Esther Kezia-Thorpe

Esther Kezia-Thorpe: What has the company been focused on in the two years since its launch?

Tara Lajumoke: The first thing is building a robust playbook. We work with many organisations who are fairly sophisticated in their own right. So they’ve done a lot of interesting work around building winning business models, and developing their tactics on retention acquisition. What we therefore need to do is to really help them move the needle, and tackle ambitious, complex challenges and opportunities.

To do that, we have built a really exciting set of strategies, and a methodology to help them cross this next phase of their journey, which, for many of the clients that we work with, is around building resilient business models, that can certainly not only survive the current crisis, but quite frankly thrive through it and beyond, but it’s also about building long-lasting, valuable relationships with your audiences.

Valuable for their audiences in ways that allow them to get exciting and insights for content and products, but also valuable for the business as well, in terms of hitting really ambitious targets, whether it’s around subscription, gross, or profits. We’ve really invested a lot of time and energy into distilling all of the lessons from the FTA zone journey, but also from the increasing number of publishers that we’ve been working with, into a robust playbook and a very powerful methodology.

The other exciting thing we’ve been doing is scaling the team, which has been a really interesting challenge, given that we’ve had to do a lot of that in the middle of the pandemic.

You’ve got quite a large variety of job roles on, haven’t you?

Yes, we have a really exciting and talented team. We’ve got everything from ex-journalists, to startup founders, to experts in fields such as data marketing, products, and customer research. The exciting part of our hybrid model is that we also get to work with talented FT subject matter experts.

So we’ve got the best of both worlds, is what our clients say. The rigour and the consulting toolkit that you would expect from world-class consulting firm, but also the very pragmatic and operational perspective from our FT colleagues.

I know when it first started, a lot of the talk around the FT Strategies, was that it was aimed at publishers who had subscription businesses to help them level that up. Is that expanded beyond that now? Did you take publishers with any sorts of problems on board? Or is it still very much subscription publishers?

I would say it’s expanded, but we are still very much focused on a specific set of challenges. We’re not trying to be everything to everyone. We have a deep set of skills, and experience around recurring revenue models. So whether that be subscriptions or memberships, donations, communities and so on. Loyalty and optimising for customer lifetime value is another area.

Transforming your organisation, in terms of its behaviours and, and processes like workflows, into one that is centred around the customer. The reader is also another space that we know a lot about. So I’d say it’s still very much focused on customer-related, direct to consumer, if you will, related work. And subscriptions represent a huge part of the work that we do.

But we’re also starting to do exciting work along the lines that I mentioned in and outside of publishing, so predominantly working in the news publishing space, but increasingly looking to do more exciting work along those lines in wider media and further afield like finance and so on.

And the FT is generally held up as one of the most successful publishers when it comes to things like subscriptions and paywalls. So what’s the thinking behind this? Sounds like a really cynical question, but what’s the thinking behind making this knowledge available to others? Because presumably, competitors will benefit from this as well.

It’s an interesting question. We believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. And that actually having more and more organisations, for example, talking about the value of reader revenue models, then we all benefit ourselves, including for a long time, the FT and maybe the likes of The New York Times, and maybe even other sectors like Netflix, etc, who were, for lack of a better phrase, the subscription evangelist, right, preaching the gospel of reader revenue models, and the need to diversify from traditional revenue lines like advertising.

It’s actually quite a challenging task to do that, right? Because there is a big mindset shift for many industries that are either not used to paying for this type of valuable contents. And so, actually, we think that there’s a more philosophical mission here for us, which is: how can we protect valuable content? And that obviously extends to other types of propositions and how can we actually, in a way, draw the end user closer to the manufacturer, if you will, and reduce the number of middle entities that, sometimes add value, sometimes don’t.

But it’s also a greater opportunity for organisations. By virtue of getting closer to the end user to create even more innovative and more exciting products and services, because you understand them better, you are able to reflect that knowledge into what you offer, when and how.

So I guess there’s the philosophical benefits. But also, there’s a commercial opportunity for us as well. I think one of the things that I admire about the FT is that it is constantly reimagining and reinventing itself. And I think that – and this is no credit to me whatsoever – but the leadership at the time saw a huge opportunity from all of the investment that they have made in data, in digital, in products, in marketing, and so on, and to monetise, and then offer that to a new set of customers, in a way that actually doesn’t negatively affect the business.

So we may be offering this to people who may see themselves as competitors. But actually we think, if anything, we are growing the potential pie, the potential universe for everyone. Also, we are generating a new source of revenue for the business, which, again, feeds into our ethos of building a diverse and resilient portfolio of revenue lines for the institution that is fit to thrive.

Yeah, I was gonna ask about that. Does the FT Strategies work quite closely with the rest of the FT business? Or did they try to warn it off a little bit?

Yeah, so there are two parts to the answer. One is yes, so we will partner with subject matter experts. And there’s a very strict process that we go through to make sure that we are working with the right people. They are only exposed to critical information on a need-to-know basis and not any sort of sensitive data.

Because for us, client confidentiality is paramount and clients absolutely love that. They love the fact that, for example, if we are doing a piece of work that requires newsroom engagement, as we know, editorial is a very special, very unique place. Having people from the newsroom or from editorial who are able to engage with our clients’ own equivalent roles is just so powerful.

