A two-year project to rethink and redesign the Financial Times online has paid off big style with the publisher winning two major award for the new website.
Just a few months after landing the best website at the Press Awards, it picked up the same accolade at the News Awards - a vindication of its investment and time spent on creating the new responsive website FT.com, which lays claim to be the fastest news site with a load time of just 1.5 seconds.
It’s a big turnaround for the business publisher which used to be considered something of an aberration among national news websites. While others set out on a path to stack up online readers by the million, the FT with its paywall, was seen as an exception to the rule.
But now it can rightly consider itself as the leader of the pack. Yes, its business model still runs counter to most publishers, but the industry can learn a lot from its strategy and emphasis on ensuring a first-class user experience.
I met up with Mark Alderson, head of newsroom operations, at the FT’s Southwark Bridge offices in London to hear how they did it.
Mark was representing editorial in the two-year project to redesign the website along with colleagues from other departments, but this was not some A-team that emerged from a locked office to unveil their plans.
The site was put into open alpha and then beta testing which fuelled a productive dialogue with readers that influenced the direction of the project.
“The fruits of that collaboration across departments is what got us to where we are and it was important from the start that data and research underpinned the whole of the process,” Mark explained, adding: “We had to ensure that our readers are able to get the stories that they want and the all round user experience and design went through a lot of iterations.”
Feedback and research with split A/B and multivariate testing fed into the process and confirmed a “hunch” that speed was a crucial issue. A lot of technical work has been done such as lazy loading of images and font substitutions until the FT could claim to be the “fastest mainstream website out there”.
Now the pages load in an average of 1.5 seconds on desktop and 2.1 seconds on mobile.
The FT believes it has seen a direct correlation between the speediness of the site and increasing user engagement which in turn translates into more subscribers. Since moving to the new website in October, user engagement has been up 30 per cent and 20 per cent more stories are being viewed.
Mark explained that the website is served by a newsroom which has matured into a digitally focused operation.
“We have gone through a long transition in around seven years; we used to have ten print editions and four regional editions with the last edition at 1.30 in the morning.
“We’ve gradually pulled that back to a single print edition for London and a single print edition for international which has allowed us to concentrate journalistic resources on digital.
“Interestingly, the number of journalists at the FT is roughly steady over the years but the kind of jobs they do has changed. We used to have a lot of people employed in the evenings to produce print editions, but now have a much smaller newspaper production team, an audience engagement team, an interactive graphic team and a big video team in the newsroom.”
Stories are written in a platform neutral way and then edited for digital first and may be used in the paper, but there is no rewriting for print.
The FT utilises its global operation to meet the 24/7 demands of digital so that offices in New York and Hong Kong run the website during their working days.
“We changed from a London day-night operation to a globally distributed day operation with London handing over to New York which hands over to Hong Kong so that people are working in the right time zones to deal with it,” Mark explained.
New monetisation strategy
The move to the new website has coincided with a number of strategic changes too such as its ‘first click free’ approach which means that if you encounter an FT story via Google, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, you can read it for free before being steered towards subscription.
It is an effective way of extending the FT’s reach and a £1 trial four-week subscription is serving the same purpose and in contrast to the metered paywall approach it pioneered.
It’s a strategy that seems to be working as subscriptions are at a record high, having recently passed the 850,000 mark for paying readers.
So, what’s next for the FT online?
Mark Alderson is working on a project to reassess the way stories are told online.
“We are thinking very hard now the new website is out there and have got an initiative which we have dubbed ‘rich journalism’ - an attempt to look at storytelling from a digital and particularly a mobile perspective,” he said.
That will mean moves to integrate data visualisation earlier at the conception stage of a story rather than adding graphs and graphics as an afterthought. Like most publishers, the FT is increasing its video output, but has a project team working out the best formats and delivery options for video content.
There will also be further development of the myFT personalisation facility on the website which allows readers to follow certain topics and build them into their home page as well as get email alerts on the stories.
And with the FT so focused on its digital offering, will there come a time when it ditches the famous pink paper? There’s no reason for that to be on the horizon, according to Mark.
“We still have around 200,000 print readers and that circulation has been fairly steady - print is still a valuable and profitable part of the business. There are still readers who want to consume content in print and advertisers who want to advertise in print and as long as that happens, it will be an important part of the business.”
The national press online
The Sun Online
When the Sun tore down its paywall, it did not find a ready-made queue of readers on the other side, but had to work hard to move the least-read national newspaper site to become the third biggest in the UK. Its handling of exclusive pictures of Tom Hiddleston and Taylor Swift kissing on a US beach showed how central digital is now to the Sun newsroom, releasing them at 10pm to maximise US traffic. It was highly commended in the Press Awards.
Finally launched its own website in April last year - the first national newspaper site launched in fifteen years with an interesting concise format based on a matrix grid which works well on mobile. From a standing start, it has gained over 2m unique users.
MirrorOnline is going for big numbers and lays claim to now be the UK’s second most read news site with a daily peak of 9.2m visitors. It has won praise for its videos including its Keith Vaz exposé. Visits were up 45% last year, but the site is vulnerable to criticism that the user experience is compromised with seemingly every form of advertising known to man getting in the way of reading a story.
Another new kid on the block which launched in London last year with one political reporter in London and quickly found its UK feet with a digital audience running into millions.
The website that led the way in online journalism is still raising the bar with new records for daily traffic at 85m page views. Live blogging has become central to its online journalism and the US election results tracker became the most read article in its history with 21m page views.
The paper became the first in Fleet Street to quit print and seek a digital-only future and can now claim to be in profit for the first time in twenty years. Its Daily Edition app is gathering more subscribers, but its online offering lacks the depth and innovation of its rivals.
The website underwent a major redesign, becoming responsive and falling in line with the trend for cleaner pages with a better user experience and faster download times. It has now launched Premium, a different take on the subscription model, unique in the UK, which focuses on exclusive analysis and comment on key topics.
The Times & Sunday Times
The paper now has 420,000 subscribers and has taken a bold step to serve this audience not with the usual breaking news format but an edition-based format updated only at set times per day: 9am, noon and 5pm on weekdays, and noon and 6pm on weekends. The move is an admission that it cannot compete with Twitter and the BBC on breaking news. It says the move has not only increased its audience but also the number of visits people make in a day.