Ramu Ramanathan
Nov 30, 2011

The point where we have more digital subscribers than print circulation is not very far away now: Rob Grimshaw

In this exclusive conversation with Campaign India, Rob Grimshaw, managing director, FT.com shares his plans for India

The point where we have more digital subscribers than print circulation is not very far away now: Rob Grimshaw

Ramu Ramanathan (RR): What brings you to India. Can you share your plans for apps and your targets?

Rob Grimshaw (RG): This visit is about the progress we have made. Yes, it must be some 18 months ago, when we created the India homepage on FT.com and the first time we had our local journalists editing the homepage and effectively giving an Indian window on FT.com. That coincided with the stepping up of our marketing efforts in India and over the past year that has made a big difference. Our page view has grown by more than 50% and subscription base has more than doubled in that period. So we feel that there’s real momentum. Our aim is to try and take that on to the mobile because mobile is huge for us. Plus mobile is big for India. It’s the right time to bring the two things together. So what we are doing is creating a customised India version of our mobile application. This is available on iOS and we will be launching it on the Android within a week or two.

RR: Is this the model you follow in the rest of world, a combination of iOS and Android.

RG: We prioritised iOS because in the tablet space, iOS has been big for us. The iPad is the only show in town. We have done very well in that area. But we also want to have a dual-fronted approach, covering both Android and iOS platforms. So what we have done is created an Android version of the app, which essentially features the same content and elements as the iOS has and will be available for Android-based smart phones and tablets. We may extend beyond that to Windows Mobile, etc. But if we have iOS and Android under control than that covers the bottomline.

RR: Can you explain the application process?

RG: The content that you see on the app  is pulled through the FT.com India homepage, effectively giving an India window on content. Today of course, Indian is a fabulous story which has global importance. But it may not always be the India story at the top, it can be another story that is important. Then there are the other big India news stories tabs, plus some content from BRICS and beyond, blogs which are so relevant here in view of BRIC-to-BRIC trade going on, which we want to try and cover. Then we have other three items which we think are going to India audience particularly the A-list premier comment blog, where we bringing in a lot of external comments from key figures in finance.

RR: So these A-listers become columnists for you?

RG: Yes, exactly. They are very keen to get involved, creating a real forum for these kind of commentators. And then we have the Luxury 360, which appeals to the Indian audience, that’s for sure. And Biz Education, where we see lots of traffic coming.

RR: Except for the Samsung ad on your home page, there are no ads. Why such little ad space?

RG: We have tried to create an uncluttered environment for advertisers. It takes a lot of will power to do it. We went through a process on the desktop as well and took out a lot of the smaller advertising positions and cut it down so that we really had only two or three on the page. Obviously that feels a bit painful, but the result was that the yields for our advertising positions went up. And it’s very popular with advertisers too.  More importantly, it’s popular with the readers as well with the readers having a better experience on the page. They are staying longer, reading more and because readers stay longer, advertisers find the audience is paying more attention. Then there’s a weather corner, and this year we have stepped up iTunes and started operating it within the browser, which has been tremendously successful.

RR: In terms of number of editorial staff, the modus operandi of uploading the stories, etc?

RG: We run a pretty lean and hungry team of journalists around the world. The team is spread around the globe. We started with three journalists, full-time here in India, which has expanded over the year. They are now producing a lot of content which is of huge interest to our readership in the world, not only in India. They take the responsibility for keeping the home page curated and updated and making sure the readers in India get the most appropriate possible view on the content.

RR: What’s the number of Indian users, and how many are registered?

RG: We never release the figures for individual countries, so I can only talk in terms of growth and proportion. But as I have said earlier, the traffic has grown by over 50% in India over the past year and our registration is up by 40%. Our subscription base has doubled. So, on all front we are making tremendous progress.

RR: In terms of revenue as well?

RG: I don’t actually have that readily available, it would probably be higher.

RR: When you joined FT.com four years ago, you intoduced a subscription model, and firewalls.  Obviously it’s a viable business model now.

