Lessons from FT.com

February 19, 2010

Now that the New York Times has decided to move to a metered paywall system, a lot of attention at the PaidContent conference — at the TimesCenter, no less — is being directed towards Rob Grimshaw. He’s the managing director of FT.com, which has been a pioneer in the meter-model space.

Grimshaw has been in the news of late, announcing that he’ll close the Google loophole just a tiny bit, by stopping people from accessing more than five articles per day by taking advantage of Google’s first click free program. The new, more limited, program isn’t in place yet — Rob waved vaguely in the direction of the second quarter in terms of when it might happen — but in any case I don’t think it’s going to make much difference, since the five-articles-per-day limit is so much higher than the 10-articles-per-month level at which you’re asked to pay to continue to read the FT.

So why is he even bothering? He told me that the Google loophole was causing a bit of a “headache” within the FT, but I couldn’t work out where it was: I couldn’t imagine that subscribers or advertisers or the print side or anybody else was particularly unhappy about it. But it turns out that there was at least one major financial company which was pushing all of its employees to use the Google loophole, rather than pay for a subscriptions. And when the FT asked them what they thought they were doing, the company just said well, you left the back door open, so we decided to use it. (Better that than to risk a lawsuit by sharing passwords.)

That said, Rob was a big fan of Google in general, and said that he was very pleased indeed with the rate at which visitors from Google converted into being paid subscribers — by implication, that rate is much higher than for other sites driving FT.com traffic.

Grimshaw said that FT.com ad revenues have risen since he put the paywall in place, and he added that if the NYT paywall does indeed turn out to be revenue-neutral, he would consider it a failure. Increasing site revenues, he says, is the whole point. And he has another revenue stream coming up: come May, he says, he’ll start selling day passes to the site. “There’s a large proportion of our readers who are prepared to pay for content, are very happy to pay for content, but for whatever reason aren’t willing to make an annual commitment,” he said, pointing to the fact that on the print side, the FT’s daily circulation of 400,000 is double the size of its print subscriber base.

And although it’s outside his bailiwick, I also asked him about the U.S. print edition of the FT, which seems to be quite thin these days and to suffer from the fact that so many stories were written for a London deadline, five hours before U.S. reporters need to file. Rob said that the U.S. paper was profitable — although I have no idea what exactly that means, when so many of the ads come from global buys — and more to the point, that the FT needs a U.S. circulation in order to be able to sell those global ad campaigns.

As for the numbers, Rob said he was now up to 1.9m registered users of FT.com, and 121,000 paying subscribers, a rise of 21% in past 12 months.

Finally, I asked Rob about Lex, which is the main distinguishing feature of the premium version of FT.com, and which is currently headless as Jo Johnson runs for parliament in Orpington. Rob said that Lex needs to become webbier, which is undoubtedly true: it’s still got a silly allergy to linking, and it’s still very much working around daily deadlines rather than intraday speed. At the same time, however, no one wants to see Lex become just another blog: if there’s any value at all in Lex, it’s because the pieces are deeply reported. So it’s going to be very interesting to see whothe FT hires to replace Jo, and whether they decide to shake up the franchise much.


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