April 16, 2009
Case Study

Financial Times' Innovative Access Model Increases Subscriptions 9%: 5 Tactics

SUMMARY: How much free content should your visitors be able to access? The Financial Times shared how they got the right access model to boost online subscriptions by 9% in 2008 – the year the US was in a recession.

What’s interesting about this Case Study is that it quashes the belief that giving more access to free content is best. On the contrary, it can inhibit visitors from purchasing subscriptions.

Prior to 2007, visitors to FT.com were able to view up to 70% of site content for free. The rest was behind paid subscription barriers. In Oct. 2007, FT.com launched a new access model that allowed people to view up to 30 articles per month before hitting a paid subscription barrier.

“When we put that in, we did a lot of thinking around it,” says Rob Grimshaw, Managing Director of FT.com. “What we wanted to do was reflect the different ways that people use the Web and offer an access model which was kind of tethered to that.”

The team thought that offering 30 free articles per month would provide more of an incentive to purchase subscriptions, than offering 70% of the site for free.

Find out how they tested that theory and created a better access model for driving paid subscriptions and registration for free content.


The 5 tactics FT.com used to get a 9% increase in online subscriptions:

Tactic #1. Test access barriers

FT.com’s 2007 access model for free and paid content:

-free access to 30 articles per month for all site visitors
-registration required after the first 5 articles
-paid subscription required after the 3o-article barrier

Grimshaw’s team monitored the access model’s impact had on site traffic, visitor behavior, and acquisitions. They tested the model to see if moving the access barriers would affect the number of site visitors who registered or became paid subscribers.

Test #1. Access to fewer articles

-free access to 20 articles per month for all site visitors
-registration required after the first 5 articles
-paid subscription required after the 20-article barrier

Test #2. Access to fewest articles

-free access to 10 articles per month for all site visitors
-registration required after the first 3 articles
-paid subscription required after the 10-article barrier

The winning access model was Test #2. (See Creative Samples to view the model.)

The team discovered that moving the subscription barrier from 30 articles to 10 articles per month increased paid subscriptions. Moving the registration barrier from 5 articles to 3 articles per month increased registrations.

Tip #1. Make sure that free articles include all articles on the site (even articles that would usually be behind the premium subscription barrier). It allows people to view articles of interest to them. If the article of interest is a premium-subscription article, it could entice people to purchase a premium subscription.

Tip #2: Tell subscribers and registrants exactly what they get for registering and subscribing. FT.com made that clear during each test. They communicated exactly what each tier of access would provide. (See Creative Samples to view the tiers.)

Tactic #2. Make registration easy

More than 20,000 people register on FT.com per week. Grimshaw says it’s due to the 30-second registration page.

When the team launched the new access model, they designed the registration page to include: country, email address, password, position, job responsibility, and industry.

Drop-down boxes were provided for country, position, job responsibility, and industry. The registration page adhered to the email best practice of including separate checkboxes for acknowledging FT.com’s terms and conditions, opting in to emails from FT Group and third parties, and opting in to emails only from FT.com.

Simplifying the registration process was important for 3 reasons:
1. It drove more people to register.
2. More registrants created a larger database for paid subscription marketing.
3. Registrants were far more likely to get hooked on the site’s “News by Email” and “Portfolio” features, which naturally made them more inclined to subscribe.

Tip: Ask for information your advertisers will find useful.

(Note: This is not a landing-page best practice. But, if sacrificing a small amount of the landing page to get demographic data for selling advertising doesn’t interfere with attracting valuable opt-ins, then it’s worth it.)

FT.com asked registrants to provide position, job responsibility, and industry because that’s the kind of information its advertisers needed to reach qualified audiences and improve advertising revenues for FT.com.

Tactic #3. Tailor messaging

FT’s marketing team made a concerted effort to turn registered users into paid subscribers through CRM. They studied log data to better understand user behavior patterns. They provided messaging to registrants based on registrants’ specific needs or site behaviors, while emphasizing the value of the paid subscription product.

They tailored messaging in different forms, including targeted emails, newsletters, ad units, text links, and promotional Web pages on the site.

Different click patterns among different segments of registered users triggered the team to provide tailored messaging to different segments of users.

Some patterns the team watched for:
o Common user click patterns or common behavior on the site
o Common points of site entry
o Common points of site departure

“This data is supplemented by usability testing and focus groups, which provide qualitative analysis on user needs and site requirements,” says Elissa Tomasetti, VP of Marketing at FT.

Tactic #4. Drive traffic with partnerships

Since higher site traffic drove higher registrations and paid subscriptions, the team focused marketing efforts on search engine marketing and media partnerships to drive more visitors to the site.

“We have an ongoing global SEM effort which is also informing and informed by SEO strategy,” says Tomasetti. “These two items work best hand-in-hand.”

The team developed mutually beneficial partnerships with The Washington Post, Yahoo! Finance, Morningstar, BNET, and BusinessWeek’s Business Exchange.

A few steps they took:

Step #1. Analyze potential partners’ objectives

Understanding the objectives of a potential partner is the first step in developing a successful business relationship. FT.com analyzed those objectives before proposing a deal.

Step #2. Grow each partner’s audience

The deal must grow both parties’ site traffic or it’s not mutually beneficial. FT.com found ways, using feeds and linking, to share and grow site traffic for FT.com and partner sites.

Tactic #5. Invest in web analytics

FT.com invested in web analytics software to track and analyze people’s behavior on the site. The software provided huge amounts of insight into how the different access barriers were affecting site registrations and paid subscriptions. The team was better able to test the access barriers as a result.

The team also used web analytics to determine the best ways to target campaigns based on region, industry content categories, and keyword terms.

“Marketing campaigns both on our website and using external data are dependent upon targeting,” Tomasetti says.


FT’s site revenue from online subscriptions has tripled since the last recession in 2002.

In 2002, subscriptions accounted for about 10% of site revenue, according to a past Sherpa article. Online ad sales accounted for about 90% of site revenue.

In 2008, 30% of site revenue came from subscriptions, and 70% of site revenue came from advertising.

Paid subscribers grew 9%, to 109,609, and registered users grew more than five-fold from approximately 150,000 at the end of 2007 to 966,000 at the end of 2008.

Digital revenues make up 19% of FT’s total revenues.

In addition, FT.com attracted an average of 7.2 million unique site visitors in 2008, up 27% from 2007. FT.com generated 49.2 million page views, up 68% from 2007.

Useful links related to this article

Creative Samples from FT.com

Past Sherpa articles:

FT.com Tests Selling Subscriptions:

How FT.com Kept Ad Sales Strong in 2002:

Site Intelligence – web analytics solution for FT.com:


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