“Optimising the FT using HTML5 and customer data” - Stephen Pinches at #TAS12

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 7 November 2012

I recently spoke at WAN-IFRA’s Tablet & App Summit, which formed part of the World Publishing Expo in Frankfurt. You can download all of my notes from the day in an ebook for iBooks, for Kindle or as a PDF.

“Optimising the FT using HTML5 and customer data” - Steve Pinches

On Twitter I described Steve Pinches’ talk as a “masterclass in making good call after good call and really using user data.” With typical modesty, he replied that hindsight is a wonderful thing. Nevertheless, as Group Product Manager for Mobile & Emerging Platforms at the Financial Times, Steve has steered the FT into the uncharted waters of breaking free from the iTunes store and going down the HTML5 web-app route.

Steve opened by reassuring the audience. “If we’ve learnt one thing from the talks so far today”, he said, “it is that this is difficult.” The path from being a newspaper to having a website to going mobile has not been clear to any individual publisher. Steve said that companies needed to not be afraid of making mistakes, and spoke of the paralysis that can grip a company when they are faced with a lot of big strategic choices at once.

The FT’s path became clear-cut as soon as Apple began trying to act as an intermediary between them and their customers. The FT’s business is all about their customer data, and Apple’s new T&Cs were a deal breaker. Within a few weeks they had rebuilt their iOS app using HTML5, and become the first media company to provide a full offline reading experience without a native app. It wasn’t an easy decision, and Steve recalled lots of existential angst in the company as they wondered if they might end up destroying their online business by taking this radical step.

But the numbers are impressive. They didn’t see a dip in usage and now, in Steve’s words, on mobile “we are making significant amounts of money, and it has become a key bit of our business.” 30% of FT page views come from mobile devices, and 15% of new subscriptions come via the mobile route.

Aside from the technical achievement of the web app, it was a relentless focus on optimising based on customer data that I admired in the talk. They’ve raised conversion rates to subscriptions on the site from 3.2% in 2008 to 8.6% in 2011. Their data analytics team is roughly as big as their marketing team. They analyse the behaviour of existing subscribers to look for the patterns of behaviour they exhibit, and when they see non-subscribers exhibiting similar behaviours, they know it is time to change the messaging on the site, and gently “nudge” them towards signing up.

They are able to segment their audience to a very granular level. If you are the CEO of a media company, Steve said, then their personalisation engine will suggest to you stories that other CEOs of media companies have read which you have’t yet. They can also report back to advertisers some fantastic detail of the types of people who have been viewing their campaigns.

Steve explained that they augment their data analysis with qualitative data too. The web app is littered with calls to action for user feedback, and they normally get between 300 and 400 emails a month full of ideas, suggestions and complaints about their digital services, which feed into the product backlog.

Steve wasn’t didactic about the HTML5 route, however. He said you need “the right horses for the right courses”. The FT’s “How to spend it” app is still a free download from the iTunes store. On Android and Windows 8 a small amount of code wraps the HTML5 web app in a native shell. They’ve even produced a version of the FT for the XBox Kinect during a hack day.

Compared to the size of the production teams other publishers like Stern outlined for their tablet or mobile editions, the FT’s set-up is very lean. Just one journalist is responsible for overseeing production on mobile and tablets. Steve said it was very important to have a strategy for how content gets to devices — they built a powerful API layer on top of their CMS which powers all their products. There is a rolling team of 6 to 8 developers working on the web apps, and Steve revealed that actually, when working on mobile, one of the usual rules of thumb of digital development has to be reversed — they need to have more QAs and testers than they have developers.

He hoped his own role would become unnecessary as the FT became more adept at having mobile services at their core. Steve Pinches urged businesses not to have a “mobile strategy”. He said you need “a commercial strategy with mobile in it” and a content strategy to support it.

He stressed that the FT were in a position to move “two levers” on their revenue — shifting from a reliance on ad revenue to becoming more focused on getting revenue from content, and shifting the balance from print to digital. If you are in the iTunes store, he argued, the only lever you’ve got to play with is “taking Apple out to lunch.”

Next...

The FT were able to get a Windows 8 app ready and fit for market very quickly because of the power of their API. At the Tablet and App summit, Frank Wolfram & Johan Mortelmans were talking about how the new Microsoft operating system presented an opportunity for publishers. I’ll have my notes from that session next.

This is one of a series of blog posts about the WAN-IFRA Tablet & App Summit at the World Publishing Expo in Frankfurt. You can download all of my notes from the day in a free ebook for iBooks, for Kindle or as a PDF.

“The UX of publishing for tablets and smartphones” - Martin Belam
“Taking Stern magazine to the iPad” - David Heimburger
“Condé Nast place value in digital reach over digital sales” - Jamie Jouning & Jamie Bell
“Behind the curve - the media and the new App economy” - Stijn Schuermans
“Brazil’s newspapers close ranks against Google and Apple” - Caio Túlio Costa
“Launching ePresse to challenge Apple and Amazon in France” - Philippe Jannet
“Optimising the FT using HTML5 and customer data” - Stephen Pinches
“Windows 8: Opportunities for publishers” - Frank Wolfram & Johan Mortelmans
“Toronto Star’s Ad Lab for digital advertising innovation” - Kate Collins

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