Cait O’Riordan combined business nous with tech insight and patience to deliver a new FT website where customer engagement (and the enhanced revenue that supports) is the key. She focused on increasing the website’s speed, personalisation, mobile design and user satisfaction, and as a result has raised the customer engagement score on the new FT.com by 30%.

Job title
Chief product and information officer

Company name
Financial Times

How are you influencing the products, customer experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
At the FT, the product team sits under my remit as the chief product and information officer, and is a key aspect of my responsibilities. Product UX and design, as well as customer research, are closely tied to the technology outcomes we’re looking for. We need to deliver the right products and services for these goals.

We do product at the FT by taking a customer-focused approach, following the principles of lean development – getting new versions of our product in front of real customers as quickly as possible – and using a robust multivariate testing mechanism. We do fewer projects, better and faster. We also focus on growing reader engagement (an internal metric I’ll describe below), rather than making a more complicated product.

For our 2017 website redesign project, that meant having a rough and ready product in front of customers. It also meant empowering the product team to decide which aspects of the site were ready to ship at what points.

At the time that felt like a massive risk – putting a half-finished product in front of our paying customers. Especially so given who we are as an organisation and what we stand for editorially –not necessarily being first, but being right and accurate. Yet by using this approach, we were actually derisking ourselves for the new FT.com’s launch day, when we put 100% of our paying customers onto a site in which we had full confidence.

This style of product design allowed us to experiment: to build minimal solutions to fit customer and business needs, and then to test those ideas in real time. We could then scale the validated models and maintain business outcomes while optimising the website’s successful aspects.

When the time came to switch all our users onto our new site, it went incredibly smoothly. 95% of our customers were happy to stay on the new site. From a customer point of view, as well as a business point of view, it’s been a tremendous success.

Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the last 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s performance
One of the key business outcomes of 2016 was the successful development and launch of the new FT.com, which we undertook with a focus on engagement, reader satisfaction and revenue.

The FT’s key measurement of growth is engagement, a robust metric combining recency, frequency and volume (RFV) – how recently a customer visited FT.com, how often they visit, and how many articles they consume. Once a customer hits a certain RFV score, they are more likely to take out a trial, move from trial to a subscriber, and remain a subscriber.

So when it came to rebuilding our website, driving engagement was one of the key outcomes we were looking for. We focused on increasing the website’s speed, personalisation, mobile design and user satisfaction, and as a result we increased engagement on the new FT.com by 30%. FT.com is consistent across devices, clean, much simplified and quiet, so users are focused on the content regardless of where they consume it: engagement on mobile devices increased by 106%.

Meanwhile, 95% of readers are happy with the new site, and no cancellation has been recorded. We accomplished this because the customer was absolutely at the heart of the new product. We weren’t just interested in what the data told us about our customers – we wanted to know what our customers thought of our new product.

We were constantly checking if the readers on our new site were more satisfied than those on our old website, using the processes of lean development to get new versions of our product in front of real customers as quickly as possible, employing a multivariate testing mechanism, and soliciting direct feedback. We methodically tackled the pain points that our readers were telling us about – poor navigation, readability issues, and missing features that customers valued – and systematically increased the customer satisfaction score for the new site.

We also wanted to use the new FT.com to increase ad viewability (the rate of ad impressions actually viewed by website visitors) and directly impact revenue. The new website, with a faster speed and higher engagement score, resulted in an ads inventory18% higher, offsetting the natural decline on desktop, and an outstanding viewability rate of 72%.

Finally, FT.com was delivered on budget and on time.

What has been your involvement with innovation at your organisation – in particular, with products, business model and technology – over the last 12 months?

Product innovation

As my team worked on the new FT.com, we took an innovative approach to product personalisation. MyFT is a feature of the site that allows users to follow topics and receive a personalised feed on their homepage, email and browser. It has been adopted by 25% of users, pushing up their engagement score by a whopping 35%.

Daily digests are the newest aspect of MyFT – a time-saving service enabling FT readers to sign up for emails (and notifications) on topics of interest, ensuring they don’t miss out on the FT’s view of the most important stories of the day. As users navigate the website, they can add topics to MyFT by clicking the Add to MyFT button at the top of every article. Once they have added some topics, they are invited to sign up for daily digests, weekly digests or instant alerts on any given topic.