RG: We have had tremendous success. We now have 2,50,000 digital subscribers and I guess I should give you some context to that. We have at the moment 3,50,000 copies of the newspaper circulating. So  our digital subscription base is not much smaller than the newspaper base and overall if you add together the digital and the newspaper bases, and take out the duplication, we have now have 5,94,000 people including bundled subscribers for both online and print, who are paying for access to Financial Times. We have really extended the franchise with the digital model. The pace of growth is tremendous.  Our subscription revenue grew by 50% last year and we maintained the pace this year. Our subscription volume grew by 30%. Whichever way you look, the subscription business has been doing brilliantly.

RR: What have been yoour milestones?

RG: The point of which we have more digital subscribers than print circulation is not very far away now and certainly will hit that some point in some region. We continue to see tremendous possibilities for business because what we are finding is that with digital subscription we can access market places, which is difficult with print. India is a great example, though we have never been able to print in India. But territories like Australia, Canada, Brazil, all of these are producing very healthy flow of subscriptions, some of them are biggest territories for digital stuff and therefore we feel that the newspaper circulation is inter-media objective in terms of scale. We are very ambitious of the future.

RR: Database power, given the type of online form one has to fill in for subscription or even registration, is available with FT. Do you have a method to sweat that equity?

RG: Absolutely. It’s a little engine that drives the little bits of the business. On the advertising side, it powers our targeting on site. We offer the advertisers the opportunity to target very specific segments of the audience. We use the data to drive our product development. It helps us understand what products we should be focussing on, what’s most popular with the readers. It also drives a lot of our marketing activity and targeting, some of that is demographically driven, some behaviourally driven. Over time, we have come to learn which parts of the audience are most likely to subscribe, and so we target accordingly. It also means, we can personalise a lot of our communication. For example, we send out personalised eNewsletter. Each one will be tailored to that individual subscriber because we have information on what is read and select articles that are more relevant to them. It makes the service more valuable to the reader, it also means they come back more often to the site.

RR: In terms of real time data, have you conducted any survey?

RG: It’s an interest issue. The site shows enormous volumes of data. The project that is focussed right now for the advertisers is something called  Deep View. This is a browser-based tool that allows advertisers to drill down the data that we have into their campaign. Of course you have got the original target that the advertisers want to hit. It’s also about the other layers of data that this effort holds. We are at an early stage of this, at the beta stage. And we think it is a pretty unique tool based on data metric; which few other publishers have. We know that agencies and marketer are going to be interested in this kind of data, which gives a very deep insight of how campaigns are working.

RR: Does this complicate things? In the sense that you have this real-time data. Therefore you need to be nimble in your response. Plus there’s pressure on revenue, bottomlines, ROI?

RG: The tramming you need to pull these things together is complicated. Our business does rely on some very small connections between areas aside the data, the marketing tools etc. and it has taken some years to put it all in place. But the investment has paid off many times over because this particular segment is a very profitable part of the organisation. The more that we use real time data, the more effective it gets. The learning is that web happens in real time and if you respond to it in real time, you get best results. So there’s real value in investing these things.

RR: And to the naysayers, who debate about the "free versus paid for content", do you think that the 30 free-articles model is still relevant? How have you re-invented that model?

RG: What we have experimented over a time. We have now got to a point where if you want to look up at any article on FT.com you have to register. If you register you are entitled to ten articles for a charge per month. And then after that you have to subscribe. We will continue to experiment and tweak. The substance of the model, I don’t think will change. On the FT.com the readers have an opportunity to sample, look around the shop and try before you buy. These are also steps for us to get into deeper relationship with the subscriber. We think that that’s a model that is well adapted to the web environment. Certainly the success we have had in terms of building the database suggests that it is a good model.

RR: The other thing that people don’t realise that the amount of investment that goes into creating the Deep View, dashboard etc. 

RG: I think there are couple of important things. One,  it does not have anything to do with technology. It’s about culture. First we have tried to get everyone to understand that we run a direct internet retail business, through our subscription. For us to be successful, we needed to look to the techniques and expertise the online retailers have and we have tried to adopt a lot of the tools from that sector and it’s been tremendously powerful for us. Also in term of culture, teach people to be entrepreneurial, be creative, innovative just as a way of working. To me, a lot of the innovations drive changes in technology. You then have the team exploring territory and new ideas as they exploring they come across new tools and techniques. They come back say look we found this fantastic thing. We have also built up our capabilities and expertise with technologies, based out of UK and Europe, Romania, Manila.

