Why the Wall Street Journal?
What happens when a publisher decides to put all of its content behind a hard paywall? And how did they attract millions of visitors every month when the whole Internet is crowded with free content.
Well, this is what we had in our mind when we chose The Wall Street Journal for our Becoming series. The Journal is one of the leading publishing houses that has tried different subscription/membership strategies and experimented with every possible tactic to grow its audience base as well as overall revenue.
The Wall Street Journal can be accessed via newspaper or magazine, website, and mobile applications. The American-based news media organization was founded by Charles Dow, Edward Jones, and Charles Bergstresser, and has been in the publishing industry since 1889. That means ~131 years of survival – pulling through World Wars, Great recessions, and so on.
..And yes, the plan to launch the online version of The Journal began even before the web world came onto the scene (Src).
Isn’t it enough to make you curious about how the publisher beat the odds and is thriving today in spite of having tough competitors like The New York Times and The Financial Times? We know you are. So, why not start from the beginning and learn something new for your business.
How it All Started?
The online version of The Wall Street Journal was launched in 1993 as Software as the Service. Since the publisher was new to the online world and the Internet was a novice, The Journal had a single-page static website by the end of 1995.
The goal was to serve the business and financial communities present in the United States. However, due to the small number of employees and lack of experience with online tools, the editorial team, initially, shared the same content as they did for the printed edition of the newspaper.
Gradually, the team started to grow and with them, the % of unique content on The Journal’s website increased. The site got organized in a different way than the print edition. But one thing that was constant since the beginning of The Journal is its subscription model.
From the day when wsj.com was launched till present, a user has to buy the subscription package to get access to the website’s content. Although the publishing company has rarely put the content outside of the paywalls, it has never seen a decline in traffic. Wondering where they stand now? Let’s have a look at the current situation of The Journal.
Where are they Today?
The Wall Street Journal has more than 69 million monthly visits, and ~52.36% of traffic comes to the website directly. In terms of growth from social media, the publisher gets ~42% of total social media traffic from Facebook.
In Q4, 2019, The Journal’s total digital subscriptions grew by 12.8% as the number of subscribers went from 1,709,000 to 1,929,000 (Src). Not only this, the revenue increased by 4% compared to 1% growth for the NYTimes in the last year.
Although The Journal built the foundation as a print brand, the publisher has made a strong online following since its debut. The Journal, as we know today, didn’t exist almost a decade ago. In recent years, the publisher has tried a number of growth strategies that we are going to discuss in this case study. So, shall we begin?
Becoming The Wall Street Journal
From Dial-up Service to Website
Building the foundation
The story started almost 27 years ago when the WSJ was distributed to the users on disks and then users would dial up to retrieve the latest updates from the newspaper. Even though the publisher planned to make its online presence before the birth of the web, it took three years to transform from disks to a website.
The full new website of The Journal was launched in July 1995 as Money & Investing Update. At that time, the publisher focused primarily on market news and tested how the electronic version of WSJ works.
Was it successful or not? Yes, it was a huge success. In just a year, the Money & Investing website garnered more than 7 million visits every week and had 325,000 registered users (Src). So, the publisher thought why not launch the website with the brand name
And after a year, in April 1996, the publisher introduced its first full online website The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition. Even though the website wasn’t interactive as the name was on the homepage, it was far better than the former edition of the website.
“Our goal is to bring Wall Street Journal news values, sensibilities, and quality to what is a profoundly different medium. The Interactive Edition truly expands The Journal’s ability to keep readers informed and involved.”
– Paul Steiger, Managing Editor, The Journal (Src)
During all these years, the publisher had come up with several designs for the website. But one thing that has always been a part of The WSJ was its digital subscription model. In 1996, The Journal had 2 million subscribers to its print edition. And to appeal to the new audience, the publisher started experimenting with the digital editions of The Journal.
Betting the users will pay
When The Journal started its journey, many of its rivals including The NYTimes were already involved in dealing with their respective digital versions on the Internet.
But they were offering content without any paywall and anybody could access and read articles on the website. On the other side in the same market, The WSJ’s plan was quite a contrast to other prevailing publishers. Instead of providing the content to the readers, The Journal made its online readers pay for accessing the content.
Clearly, jumping on the paywall bandwagon wasn’t supposed to be easy. And as you can see in the image, you can’t even read the excerpt of the articles without buying the subscription. Some of the rivals believed that The Journal’s plan would flop over a few months.