The FT had over 50 newsletters across a wide range of topics, with both curated and automated (headline) versions, so MyFT aimed to replace some of these, as well as to fulfil a different need. Our goals for MyFT were:

  1. To deliver the most relevant information for each person, without obscuring the FT view. The technical challenge was to deliver a totally personalised email at scale in real time. To do this we had to ensure our systems could scale to support the following actions at any time: fetch user-followed topics, query the FT content API for all available content, rank by popularity, and render stories to be sent within a 10-minute send timeframe for a global audience of hundreds of thousands of users. With an international audience we also needed to create a service that allowed users to choose between three different time zones in order to achieve strong open rates as part of a morning habit.
  2. To simplify our readers’ inbox experience by allowing a more consolidated view across topics that matter to them. From a user experience perspective we had to deliver an email template that met the needs of both light users and super users.
  3. To allow some offline reading for users, especially when they commute to work.

A new email platform was built in-house to handle the sending and tracking of email data, which is being fed back into our core analytics platform.

The results speak for themselves:

  • 25% of FT digital subscribers are using MyFT, and the user base is growing weekly.
  • There has been a 35% increase in median engagement score (measure at the FT by RFV, which accurately predicts the likelihood of subscription renewal) among MyFT users in comparison with their score prior to using the feature.
  • MyFT is the most praised feature on the new FT website. Feedback from our B2B customers was especially positive, which helped the business in upsales and renewing deals.

Business model innovation

Advertising declined across the media industry in 2016 –Google and Facebook took upwards of 90% of new digital ad spend – putting pressure on revenues. Media organisations are facing challenges from fake news, distributed content models, and ad-blocking. The FT is not immune to these headwinds, and to complement revenues from our subscriptions business we have to work hard to deliver sustainable advertising innovations.

Like many publishers, FT was specifically losing ad revenue to ad-blockers in 2016, so we sought to reduce ad-blocking. Our goal was to achieve a 50% rate of ad-block whitelisting among our readers while not damaging the user experience, conversion rate of prospects or engagement (ie without damaging subscription revenues).

We ran an experiment serving readers several messages asking them to disable their ad-blockers, including one message that removed a percentage of the words in an article to symbolise the percentage of our revenue that comes from advertising. We respect our readers, and the challenge was to ensure they understood why ad revenues are crucial to our business and subsidise the subscription price. There was also an ads UX challenge here: we reduced ad-call latency by 40%, support only https creatives, and redesigned some of our ads slots to reduce customer dissatisfaction. We tested the impact of these changes on reader engagement and feedback.

We trialled three variants of messaging to counter ad-blocking via an MVT; all served a lightbox message describing the value exchange. They were:

  1. A ‘just ask’ method of serving our message, which the user could close and then continue with usual full access to the site.
  2. We removed a number of words from articles they read –a visual metaphor for the amount of content production costs subsidised by advertising revenue.
  3. A full block, which prevented onward access to FT.com unless they whitelisted.

Among known users who are not subscribers, none of the variants had a negative impact on conversion. We received 38%, 47% and 70% whitelisting rates respectively for each variant. We deployed the full block, as a result as our audience accepted that with no impact on engagement, conversion or satisfaction.

Our test-based approach, together with our ads user experience optimisation and the creative edge, has helped us to increase our ads inventory with no backfire whatsoever. These efforts were praised around the industry, including in AdAge, Digiday, NiemanLab and Poynter.

Technology innovation

One of the most technologically innovative aspects of FT.com was our focus on speed.

First, we needed to understand the impact of a faster site on engagement and revenues. We conducted an A/B test in which readers who had opted in to the new site were split into four groups, each which experienced a site that rendered zero, one, two or three seconds faster than the old site.

The test results showed that for every one second increase in speed, our internal engagement score increased by 5%.

Median page load time for desktop is now 1.3 seconds, and median page load time for mobile is two seconds. We also compared ourselves to key competitors (NYT, WSJ, BBS, WaPost and others) via a third party, and have confirmed that both mobile and desktop load times are the fastest in the industry.

These results translate directly into revenues:

  • Higher engagement increased the likelihood of subscription purchase and renewal. Faster is one of the main reasons for users’ satisfaction with the new site.
  • Ads inventory has increased by 15-20% and viewability, due to faster loading, has increased to 72%.

The result is millions of pounds on our bottom line, in perpetuity.

