Financial Times ups its morning e-mail game: FirstFT

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth


Slightly baffling e-mail from the Financial Times press team this morning:

Financial Times readers can now receive the FT’s daily top picks of global news, comment and analysis from around the web by signing up to FirstFT. Concise and engaging, this free email features must-reads from the FT and other sources.

Smart move. The FT has been publishing morning e-mails since at least 2006 – but this is a distinct step upwards from the traditional “list of stories we’ve published” or “written communication” e-mails we’ve seen in the past. In the last 18 months, we’ve seen an emergence of the morning (and evening) e-mail almost as a publication in its own right, and the FT adopting this mode shows that it is willing to learn from the successes of, say, Quartz, one of the acknowledged masters of the form.

But this is an odd quote from the FT‘s new head of aggregation:

Andrew Jack said: “In an age of information overload where readers are shying away from the perpetual social media stream, trusted editorial judgment and aggregation is an increasingly valuable convenience for busy readers. FirstFT is carefully crafted, analysed and illustrated by our world-class journalists and provides a new way for readers to get the FT’s take on the essential news of the day.”

“shying away from the perpetual social media stream”? Really? I’d like to see some data to back up that assertion, because that reads to me like exactly the sort of wishful “people want gatekeepers” thinking that has blighted digital journalism for a decade or more. A good morning e-mail is a useful addition to a publisher’s armoury, not in any way a replacement for social media, which remains one of the biggest traffic drivers on the web.

I’d agree with pretty much everything he says after that odd assertion about social media, but that first section worries me. Yes, information overload is a problem. Yes, a smart curated response to that is a good and useful thing to do. But that’s not the same thing as “shying away from perpetual social media stream”.

Scanning the e-mail

The design of the e-mail is interesting – but looks like it needs a little more work. Bolding the first few words of each paragraph does increase scannability – but they need to think a little harder about those words. Some of them really aren’t very informative. These two are too generic:

Global banks put to the test

Foxconn moves up the value chain

Do either of those actually convey enough information to tease you into reading more? I’d suggest not. My eyes glide over their profound genericness.

And this is a pun which you have to decipher, which defeats the object of a scannable e-mail:

Microsoft is floating on air

Yes, it’s a cloud pun. Ho ho.

I suspect that the team are making the mistake of writing the e-mail to be read, rather than scanned. E-mails like this work best as a scannable list of quick information nuggets and links. They’re requiring too much cognitive effort from the reader to decipher what’s being put in front of them, and that defeats the object of a morning “catch-up” e-mail.

Still, early days. Hopefully they’ve got some robust analytics underlying the system so that they can test, learn and improve.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.