RR: Can you tell us about the R&D that goes into the whole process?

RG: We have been very ambitious with our technologies. We have just completed a project to completely revamp our website, end-to-end. The readers and commentators can see the look and feel of the change in the site. We have also renewed everything behind-the-scene, every single bit of publishing application, tools, the search engine, everything is new. So that’s all been done in-house and we have built up a very capable team to do that. It’s vital because of what it has done really is created a foundation for the work to be done in the next few years, in terms of mobiles, social media, personalisation on the site and new advertising features, all this now is going to stand on a solid foundation and will help make us successful.

RR: What’s happening in the mobile space? How much of the data access will shift to mobiles?

RG: Mobiles has become huge for us and very, very quickly. There is a sort of techtonic shift going on in consumption, which is as big as the shift from print to desktop. If anything it’s happening fast. The readers are adopting mobiles as a platform very quickly and what we now see is 20% of our page view overall come from mobile devices of some kind. And if you look at our subscription, 50% of page subscriptions come from mobiles and tablets. In two years time, it can be over 50%. So we are seeing huge amount of activity with mobile right now. We are seeing a huge amount of activity with mobile right now. We talked about weather earlier. That app now has 1mn people visiting and using the within five months of launch. The traffic on the iPad and iPhone has grown by 50%. What’s clear to me is that we need to shift a large part of the business on to the mobile, and that’s not just about presentation of content and the reading experience, but it’s also about selling our subscription directly through mobiles devices.

RR: What percentage of your busioness comes from mobile?

RG: You know, right now about 15-20% of our new digital subscription each week comes from mobile devices. And it’s about taking our advertising onto mobiles. But there are major challenges with mobile advertising: we are still not in a position to offer advertisers all the tools that they want in order to reach the audience on mobile. The ad serving is not as good as it should be on mobile. The format on offer and other things are not properly standardised. But that’s an industry problem rather than an FT problem. Although, it’s a problem that has to be addressed together.

RR: Is measurability an issue on mobile?

RG: Well, at the moment you have to make this kind of unfortunate trade-offs. You can have tracking on mobiles, but it’s only for simple formats like static. If you want rich media, you can have it, but you need to hard-code it, then you lose all the tracking. As an advertiser you can chose to have one half or the other. That’s not the right situation. The industry should be in a position to offer the advertisers the full experience especially when the audience on the mobiles is now so big.  Everybody in the mobile advertising space needs to do some rethinking, push on with the innovation so that we can offer better deals for the advertising.

RR: What’s happening in the apps space. We had a meeting with an industry major, and came to know about their tussle with Apple over apps. Are patents a cumbersome issue still? Is there still a lot of jostling going on?

RG: Yes, there’s a lot of jostling going on, a lot of focus on who owns the customer. We feel that our business is best serve having direct relationship with the reader, it’s easier for us to deliver a better service to the reader. Our subscription model is a multi-channel model, where the same password and log in will work across desktop, tables, mobiles, etc. That fundamentally fits with the way people are consuming content now. So we think it’s the right thing to do. We can’t do that if we have technology partner, sacked in the middle, cutting us off from the customer. We have to know who the customer is. It also helps us to create better products for the reader. All that we have done in our discussion with Apple or other providers is: make that point. I don’t think we are the only people who are saying that. It’s the difference between us and other people in the market and we have been prepared to put the money where our mouth is. When we found the terms of edition for iTunes didn’t suit our business, we simply stepped off the platform and created the html format, deciding to do business just off the browser. That’s been an interesting experience because a lot of people told us that if we are not on iTunes, people will not find us, that we would disappear from the world. But that hasn’t been the experience at all. We have been reaching a much bigger audience now then we were before and what we have discovered is that the browser has been a familiar territory, a territory on which we have been doing business for the last ten years.

RR: Is the FT app a paid one?