How have you delivered cultural and behavioural change as a CIO within the IT department and/or more broadly across the organisation?
I’ve just hit one year at the FT, and I believe I’ve had a strong impact because I don’t come from a pure IT background. Before joining the FT, I played a central role in user and revenue growth of digital music company Shazam, and before that I led the BBC’s cross-platform digital product for the London 2012 Olympics, which set new digital standards for live-event coverage. I have also worked as a broadcast journalist, meaning I have an intimate understanding of the news media industry from the editorial side. My expertise is in mobile, video and a strong customer focus.

It makes a real difference to come to technology from a product perspective. As a publisher, it’s incredibly important for the FT to focus on the UX and the customer. FT is, in fact, ahead of the curve, because it has been a data-driven organisation for many years. Every part of the business knows the metrics it needs to focus on to move the revenue needle, and we’re lucky to start from such a strong place.

How have you worked with your CEO and/or board to communicate whatever ‘digital’ and IT means to your organisation/sector and improve digital literacy at the highest levels of the organisation?
The FT’s focus on engagement is unique because it envelops and drives the entire company. Every employee – from journalist, to B2C marketing person, to product manager – is tasked with ensuring that we have a healthy growth in the number of engaged users we have, either by increasing recency, frequency or volume.

We know what metrics we need to move to be successful, and the whole company is tasked with that, from editorial right up to the board.

Understanding data makes us a digitally literate company. We are focused on outcome, and our only motivation in considering various product details is to get the previously determined results. It’s a more sophisticated way to discuss product development.

This directly impacts revenue: it increases ad inventory and garners results from both a B2C and B2B perspective. From a B2C perspective, it stands to reason that the more engaged a reader is, the more likely they are to subscribe and the longer they stay with us. 60% of FT subscribers are B2B, and we charge subscribing businesses more depending on how engaged their employees are with FT journalism.

How have you worked with the technology and IT vendor market to achieve your business goals? How have you been able to influence IT suppliers and successfully manage your partnerships/relationships with large IT companies, SMEs and startups?
The FT focuses on a strategy of buy over build. We don’t build when it isn’t core.

We have successfully worked with the technology and IT vendor market by:

  • establishing a relationship underpinned by trust and transparency
  • involving vendors in our internal planning sessions, including annual and quarterly reviews – it enables the partners to identify how they can best help
  • acknowledging that product roadmaps are volatile, but demanding to see them
  • architecturally being focused on enabling our solutions to transition from one provider to another – an incredibly healthy practice that ensures all relationship are balanced and honest; it ensures the marketplace works and avoids lock-in
  • demanding feedback when we stray from being their ideal customer. There’s a sweet spot when we do what they want – because we get the best, and they’re happy. But all too frequently, suppliers bend over backwards to be helpful. That’s useful, but they ought to tell you when that’s happening. Simply saying ‘most other customers do X, do you really need to do Y’, has been helpful.

We continue to lead our industry by sustaining our technology and commercial success. Our vendors understand that every success is mutually beneficial, with the value of success extending beyond relationship.

How have you tried to develop the diversity of your team?
The Financial Times is committed to recruiting and developing a diverse talent pool.

  • We participate in an internship scheme for UK graduates from visible ethnic minority backgrounds. Interns receive a three-month paid placement, and also participate in workshops which provide personal and professional development training.
  • Approximately half of full-time hires in H2 of last year were of non-white ethnicity.
  • We are also committed to supporting our international employees, and we sponsor visas for the right people with the right skills regardless of their nationality.
  • We recruit women by attending recruitment fairs specifically aimed at female graduates, and by ensuring our representation at recruitment fairs is diverse.
  • We hold dedicated sessions for Women in IT, which feature guest speakers (usually prominent female entrepreneurs in IT) and panel discussion events with internal and external speakers.
  • The FT participates in panels only when they include at least one female speaker.
  • We also regularly recruit from Makers Academy and FDM, to start diversity in the junior roles. This has enabled us to hire those who have studied something other than computer science, and we have converted a number of consultants to perm employees.

Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
In 2016, we changed our technology structure to make sure we are even more customer focused:

  • We have increased productivity by removing an inefficient technology matrix structure.
  • Our technology teams have transitioned into customer products, platforms, enterprise services and security, internal products and professional services.
  • Each new department owns their domain ‘cradle to grave’ – fully enabled to deliver our outcomes.
  • We are leaner, decision-making is faster, ability to change is accelerated, and personal development is easier.

What strategic technology deals have you made in the last year and who are your main suppliers and IT partners?
Our approach is centred on secure access to the leadership within each organisation we work with (and vice versa). This enables FT to be a leading force in setting the agenda within each organisation. We also, of course, do procurement work to secure preferential rates wherever possible.

