Credit: Courtesy of Financial Times

"We're always open to testing and having the right flexibility for our readers," says Fiona Spooner, managing director of consumer revenue for The Financial Times.

Spooner led an initiative for the FT back in November around the time of UN's COP26 event, dubbed 'free to read day'. The business news publication gave free site-wide access for 40 hours (5 pm on 2 November to 9 am on 4 November, UK time) to promote its climate coverage, as well as its wider editorial offering.

This builds on previous initiatives in 2016 around the Brexit vote and in 2019 during its New Agenda campaign. Each time, the objective has been to flood the site with anonymous traffic and then try to turn the users into engaged readers and paying subscribers further down the line.

Why site-wide access and not just the climate content? One reason is that it is harder to remove the paywall - or paygate as we prefer to call it - only from specific sections. And then it is easier for readers to understand the offer - that they can access everything for free.

Compared to an average Wednesday, the FT saw anonymous traffic increase by 28 per cent across the site. Stories tagged "climate" were read seven times more than usual. The experiment also saw a 200 per cent increase in free registrations but the trade-off was a 12 per cent decline in subscriptions.

What is the endgame?

Climate has been a hot topic for the FT since the launch of its hub for climate news in January. At COP26, while reporting from Glasgow, they also produced a 24-page special report on 'Managing Climate Change', created data visualisations, and produced podcasts about the summit.

"It's a new audience who might have preconceived ideas about the FT and we wanted to showcase that content to get as much reach as possible," continues Spooner.

She adds that there were no targets because each experiment is different so it is hard to predict the response. But she is satisfied with the result.

There was surprisingly little resistance internally because the organisation did not see this only as a financial opportunity but one for audience growth and development.

Going beyond the anonymous crowd

The move was not just about drawing in a rush of unknown readers but also about creating a positive knock-on effect for registered users and existing paying subscribers. The objective was to transform registered users into subscribers and get subscribers to promote the value of the publication within their networks.

The 164k registered users brought in 5k visits and 36k page views (an average 2.4 articles per user). Its 50k standard subscribers accounted for 2k visits and 6.7k page views (3.4 premium articles per subscriber).

The FT assigns an engagement score to everyone in those user bases and tracks what content they like, to serve them up more of what they enjoy. That score is built on recency, frequency and visits which then informs their propensity to subscribe as well as churn.

Overestimating the downsides

Spooner said that it was easy to overestimate how much toll this move would take on lost subscriptions. A 12 per cent drop on a normal Wednesday is an acceptable hit to introduce a new influx of readers to the site. Besides, the FT was still seeing subscription take-up through other channels, like newsletters.

One valid concern was that making the site free would temporarily diminish the value of a paid subscription. But the FT saw a network effect where subscribers acted as ambassadors and invited their contacts to take advantage of the limited-time offer.

"FT audiences do see value in their content and sometimes want to change people’s perspectives," explains Spooner. She added that they have since learned that their style of climate coverage can cut through the competitive mainstream coverage.

She attributes this to a 39 per cent increase in visits via social media. But part of that draw also came from the many other business and organisations, like Natwest and The Wildlife Trust, who had promoted the offer.

"That's why it is so important not to do it all the time. It’s not a commercially driven motivation, there has to be a genuine incentive for the reader so that subscribers don’t feel taken advantage of.

"Because it’s only for a day and based around content that is relevant to so many people, what we’ve seen is people advocate and share it."

This was also an opportunity to break silos and promote collaboration. Shaking up the formula every few years, even just for a day or two, can have a morale-boosting value internally and it was also a chance for other teams to learn more about what everyone else is doing.

Should the news be free?

Many people rue the day that news providers started to give away their content for free on the internet, so hard paygates like at the FT are trying to monetise online journalism again. So do these experiments work?

At the start of the covid-19 pandemic, the publisher also took the decision to put some of its reporting out for free. This allowed them to share essential information but also protect the articles that were too valuable to give away.

"We're balancing what content should be free for people to make the right personal decisions in their lives versus what is appropriate to be behind a paygate," concludes Spooner.

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