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Transforming Email and Business at the Financial Times
How FT Used SparkPost to Develop a Flexible, Business-Driven Email Platform
The Financial Times newspaper is counted among the world’s leading publications and is a preeminent source of global business news. Widely recognized for its journalistic integrity and independence, FT’s business success as a subscription-based digital media company in an environment awash with lower-cost or free alternatives is a case study many other publishers have sought to emulate. Its sophisticated email programs are one aspect of that success.
In the Pink
The Financial Times has been published continuously since 1888, and its famous salmon pink newsprint remains a signature element of the company’s brand. Today, more than 70% of FT’s circulation is digital, a figure that includes more than a half million paid subscribers to its web and mobile app editions.
Among the innovations in its digital properties, FT pioneered the concept of a “metered paywall,” which allows visitors to its site to read a limited number of free articles per month before asking them to subscribe. It’s a highly effective mechanism for achieving both widespread visibility (crucial in the age of social media) and creating a sort of “funnel” for nurturing visitors into paying customers.
This business model means that driving reader visits, engagement, and ultimately revenue is a key imperative for the business. FT’s success at doing so is a testament to its editorial product as well as its effective use of technology. In fact, the transformation of the Financial Times into a digital media powerhouse has been a strategic effort across the enterprise, including the technology platforms that drive customer engagement with ft.com.
Email Drives Engagement and Revenue for FT
Email is one of the major ways FT nurtures customer engagement. Whether in editorial products such as newsletters and alerts or customer communications and marketing messages, “a consistent customer experience and the ability to measure performance is essential to how the company uses email,” says Andrew Snead, FT’s Technical Lead for Marketing Automation.
Although email had long been an important part of the business’ strategy, it wasn’t always easy to manage and to ensure consistency and measurability. Snead explains that by 2015, FT had outsourced its various email messaging streams to multiple external vendors, and that was causing problems for the business. For one, it wasn’t cost-effective. But crucially, the mishmash of technologies and vendors led to inaccuracies with analytics and problems maintaining consistent customer preferences.
Developing a Shared Email Platform
As part of an enterprise-wide effort to rationalize its IT systems—and invest in strategic technologies, including the relaunch of ft.com—Snead led the effort to identify a better email delivery option for FT.
After evaluating several approaches, Snead’s team realized the best solution was to develop a new internal shared service. This platform would provide key email sending infrastructure, related front-end UIs for email template and list management, and key metrics to FT’s business departments, including its editorial, subscriber services, and marketing teams.
At the same time, Snead understood that email delivery itself—the transmission of email messages onto the Internet and to the ISPs that provide email inboxes to FT’s subscribers—was not something that held strategic advantage for the company. Quite the opposite, in fact. Snead is very frank that “SMTP transmission, especially at scale, is pretty hairy. I’d rather my team focus on building value-added capabilities for our business than managing email queues or worrying about deliverability.”
So his approach was clear: create a unified front end that had the consistency in experience, strong analytics, and cost-effectiveness the enterprise required; made it easy for his business users to create compelling value for FT; and relied on a partner to handle the actual email delivery infrastructure.
Meeting FT’s Key Business Needs
For the editorial team, the ability to use a drag-and-drop interface that allowed them to focus on content rather than the mechanics of email was a significant benefit. Behind the scenes, the new email system employed sophisticated, brand-consistent templates to create highly appealing newsletters and similar products.
On the other hand, the CRM and marketing teams required more flexibility to create templates that took advantage of the wealth of customer information in their systems to drive response to targeted offers. They also needed deep metrics and strong analytics to understand how customers respond to particular campaigns and offers. That data-driven approach required templates that made good use of substitution data and personalization, but also the ability to capture data and integrate it with other technologies in the company’s martech stack.
Beyond these functional needs, Snead also was charged with ensuring this email service met key operational requirements such as deliverability and uptime. In fact, Snead is quite direct about how his team’s performance is judged: “It’s pretty simple: email deliverability, reliability and uptime, and the analytics I provide to my internal customers.”
Building a Solution with SparkPost
These highly data-driven and analytics-intensive requirements quickly led Snead to realize how important an email API would be for FT’s needs. In fact, he wanted “a great, API-first solution.”
Some traditional ESPs his team evaluated were just too heavyweight. But when his team began experimenting with a free SparkPost developer account, they quickly realized they’d found an API that was just right for their needs. Snead says, “the API looked great, and SparkPost’s analytics, message events, and webhooks were going to give us the data we wanted.”
Snead’s team used its developer account to trial SparkPost with data representative of FT’s real-world message streams—and to compare SparkPost’s performance with that of alternative email providers. “We looked at stability, deliverability, and how the API actually performed in real-world test cases. Performance was just what we’d hoped—and SparkPost’s analytics were a slam-dunk.”
After a successful test period, FT upgraded to SparkPost’s Enterprise service option to get access to the expertise of a Technical Account Manager (TAM) and service-level guarantees for FT’s high volumes of email. Today, most of FT’s email to subscribers is delivered through SparkPost, including editorial and marketing messages. Snead anticipates migrating other message streams from FT subsidiaries as needed.
Looking Ahead with the Financial Times
Now that email integration with SparkPost has been solidly working in production, Snead’s team isn’t ready to call it a day. He’s looking to continue building upon the Financial Times’ strategy of delivering a great, data-driven experience to readers.
He’s considering expanding the messaging options provided by FT’s shared email service to include push notifications and personalized alerts to the ft.com web and mobile app experience. That means integrating the CRM and engagement data that passes through the email platform into the workflow of his editorial users.
“Making it possible to create a great customer experience for each of our individual users is why we took this approach in the first place,” he says. “It’s a huge advantage to us to be able to focus on building strategic value for FT, while we rely on SparkPost to handle email delivery.”
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