Three strategies to help you acquire new subscribers


Nov 2021

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Three key areas

A key element for any business with a digital presence is traffic optimisation, ensuring prospects are aware of a business and its products, and are driven to the digital estate. But before a business starts optimising traffic, we strongly recommend it uses its data and research to build a picture of who its audience is and what they like. Once it has optimised its platform for subscriptions, and it knows its key audience, it can then innovate to develop products and strategies to grow its audience. At FT Strategies we focus on three areas to help you identify, understand, attract and engage potential new customers.

1. Understand your readers

The majority of traffic never converts, so we recommend researching your audience and segmenting them so you can target and attract the right prospects. Audience segmentation is a way to split your audience into groups based on certain characteristics that they share. All audiences share the common need of your product or service, but beyond that, there are distinct demographic differences (i.e., age, gender) and they tend to have additional socio-economic, lifestyle, or other behavioral differences that can be useful to your organisation. Segmentation offers a simple way of organising and managing your company’s relationships with your audience but also makes it easy to tailor and personalise your marketing, service, and sales efforts to the needs of specific groups. This helps boost conversions and loyalty. Some examples of segmentation include:

  • Demographic - Age, gender, income, education, and marital status
  • Geographic - Country, county, city, and town
  • Psychographic - Personality, attitude, values, and interests
  • Technographic - Mobile-use, desktop-use, apps, and software
  • Behavioral - Tendencies and frequent actions, feature or product use, and habits

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Sources of information and data on your audiences to build the segments can come from internal capabilities such as data & analytics and customer research, and external sources such as competitor analysis. Across both of these are quantitative and qualitative research methods. Quantitative includes demographic data such as age & income and behavioural data such as page views per user, average session duration, sessions per user etc. Whilst these can be useful, using discrete statistics with a bias towards quantitative to profile customers yields averages that do not give a clear sense of a reader’s wants and needs.

The best way to understand readers is to ask them what they think through qualitative methods. Listening to customer feedback and validating your hypotheses with real customers via interviews and surveys are often overlooked by publishers. Typical questions for your audience are around the purpose of consuming, the channel that drove the purchase, how often they read the news etc but also more tailored to your organisation such as how they prefer to receive news content from you, are there specific columnists they most value. Whatever the questions, to get the most out of your research you should prioritise your customer feedback by what is driving or eroding value. This also means that you must survey lapsed subscribers and lightweight users, as well as engaged audiences. Make sure the questions are clear, specific, grouped around clear topics, and can be analysed - you can follow-up with tailored questions at a later stage.

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2. Optimise your content and platforms to increase the right traffic

It is important to note that the traffic goals of an advertising model and a subscriptions model are fundamentally different. The former favours quantity, the latter favours quality. Attracting new readers and growing your reader base (the “top of the funnel”) is an important first step to building a meaningful reader revenue business. Increasing the size of your reader base provides your news organisation with the flexibility to convert readers at a lower percentage and still yield meaningful reader revenue. To do this, you must have a content distribution strategy in place and be broadcasting your content where your key readers are to develop new audiences and engage your readers.

Social media is a key distribution platform but it is hard to correlate to the bottom of funnel conversions, and is used mainly for reach and awareness. Some top tips for social media content distribution are:

  • Distribute timely, regular high quality content most relevant to the channel and audience therein
  • Prioritise value over volume and organic reach using quality content, benefiting from first click free access
  • Use first click free to allow social readers to experience your content
  • Work alongside the newsroom to plan ahead - and make sure journalists are part of your social strategy
  • Understand the different patterns per channel and optimise/tailor appropriately e.g. Facebook for viral/shareable content, Twitter for breaking news

The Financial Times has evolved its content distribution strategy to generate more engagement on distribution platforms by using a quality over quantity approach. It decided to promote high quality stories, appropriate for content distribution rather than flooding the channels with as much content as possible. This fits its overall strategy for content and creates a more focused page, with more value for each post and engagement from prospects. It also adapted to Facebook’s algorithm change, which favoured news organisations less. Wanting to use the one-story news narrative to its advantage, the FT adapted its content distribution strategies on social media to focus on coronavirus e.g. Instagram stories would focus on one aspect of the virus with links to corresponding articles (the Pandemic Economy). This caused anonymous traffic to surge by 244%.

