Q&A: Stacy-Marie Ishmael on Her Mission to Build, Expand Financial Times Communities

Tim Sohn interviews Stacy-Marie Ishmael, the new -- and first -- vice president of communities for the Financial Times.

Stacy-Marie Ishmael was recently named the first vice president of communities for Financial Times. I recently caught up with her to discuss this new position, what types of communities she will be building and expanding for the FT, return on investment, social media advertising, and much more.

Here are excerpts:

Question: Congratulations on your appointment as vice president of communities at the Financial Times. What were you doing previously, and what led you to this position?

Answer: Immediately before this, I worked as a product manager at a technology company based in New York called Percolate. Percolate builds software for Fortune 500 companies, and I had a really, really good time there understanding the product process around how software is built and working with clients like American Express and Mastercard. There was definitely a lot to do. And before that, I was actually at the Financial Times. I spent five years at the FT as a reporter and editor, so now I’m back.

Q: Were there any skills that you used at Percolate that you bring to the Financial Times that you find especially useful?

A: One of the things a product manager must be good at is communication, and I feel like, I spent, as I said, five years as a reporter and an editor and really getting an understanding of how to communicate across different platforms. So, I worked on the newspaper side, and I worked on the digital and Web, and I felt that this really helped me in that product management position. It also helped with our clients. We had editorial clients, and I had a fairly sophisticated understanding of what publishers are thinking in social and digital because I’ve been on the other side.

Q: You launched some blogs previously at the Financial Times. Can you talk about that?

A: When I joined the FT, one of the first things that I did was work with the FT Alphaville team, which is currently celebrating its seven-year anniversary. Alphaville at the time was the very first financial blog from a major news organization. So, it was absolutely an experiment. It was at a time when blogging was still very, very new. We talk about extremely sophisticated topics in a way that is accessible, interesting, funny, opinionated, all the things that make blogs great that hadn’t really previously been applied to financial reporting context.

Q: What was the reaction from your readers?

A: At the very, very beginning, people were skeptical that news organizations should even be going into blogging. The readers loved it. They felt that we were speaking their language, we were reporting on things they found interesting, they appreciated the sophistication with which we tackled complex topics. The fact that it’s survived seven years so far and continues to thrive is a great testimony to that editorial strategy.

Q: What does your new position entail? Do you oversee any people? What’s the typical day like for you?

A: My new position is brand new – it’s new for me, and it’s new for the FT. Really the goal is to understand and execute on one core thing – and that is delighting and engaging FT audiences around the world. There are lots of ways that we can do that. In terms of people reporting to me, I will. I am currently hiring.

Q: In terms of communities, are you dealing with both online and offline communities?

A: It’s absolutely both. We are taking quite an expansive view of community, and our view is that wherever the readers are, whether they’re online on social platforms, whether they’re offline at events, it’s our responsibility to make sure we are where they are, and we are providing excellent editorial and content experiences for them.

Q: Does the Financial Times’ paywall present any challenges or opportunities?

A: The fact that we have subscribers speaks already to how passionately people care about the FT. When you’re willing to pay for something, you’re self-selecting into a particular kind of audience. As a result, we already know that we are coming to a very engaged professional community that is located all over the world, and they don’t just work in finance. That’s a tremendous opportunity for us, because of the range of sectors, the range of backgrounds, the different sorts of ways that we can engage with them.

In terms of the paywall being a challenge, it’s mostly a perception. It’s, well, the FT’s not for me because I have to pay for it. What we find is, once people are exposed to the FT’s journalism, they are very quickly persuaded.

Q: How will you find communities out there? Will you use analytics, will you meet with people in offline communities?

A: Certainly all of the above in terms of finding communities. We are very lucky that we have pre-existing communities. I mentioned Alphaville was a financial blog. Alphaville has had commenters for seven years now. These are people that come back day in, day out. They are always there. They talk to the journalists, they talk to each other. Alphaville is really one of the pioneers in engaging that online community in an offline context. And really what they meant was, we take them out for drinks — say, hi, what’s up, meet the journalists, meet the team, and they loved it because they’re like, wow, we’re getting to meet FT journalists in a social context, and that worked really well for us.