RG: There is no fee for download, but a part of the overall model. It’s the same is on the desktop. You can sample, you can register, but if you want access you have to subscribe and if you buy subscription within the app, it’s full FT.com subscription, which will give you access on the desktop as well. So, when I talk about 15% of our new digital subscription coming from mobile, it is actually people buying a full FT.com subscription through a mobile device.

RR: What’s a typical ratio of people who download these apps, 100,000 or 200,000 downloads?

RG: We have much bigger number than that. The weather app now has many people. Our iPad app, after we took it out of the iTunes, it has swelled to about 700,000 downloads and iPhone app has about 850,000 downloads in a space of about 18 months. These are big numbers for FT as a niche player. It’s very clear that readers do want to access content on mobile and it’s going to be the main distribution channel in the future years.

RR: That’s interesting. At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, technology is moving at a real fast pace and I met somebody who is a sort of social media evangelist in India, who said, I don’t have enough time to savour my success. By the time I’ve done something, I have to do something new.

RG: You have to constantly evolve. It’s a very fast moving environment. Three years ago, mobile was a tiny element of our product development portfolio. But within a space of 18 months to two years, it’s gone from being ‘any othe’r to being ‘completely centra’l. You have to be able to adapt to that kind of speed, because the audience is moving at that speed and your competitors are moving at that speed. The trick, from my point of view, is to try and keep hold of the key elements of the business, in the process of making those innovations. For example, we managed to integrate mobile into our subscription model so that we did not end up doing one for the mobile and another one for the desktop. That was important to us.

RR: What are the fundamental things one has to do excel in this business?

RG: In the rush to get stuff done you can forget those fundamental things. We have insisted on doing all the hard work to make sure that all the stuff joins up and that it’s a coherent proposition. And do you sacrifice some pace in that? Maybe, but you get the benefit further down the line, because don’t to go back constantly to repair what we missed.

RR: Social media like Facebook, Twitters is done to maintain reader loyalty. How much of that is part of the whole revenue monetisation?

RG: We have big audiences on the social media. We have 1.5m Twitter follower of FT and we have 250,000 Facebook fans. Those numbers are permanent and growing. That audience is tremendously valuable because they are very engaged. They want to share; talk about the content, and social media is proving key in getting people to maintain a habit. What this does is our readers are constantly tripping over our content as they get around the web. We are, therefore, focused on making sure that our content features prominently on search, on making sure that our content is linkable linkable, shareable on social media and we worked very hard to make sure that adapt to that process and we will continue to do that. These are valuable audiences which we will be able to do much more over a period of time.

RR: When you have ten heads discussing content simultaneous, does the editorial focus get disconnected in such conversations? There’s one version that is slightly PRish in contrast to a rigorous version in the print, which at times can be disconcerting. How much of control does one have?

RG: Keeping the coherence and integrity, we have the editorial team using the same publishing platform and therefore, it’s a single use of content, whether you are looking at the print or online or mobile version. It’s the same FT voice. Of course you run into challenges externally when the content starts to be shared and commented. We try and keep some of the debate on the main website, some very vibrant debate goes on around a lot of our content. We just try to keep a clear divide between what’s our content and the content contributed by users by way of comments. We have a social media policy for our journalists that does not over complicate things. The main part simply says “don’t do anything that you would have to explain to the editor”.

RR: There’s a debate on whether or not should circulate internal notes of the publisher meeting, and make it public. The debate really is, are we contaminating the journalist?

RG: I think we have to avoid drifting into publishing by numbers. The feedback is enormously valuable, whether it’s in terms of traffic or people’s comment. But it is not necessarily representative. There are groups of audiences that are much more active commenting on others, but that doesn’t mean those groups don’t have interest. So we think the editorial intelligence and agenda, remains crucially important to the success of the publication and integrity of the publication and that will stay absolutely central. That’s a large part of what people are paying for. You can’t sacrifice that.

RR: There’s this question of measurability. Is there a good model for that, for example, is it page view, amount of time spent, clicks etc.?

