Charging for Online Content, the ‘Financial Times’ Way

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By: Jennifer Saba

This week brings even more details about several newspaper companies — MediaNews Group, The New York Times, News Corp. — that are planning to apply some kind of paid content model to their Web sites.

As such we thought it would be a good time to check in with a newspaper that has been charging for online content since 2002 — The Financial Times.

Like its rival The Wall Street Journal, FT.com requires a subscription in order to access premium content. And like WSJ.com, the FT.com sets some content free in order to attract more people to the site.

However, over the past six months, FT.com has been tweaking its sampling strategy, a strategy, which was confusing at best. In the past, people could access up to 30 articles for free during a period of a month but would bump up against a pay wall once that trial expired.

Now the FT.com is trying different sampling strategies and in the words of Managing Director Rob Grimshaw, “bringing those barriers down a bit.”

Users can access up to three stories for free per month. If a reader wants more but isn’t willing to pay, they can register. That gets them 10 articles per month. Someone willing to shell out money can do so under one of two packages: $179 a year for the standard subscription or $299 for the premium subscription, which allows access to the FT’s popular Lex column.

“The great thing about the model we now have is that we have our cake and we can eat it a bit,” Grimshaw said. “On the one hand we have valuable content — we should be making money from it. On the other hand, in order to bring in the audience we need to expose the content and show a little bit of that to the world.”

Of course, the FT.com offers bundled subscriptions that include print and online depending. But Grimshaw points out that access to the FT.com is not free just because someone is a print subscriber. The FT charges an additional fee to access the site.

In 2008, FT.com reported 109,609 paid subscribers, up 8% year-over-year. It’s a mix of pure online readers, corporate accounts, and print subscribers but Grimshaw said online-only subs are the largest chunk. He declined to specify the percentage.

Overall FT.com attracts 11.4 million unique users — up 60% from 2007 and currently has 1.3 million register users.

The registration information is valuable, explained Grimshaw, letting advertisers know more about readers and their demographics. FT.com has the ability to target geographically and contextually and is able to charge a premium for doing so.

Grimshaw’s ideal ratio of adverting to subscription revenue is 60:40. “We are not quite there yet,” he said. “We’re not far off though.”

FT.com is trying to emphasize the quality of audience over the size: “The most important number is not this big headline number of unique users. The really important number are the users who are engaged in the proposition, who love it so much, they can’t live without it.”

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