We also have an extremely active community on social, whether it’s Facebook, Google+, Twitter. Because we have such a strong events business, we have these built-in offline communities of people. We have the Outstanding Directors Exchange, which is a tremendously successful franchise, which people come back to year in, year out because the connections they make there are so important to them. At least in that sense, it’s easier for me because I can point to existing communities and say, that’s great, what can we learn from these, and then take those lessons and apply them to new ones.

Q: How many social platforms is the Financial Times on?

A: Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn are some of the bigger ones. We have a couple of different Tumblrs that target different audiences. For example for the FT 125 campaign, we had a really beautiful Tumblr that highlighted major events in the 125-year history of the Financial Times. We also have a couple of Pinterest boards to highlight a range of things from the FT. This might include really cool infographics that the multimedia team did. What we try to do with social is match the context of the content to what will work well on the different social platforms from an audience perspective. When people go on Pinterest, they are expecting beautiful, interesting photography.

Q: I know the Financial Times uses social media advertising to push subscriptions because it shows up in my Facebook News Feed. Will you be using any sort of social media advertising in terms of communities?

A: It’s definitely something that we are exploring. One of the important things to me about communities is that people don’t feel like we’re just trying to sell to them. That’s not the goal. The goal is delight. It’s creating excellent user experiences. It’s uniting FT readers around the world by topics of interest or places of interest or events. So, we may use a promoted tweet on Twitter to say, hey, we know you’re interested in technology. We’re hosting Innovate America in a couple of weeks. Check it out. But it’s not going to be about selling. It’s really going to be about engagement.

Q: Do you measure return on investment in terms of communities?

A: It’s an absolutely legitimate question. One of the persistent challenges of communities and social is to convince people that there’s a compelling return on investment. What’s the business case? I have always been an evangelist for, if you delight your audiences, if you deliver excellent experiences around content, around events, they’ll keep coming back. From our perspective, that means we have an engaged audience, a loyal audience, that continues to subscribe to the FT, that continues to support our journalism, and that’s the best possible business case.

Q: I asked my social media followers if they had any questions they wanted to ask you. I did get a few questions. The first one is: What do you expect to be the most difficult part of your new position?

A: I think for me the most difficult thing is picking one or two things instead of trying to do 50 things at the same time because communities is immense, offline, online, digital, events. Every day, I wake up, and I’m like, what’s the one thing I’m going to be working on today? I like experimenting, I like trying new things. For me it’s just really focusing and ensuring I’m getting one thing done, and then moving on to the next one.

Q: Another question is: What do you do all day?

A: I actually spend most of my time talking to colleagues around the world, also to readers and to our audience. So, as an example, I’m based in New York. I have calls set up with London, in my morning, their afternoon. I have very early morning calls set up with Asia, their evening, my morning. I think it’s super-important for me to understand what are they doing from a community perspective. How can I help, how can I align all these things across the business? The Financial Times is a really large organization. We have a presence all around the world, and therefore we have communities all around the world. I can’t spend all my budget on travel, so it’s super-important for me to be connected to my colleagues in these other places.

Q: Another question is: The community should be engaged in providing information that could further journalism and community information. It should be a two-way street. This is at a time when many outlets are closing these down for now. How do you see this happening? What would success look like?

A: From that perspective, I think the FT has always been way ahead in terms of encouraging reader participation. We created something called The Long Room very, very early on. We’re talking 2007. This was a forum for our commenters to have conversations with each other, conversations with us. They were thinking about European equities, about fixed income in Brazil. Using Brazil as an example, I think we’ve led the way in using platforms like Facebook and saying, hey, you’re directly affected by these political events, by these changes that are happening — tell us what your perspectives are. I really do believe that we will continue with those kinds of initiatives and continue to highlight the expertise that is so rich in our communities around the world.