They can speak the same language. They get the stuff that matters, which,, when you have a set of strategic recommendations on a page as you would typically expect from consultancies, is critical, right? It goes beyond the theory lack of a better phrase to the important nuance of politics and complexity of change and cultures and so on.

So having those people who can empathise, who’ve been through a similar process, who live in the world that they do is really powerful and helps us deliver even more realistic solutions and more pragmatic advice. But then the other parts of that is, as I said, client confidentiality is important.

So we have very strict policies in place, which means that we don’t disclose some of our client names, except when they’ve given us consent to. We have data Chinese walls, where only certain people within our FT Strategies team are even able to access that information. Because we want to ensure that everything we get from our clients is treated with the utmost levels of confidentiality.

And in your experience, how are publishers fairing 18 months on from the pandemic, in terms of especially subscriber attention, given that that’s a speciality area?

Yeah, it’s it’s a very interesting time for most of the publishers that we speak to. As you said, there is the COVID, flood of subscriptions, where we saw a huge uptick in acquisition. The news agenda was ripe and very high demand, and with Trump and COVID, and everything else that was happening, now we’re starting to see an uptick in churn rates. So after those COVID-driven large audience numbers, sustaining that growth has been a real challenge.

There’s also other exacerbating factors like economic pressure from certain geographies as well, which is now leading to more and more people cancelling subscriptions. You can see that manifesting in generous discount packages and trial periods, for example, by many publishers to try and compensate for that. So it’s a really challenging time, is the headline.

What I think is a good thing for the consumer, is that we’re starting to see really interesting attempts at retaining audiences, beyond the classic enterprise lead discounts, and so on. So really deepening your understanding of who your user is, why they subscribe to you in the first place, what they’re consuming, and what types of things might keep them for longer and drive engagement. And I think for us, that’s the key factor. It’s not just about holding on to people.

For us, it’s about building a relationship with people, one that is built on a deeper appreciation for the content that you offer, and then deploying a set of intelligent tactics to encourage loyalty and use, which is this virtuous cycle that hopefully then leads to retention.

Yeah, I know people talk a lot about – they spoke a lot about this pre-pandemic – this idea of subscriber fatigue, that they’re eventually going to get to the stage that consumers can’t pay for apps and everything they’re being asked to do. Do you see that happening, or has the pandemic shifted that a little bit in terms of people actually being quite happy to pay for content now?

I think it depends on who the person is, right? I think there’s always going to be a certain extent, or degree I should say, of fly-by traffic. However, I do think that there is an increasing appreciation for quality contents. So the short answer is yes, I do think people are happy.

Most people are happy to pay for news that they trust, that they believe is accurate and reliable. And that’s across many levels, whether it’s personally when people are trying to understand the implications of COVID and the vaccination rollout programme. There’s a personal implication to having access to timely, accurate information.

Or it’s professionally, people who are obviously trying to progress professionally or trying to explore new options, etc. Having access again to information that can help them enhance your knowledge, help them come across smart and wise, etc, helps them professionally. I think people have hopefully been exposed to a greater array of high-quality journalism, and have had a taste for it. Hopefully, you want to continue to have access to that.

So I think there’s a there’s an increased recognition that great news costs money. Great journalism, quality journalism isn’t free. I’m hopeful that with a combination of that appreciation and that demand, but also more intelligence insights on the part of publishers around how to engage their audience and hold on to your audience, that we see more and more thriving examples of publishers across the world.

On a day to day basis, what does your role actually look like heading up that that team of consultants?

Oh goodness, I want to say chaotic, incredibly exciting and fulfilling, would be the headline. My main priority is making sure that my team is empowered to deliver sustainable impact for our clients. What that looks like is making sure that I actually have the right team in place. We’re spending a lot of time trying to find great talent, which has been a challenge for us.

We haven’t been able to grow the team as quickly as we have grown the work because we are very selective, and we will not compromise on getting the right person. And because obviously that’s our proposition, right? It’s a brilliant experience, people who are passionate about solving really ambitious challenges for our clients, our partners, so a lot of time recruiting, speaking to people, and a lot of time with clients as well, and not as much time as I’d like speaking to potential clients, existing clients around problems, ranging from earlier this week, we’re talking about what content to lock behind the paywall, how much of the content.

And then last week, I was talking with a bunch of clients around how to think about launching a new subscriptions model for new segments and how to reach new segments beyond the core customer base they have, so more females and and younger readers. I find our conversations to always be very intellectually stimulating.

And I guess there’s a lot of conversations with partners as well, really just trying to stay close to the ecosystem, understand what’s happening across the board, innovative models that are launching, interesting tactics that are being deployed, what customers are saying, so interesting trends, and then a whole set of other random things in between, like finance, and so on.

What’s on the horizon for FT Strategies, especially in terms of is this going where the FT pictured it was when they set it up?

Yeah, I like to think it is, yes. We’ve been outperforming on almost every KPI that we set ourselves, whether it’s revenue, or team size, or impact, which for me is, is my proudest achievements, and seeing the results that we are delivering for the clients that we’ve been working with. So yes, I think it’s going really well.

I think what’s next is scaling. We really want to scale the business so we can scale the impact that we’re having, and so deliver even more sustainable value for more people, more organisations across the world. We’ve done most of our work to date in Europe. We work with a few global organisations, so we sort of have exposure to almost every region globally.

However, I think we could do a lot more in other regions and other sectors as well. So yes, so I’d say scaling to new regions and sectors would be one of the key things for 2022 and beyond.

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