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As well as social, newsletters can be used to identify users, build content loyalty and drive qualified leads - and should be actively promoted onsite. Newsletters act as a critical habit builder before and after conversion - a crucial tool to build loyalty with an engaged audience. We know that opting in to newsletter bundles increased engagement rates for FT B2C and B2B users and subscribers who sign up to a newsletter are 54% more likely to be retained than all subscribers. Choosing the right type of newsletter and setting appropriate objectives are critical to meeting your goals e.g. daily for agenda setting, premium as a subscriber benefit, automated for breaking news etc. Some top tactics for ensuring newsletters are optimised for impact:

  • Keep advertising to a minimum - space is precious and this is one of your primary tools for getting readers to return to the website
  • Make sure you balance free site content with premium - too much blocked content on site will drive down your newsletter engagement rates, and increase unsubscribes
  • Take the opportunity to cross promote newsletters
  • Personalise content where possible and allow for feedback and interaction
  • Create a connection with the editorial team - have a picture and a message from editor
  • Don't make the newsletter too long - not many people will get to the bottom
  • Include a forward to a friend link and social sharing buttons throughout
  • Assess patterns of engagement within your newsletter subscriber base - what do your segments click on and what do they not
  • Conduct cohort analysis within your newsletter base: high engagers vs low engagers to optimise content per user group
  • Be agile and consistently test your newsletter structures -- A/B test subject lines, layout, CTAs, focus, time of send etc

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3. Innovate the newsroom

Once you have a key audience, launching new products / strategies based on user needs will help reach new growth audiences. To determine user needs, take audience segmentation a step further and create data-driven personas. Personas help you understand the nuances of the way readers consume information and the fundamental reasons someone uses the product. Instead of a typical target group, such as “time poor females age 45 - 60”, a data driven persona is a much more specific person - “Kim, a 43 year old CMO who wants to feel like she’s on top of things”. What matters when constructing a persona is the context - where is the reader consuming the news and what is their purpose of consuming news? You should use a “need state” approach, meaning you want to understand the mindset that the reader is in when they are consuming information. For example, are they in news catch-up mode, or are they in data research mode? When you imagine a persona you should be able to empathise with them, and this aids the design of strategic and tactical interventions to maximise traffic and engagement from this person.

A typical process for developing a persona:

  1. Articulate a segment hypothesis - i.e. local business owners want to engage with our products to understand how they can take advantage of regional support & plan for the return of the tourist season
  2. Gather data to inform this - LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter to get details on their business, previous employment, what groups they belong to, what motivates them etc.
  3. Hypothesise around the user needs of the persona - i.e. they use the website to skim local business news at the start of the week to find out how their competition are performing
  4. Collect data to confirm these needs - frequency of visits, what topics they are reading, how their reading behaviour changes (number of pages visited & time spent on each page)
  5. Think about what editorial content or products you could create to service these needs - e.g. a business bulletin.
  6. Track metrics to measure success of new product - frequency of visit, time spent on site, number of articles opened, newsletter sign-ups
  7. Update and develop the persona with findings

Once you have created these personas, and have a better understanding of user needs, you should develop new products / strategies around this in order to increase engagement and reach new audiences. Best practice is having multidisciplinary teams that make use of your editorial, marketing, product, design, strategy and innovation capabilities. These teams should share findings with the newsroom and empower journalists to test and learn themselves, rather than a top down approach. The Financial Times has a Digital Editorial Development team that lead innovation in the newsroom, developing valuable digital content and monetising the FT’s journalism. The team pays close attention to user needs when developing new products and content strategies.

When traffic spiked in February 2020 at the start of the pandemic, the team looked closely at what some of the signals were within that traffic, and within some of the user habits, to understand whether there were any insights to glean about the behaviours of the users and if there was an opportunity for a new product or strategy to capitalise on the increased traffic. Analysis covered time of visits, how they arrived at the content, how often they came back, what they were engaging with, was there a specific geography, time of day etc. From those behaviours the team hypothesised about potential user needs and realised there could be a demand for a newsletter that provided the latest news and insights on how the coronavirus epidemic was affecting the markets, global business, our workplaces and daily lives. The FT launched the Coronavirus Business Update as a newsletter that was free for one month - this allowed it to bring in new readers to sample the content and also capture their details through registration. Bringing back anonymous users over time like this means they are more likely to become prospects and therefore more likely to eventually take a trial or indeed a subscription.

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How FT Strategies can help

Over the past 18 months, FT Strategies has helped a number of businesses effectively approach the challenge of prospect acquisition. If you need help understanding your audience and attracting the right prospects, optimising your platforms and content for traffic or advice on launching new products and strategies to attract readers and drive conversions then please get in touch.

We have worked with all sizes and shapes of business in various formats – from 2-week design sprints through to longer-term engagements. And as ever, we’re always happy to start with a chat over coffee.


Freddie Sharman: Knowledge and Client Solutions Manager

Before joining FT Strategies, Freddie led the Knowledge & Collaboration practice at CIL Management Consultants. Prior to that he held knowledge management and research positions at Kirkland & Ellis, Oliver Wyman and Hogan Lovells. 

Report on the Google News Initiative Subscriptions Lab Europe 2021

How the FT uses customer discovery to design better value propositions

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