RG: We have tried to change the conversation around those tricks. The whole industry is driven by traffic matrix. And we were as well. When I took over FT.com, I found we could not get the focus on the best of the business – making money. Traffic doesn’t have a direct relationship to revenue. In fact these are the two things that can go in opposite directions. There were times when we used to have conversations with journalists about why is the traffic up or down and very often it would be for a completely random reasons. Hence, we decided that we are not going to talk about traffic, in our internal or external communications. What we will talk about is our subscriber registrations, which is the core to our business. These are the people who actually have relationship with our site and who come back to our site. This is the thing that we should be measuring. Over time, it has had a tremendous impact on our revenues. There are particular bits of content which is low traffic but high value. Our coverage of commodities, for example. That’s a very niche content, which does not get huge audience but if you look at the power of content, it has generated the most subscription per page view, that’s huge. If one judges commodities in terms of traffic, you have missed the point.

RR: There’s a certain level of exasperation that comes, when one does not find the content one is looking for on the web, be it FT or any other publication on the net. This is not the case with newspapers, where it’s easy to locate the article, I am looking for. Can search engines improve?

RG: You have put a finger on one of the biggest issues in terms of site design, which is content surfing. Our site has improved a lot. Now it’s much easier to navigate, a much better search engine. At the same time, we still know that a lot of readers look at the huge range of content available on FT.com, it’s like a forest and they have to make their way through it, and we have to think about that. One thing we have discovered through mobile is that there are better ways of presenting the content. The tablet and smart phone applications allows you to swipe through sections, means it’s much easier to browse. We have found that the readers spend longer on those applications, they get more content, consume more. It’s easier to absorb what’s there. One of the areas that we are going to focus a lot on is how to get the reader and content together in a really effective way.

RR: What are the growing markets?

RG: Of course, India for a start.  Then there’s the general BRICS. We find for example, we are generating more subscription business in Brazil than we are in Germany. Some of our assumptions about which the big digital market will be, don’t stand up to when we look at it from the print perspective.

RR: What about age demographics?

RG: We see a tremendous growth from our younger audience on mobile. Our age profile of readers on mobile seems to be skewed to the younger age groups – 18 to 34, whereas on the desktop and papers, it’s very much 40s to 50. That’s very encouraging for us because having that younger demographic coming; the content should be about attracting our future subscribers. It would be difficult to pinpoint one individual area, but looking at the potential of the business, we see growth coming from all quarters. We have subscribers in over a 115 countries. I don’t see a country on earth where we don’t have potential to grow.

RR: The number of readers who read the FT probably be a mini-nation, more than Switzerland in terms of population?

RG: Probably. If you look at the budgets and expenditure which is controlled by our readers either through their roles in government, business, finance, then you are looking at a huge chunk of the world’s wealth, it’s an incredibly valuable audience. It’s fabulous for advertisers, a unique audience for advertisers.

RR: Any magic mantra for Indian publishers?

RG: One of the things I have noticed while talking to publishers in India, is that there seem to be quite a divide between print and digital. You have a separate team and there’s competition between them. I think, if Indian publishers are to suceed, they have to see the whole publishing business holistically. It’s not about the black and white transition from print to online. It’s about becoming a multi-channel publisher and coping with producing your content in print or desktop or mobile etc; creating a flexible publishing approach where you have a single pool content, which you can push out to any channel, in turn reaching the audience. A lot of publishers seem to have lost faith in the value of their content. Frankly, even you are putting content for free, you should be conscious of its value. That this is a product you have invested time and energy and often is quite difficult to replicate.

RR: What the next peak that you’d want to conquer?

RG: We have the inter-media milestone of matching the size of the newspaper base with our digital subscription. In terms of development, I think it is all about the combination of mobile and social media. So, it is content going to people, physically and virtually. And yes, personalisation is another area of importance.

We are very confident we know where we are going. Our strategy is right, our action is right and what we have to do in the next two to three years is really try for growth of the digital. It’s about execution and if we can keep up the momentum we have got at the moment then we can succeed in our aim, which is to secure the FT brand for the future.

Five takeaways:

India-centric application

Data driving personalisation

The mobile revolution

New breed of young users

FT's readers are valuable because they have access to a huge chunk of the world’s wealth

Campaign India

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