We also avoid long-term strategic relationships. Technology is moving too fast to enable a ‘three-year partnership’. 

Our key tech partners are AWS and Salesforce (Heroku and CRM) and Verizon (global network). Our most explicit strategic relationship is AWS, with a strong guiding principle of AWS first. However, we enable our teams to make alternative choices as the marketplace introduces new propositions. We do not force teams into the AWS strategy. 

What are your key strategic aims for next year?
Our highlight of 2016 was the fully fledged launch of the new FT.com, which stands out for many reasons. We hit the target launch date of October. We moved all of our key metrics on engagement. The team united in a new way of working, making the most of individual talent. And, of course, its speed and stability post-launch and in the face of record-breaking demands and traffic has been faultless.

In 2017, we’ll make sure it delivers by hitting profits and creating an amazing customer experience for users: our investment will be sustained. We will be spending less effort on the foundation, and proportionally more time following our product strategy and influencing our customer and commercial outcomes. For me, the most exciting of these is the personalisation: moving further away from a monolithic one size fits all, to an experience tailored to fit the size of the individual. Alongside that, we have the opportunity to reduce our long-term cost by killing our old stack once and for all.

Here are a few of our other key milestones for the year:

  • Continuing to invest: The FT continues to invest in our technology, our products and the platforms underpinning them. The biggest single change is the recognition of our internal tooling as a critical part of the commercialisation of our products.
  • Supporting our internal customers: We do that from content management to customer relationship management and business intelligence reporting. We will continue to support our commercial teams with internal tools that go beyond the pulling of dashboards and data visualisation and provide intelligent recommendations instead.
  • Single customer view: By the end of 2017 we aim to have operationally connected our UK newspaper with our FT digital subscribers. That is a big step forward: it builds on the membership platform and sets deeper foundations to extend this to additional customer silos. It is about putting the customer and their data at the heart of our technology.
  • Lifetime value (LTV): LTV is a prediction of the net profit attributed to the entire future relationship with a customer. In 2017, we’ll be combining data from across the business to better define LTV, to enable intelligent decision-making around how much content should be free vs paid, and to decide between an ads revenue proposition versus paid content revenue.

How are you preparing for any impacts Brexit might have on your organisation?
Our concern would be that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU could impact our ability to recruit and retain talent, particularly within the tech sector. We are a diverse organisation, and have a large number of European employees.

While the picture is still unclear, what is clear is the FT is deeply committed to the values of diversity and opportunity for all.

When did you start your current role?
February 2016

What is your reporting line?
I report to the CEO.

Are you a member of the executive leadership?
Yes

Are you a member of the board of directors?
Yes

What other emerging roles does your organisation have and what is their relationship to you?
Chief data officer on the board. I also have a CTO reporting to me.

How often do you meet with your organisation’s CEO or equivalent?
Weekly

How many people at your organisation does your function supply services to?
2,200

IT budget

What is your annual IT budget, or your spend as a proportion of the organisation’s revenue?
15%

What percentage of your budget is operational spend (ie keeping the lights on) and how much new development (ie innovation, R&D, exploratory IT)?
IT operational spend 57%, new developments 43%.

Rank the following sources of advice/information in order of importance:

  1. CIO peers
  2. Media
  3. Analyst houses
  4. Consultants
  5. Industry bodies

IT security

Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?
Yes

Are you expecting an increase in budget specific to security in order to tackle the cyber threat?
Yes

Does your organisation have a designated security professional – CISO or otherwise – and what is their relationship to you?
Yes – they work for me.

Financial Times IT department

Are you finding it difficult to recruit the talent you need to drive transformation?
Yes

Has recruitment and retention risen up your agenda as a CIO?
Yes

Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?
Yes

How many employees are there in your IT team?
400

Are you increasing your headcount or planning to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?
No

Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next year?

  • cloud
  • data analytics/business intelligence
  • CRM
  • datacentre/infrastructure/server
  • security
  • enterprise applications
  • machine learning/artificial intelligence
  • social
  • networking/communications.

Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next one to three years?

  • cloud
  • data analytics/business intelligence
  • CRM
  • security
  • machine learning/artificial intelligence.

What emerging technologies are you investigating or expect to have a big impact on your sector or organisation?
AI

The EU

Does your organisation do a significant amount of trade with the EU?
Yes

Does your department include technology staff from the EU?
Yes

Are you or have you been looking to the EU to recruit key skills?
Yes