How FT² squared the circle of content marketing and editorial integrity

Reading-FT-on-tablet The FT creates branded content through FT²

The Financial Times offers the opportunity for organisations to pay for content to appear on its website alongside its own editorial. Lexi Jarman tells Sophy Buckley how it works.

The Financial Times, paper of record, is read globally by the great and the good, recognised for its authority, integrity and accuracy. It employs 600 writers around the world tasked with analysing and reporting the news to an audience hungry for unbiased, informed, timely and relevant journalism. Since the autumn of 2015, it has also published branded content – stories developed with a commercial partner and paid to appear – under FT².

“We had been offering a suite of content marketing products for nearly 10 years, but FT² brought it all under one brand,” explains Lexi Jarman, commercial director of FT².

Jarman admits accepting branded content was a big step for the FT, even though rivals such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Bloomberg were ahead of the game. She attributes the FT’s caution to concerns about finding the right way to deliver this content to readers. “We take great pride in our integrity and didn’t want to be doing something just because everyone else was.”

The FT’s stellar reputation rests on its ability to report the news accurately and without bias. Its editorial independence from proprietorial influence and political parties helps to ensure this, as its commercial relationships always remain independent from its editorial.

What the reader wants

When it came to introducing our branded content “we did a lot of research among readers and consulted our editorial teams. It was very much a softly-softly approach. 74 per cent of readers surveyed believed there was a place and value for branded content, provided it matched the FT standards,” explains Jarman. She also points out that 58 per cent of those surveyed thought branded content was at least as valuable as traditional advertising on FT.com. All of this was taken into account before launch, “always with a focus on putting our audience first,” she says.

The newspaper maintains a clear demarcation between branded content and the work of the newsroom. FT² has its own distinct editorial and production team, appointing Ravi Mattu as editorial director to liaise with clients on branded content.

“Ravi is a very experienced journalist, having spent 16 years on the paper, and is now in charge of helping clients get the best results. He helps write, edits, consults with clients and comes up with ideas with them. It’s about getting it right,” she says.

Sophisticated mix of media

Increasingly, getting it right involves a sophisticated mix of media. Campaigns might include video, animation, infographics, editorial, illustrations, photography, and social media. “We look at the data of past campaigns to see what has worked well and then advise clients on the best way forward. In the past we have taken inspiration from the paper’s immersive reads – where a longer piece of written journalism is accompanied by different complementary multimedia elements. The data show that readers spend more time actively consuming this type of format. It can make for a dynamic approach,” she says. She cites a branded post created for BP that worked particularly well, where this infinite scroll and visually dynamic style contributed to both driving visits and enhancing on-page engagement.

The data Jarman and her team collect and analyse show this approach works. Indeed some campaigns can have similar read rates to the paper’s editorial. “We did one campaign with S&P Dow Jones Indices [part of Schroders] where engagement times proved to be on par with FT editorial,” Jarman says.

The FT’s own editorial is seen as a benchmark for the quality of branded content and Jarman has had what she admits to be “tricky” conversations with some clients. “We have clearly defined editorial guidelines and talk clients through them explaining why they’re important. We won’t accept content that doesn’t meet the guidelines,” she insists.

This can lead to rewrites, but some clients admit straight up that they have no appetite for creating their own content. For these cases, Jarman has a list of freelancers and sometimes uses FirstWord writers who she can rely on to produce the kind of copy that readers would expect to see in the FT. Some freelancers even used to be FT staff writers, able to craft business journalism to the highest standards. For those who supply their own copy, Jarman expects it not only to be appropriate to the FT’s readership, but also exclusive.

Throwing a Google

“There are a couple of problems with copy that’s not exclusive. One, our readers are unlikely to click through on something they’ve seen elsewhere. And two, Google can penalise sites featuring content hosted in more than one place that doesn’t implement a ‘no follow’ code [a mechanism to stop search engines following a particular link],” she explains. When this happens, not only does the copy fall down the search rankings, but every place the copy has appeared suffers the same fate. “Information like this makes people think twice about using the same piece across all platforms,” she says.

The advice is all part of the service that FT² offers clients. With many clients new to the concept, Jarman says it’s important to help them to get the most out of the opportunity. “We offer guidance on everything from article length to media mix, content, style, scope of the campaign, even time of publication. Sometimes it’s informal, other times it’s very specific,” she says.

The team might suggest a short news-based campaign using content to gain a tactical advantage. This could be linked to news such as US Federal Reserve announcements, as BlackRock did, or political events such as the Brexit related branded content run with EY. Alternatively, they might suggest a larger campaign that develops a relationship with the FT readership over time. The result: clients that come back again and again. “Capgemini has been working with us for six or seven years,” she says “and we believe that is down to maintaining an open and honest relationship about what content will work for the FT’s audience.”

“Key learnings from our work with long-term partners have included the importance of a clear content strategy from the onset. By having a clear focus and commitment from the client to reaching their audience, not just a one off project but as a long term commitment helps us to build momentum.”

It’s not about the hard sell

FT² can also advise on content. “Many new to content marketing don’t fully understand that it’s not all about the brand; we’re not here to simply tell a brand’s story. It’s bigger than that. It’s not about overtly selling a product or a service,” she points out. “It’s more subtle and about offering value to our audience.”

But the advice doesn’t just encompass the editorial. It’s also about reach. The team tries to make sure that the content has a shelf life beyond the initial publication and offers suggestions about social media. “We try to have multiple entrance points through platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. This is part of the distribution mechanism. Google Newsstand, for example, draws many people in, and on-page engagement of users is on-par with that of FT users on mobile devices. It also allows our native content to be more aligned with the FT’s distributed content strategy. Our goal is to get native content appearing on all products / platforms that FT editorial does” she says.

This shelf life is monitored and the data collected reported back to the client. Both the client and the FT can learn a lot from this, Jarman reflects. “Data is crucial to content. There are so many data collection points that can give really important insight.” These include who’s reading; at what time; for how long; whether the reader reaches the end; where the reader moves to next; whether the reader follows this subject assiduously; as well as if and how the reader shares the story.

For example, it is apparent that many C-suite readers open stories in the evening, so it makes sense to publish new content to coincide with this. Similarly, the C-suite audience tends to share on a very personal level, forwarding a link perhaps, rather than sharing on Facebook. This means they share content with specific targets, making it more valuable. Such data help the FT to fine-tune its branded content marketing offer and allow the client to quantify its return on investment.

Anyone can do it

Jarman is adamant that branded content marketing can be suitable for anyone – so long as they have something interesting to say. The knack of the FT² team is successfully spotting that hook for a client and then making sure it’s presented in the most appealing way. “More than which brand is suitable, it’s about approaching a project with the right mindset. It’s really about adding value to the audience, a brand and a campaign,” she says. She encourages companies to look round corners, see what’s coming up and comment on that, to bring humour and be entertaining. “It sounds much more challenging than it is,” she reassures.

Engagement on FT.com is high; FT data show that readers spend more than three times as long on FT.com as the average reader does on other sites. The FT harnesses this engagement – during the SPDJI campaign, 15 per cent of those who clicked on the content went on to download an associated white paper, according to Jarman.

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