

Looking for recurrent trends is probably one of the best ways to understand what you want to measure when you’re measuring success.

Jenny Stark: Last but not least, you’re launching a new digital strategy. How do you get buy-in across the entire company?

Renée Kaplan: How to get buy-in is of course one of the key…I would say if there were a silver bullet it’s one of the most indispensable ones. There’s no magic formula for it but again, I think one of the best ways to think about buy-in is communication. It seems very simple. Before you even launch a project you want to have conversations with every single person who may help make that project successful, across the business. And not say, this is a thing we’re doing, say this is a thing we’re thinking of doing, but it’s a thing we’re thinking about doing that relies on your participation, for which I would need you to find it interesting, for you to find it compelling. So this is what we’re thinking of doing, what do you think? And - it sounds again very simple but one of the simple strategic aspects of that kind of strategy to get buy-in is making people feel like they’re co-creators. Like they’re co-producers. Like, it’s only going to be as successful as they’re interesting in helping you make it, and hence, getting them to get a sense of - it’s actually accountability, but mostly excitement. Almost like collective interest-raising really, ahead of an official launch, so that people really have a personal stake or if nothing else, a concerted stake in thinking, you know this might work out and if it’s a success, I’ll have helped participate in this success, so I’m going to be willing to commit something for this right now.

Jenny Stark: And on that note Renée, thank you so much for committing your time to talk to us today, really appreciate it.

Renée Kaplan: My pleasure! And thanks for the great questions Jenny.

Jenny Stark: That’s it for this episode. To listen to more FT Strategies podcasts, or to find out more about FT Strategies, please visit www.ftstrategies.com.

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