But did it flop? You know the answer. If it had flopped, you would have been reading an article on wsj.com without buying the subscription. So, how does the publisher make it happen? As we said the publisher was laying the foundation, it started taking small steps (just like everybody else did) but in a different way.
Neil Budde, the Editor-in-Chief of The Journal created a team of 36 editors/writers to generate original stories for the website. Even if the articles were ready to be published, the team used to withhold all the latest and unique news until 2 AM or 3 AM so that the competing newspapers wouldn’t be able to get to know or publish the news on the same day.
At a slow speed, The Journal became the news publisher known to release the unique and latest updates before any other publication. In the meantime, to entice the new audience, the publisher offered them access to exclusive content, reports, and stock performance charts for almost 9,000 public companies.
By the end of 1996, the traffic and digital subscribers on WSJ continued to grow. However, one point was missing – a quick source of additional revenue. Digital subscribers bring revenue and there’s no doubt in that. But, if you want to grow revenue in a short period of time, then the subscription model might not be the ideal for publishers.
Especially, during the late 90s when the Internet itself was a novice. So, the publisher was looking for an alternative to increasing the revenue. Meanwhile, DoubleClick was launched in the advertising industry. When The Journal team first heard about the launch, they partnered with DoubleClick and created a strategy for digital advertising.
Getting Started With Banner Advertising
Back in the late 90s, advertising was getting over the fuzzy old TV, radio, and billboards and the era of internet advertising was popping up. Though advertising was a staunch part of many publishers, it was something new for The Wall Street Journal. So, the publisher gave enough time to actively choose with whom to advertise and started with promoting WSJ services.
It was a plain, simple banner ad that advertised different models of WSJ subscriptions. Here’s an example of how the publisher created an ad creative and displayed it via DoubleClick.
But the benefits of banner advertising weren’t evident during those days and the publishing company was skeptical about the success. Meanwhile, there were surveys that proved that the effectiveness of banner ads varied with the browser type. For instance, a banner ad received more than 50% engagement on AT&T Worldnet and Dockers Khakis, but it gained only 5% higher engagement on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (Src).
The same was happening with The Journal as the ads are seen by visitors resulted in lowered ROI for the publisher. For this reason, the publisher partnered with Internet Explorer and offered free access for a month to The Journal.
You might be wondering if the publisher only advertised to increase the digital subscriber count. Pretty much, yes. For a long time, WSJ promoted various subscriptions and other services via ads on the website and it actually performed as the publisher wanted. How did we conclude that? Because the publisher started online advertising for its brand’s promotion on other websites.
First Brand Advertising Campaign
The publishing company partnered with Time, Esquire, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and many other top publishers to display the “WSJ Ads” on their websites. To execute the campaign, The Journal onboarded the agency McGarryBowen and featured the journey of WSJ in sports, business, arts, entertainment, and showcased how The Journal educated and inspired every person on their road to success.
“The Wall Street Journal campaign creatively illustrates the life journeys of a diverse group of people who are icons in their fields– whether in sports, entertainment, business or the arts—and shows how stories in the Journal have relevance to their lives.”
– Ann Marks, Chief Marketing Officer, Dow Jones & Company (Src)
Experimenting With Contextual Ads
Paid advertising and display advertising were going fine for the publisher. But the publisher was looking for improvement as the display ads on wsj.com weren’t getting enough engagement. So, to find the solution, the publisher partnered with Microsoft for contextual and targeted paid search advertising.
“Relevant and targeted digital advertising is important to our business and to the quality of the experience that we deliver to our users.”
– Gordon McLeod, President, The Wall Street Journal Digital Network (Src)
According to the publisher, the deal with Microsoft was important for two reasons: One it would help them to extend the advertisers network that is interested in the financial vertical and second to showcase that The Journal was gaining significant traction with the advertising platform and was one of the largest financial services publishers in a very dynamic vertical segment (Src).
When the whole publishing industry was trying to figure out banner advertising, The Wall Street Journal pivoted on video advertising when the publisher realized that attaching pictures of service wasn’t enough. The publisher understood that videos can give a clear picture of products and enable the viewers to make a decision easily.
But video ads weren’t as advanced as they are today and had no format like out-stream and companion, and it was difficult to promote video content and ads with the available resources in the company. So, the publisher got into an agreement with Brightcove and launched a video channel.
“Brightcove enables us to deliver the high-quality programming our consumers expect while offering the immediacy, interactivity, and entertainment inherent to an on-demand digital video experience.”
– Gordon McLeod, president, Dow Jones Online (Src)
The video channel was accessible at free cost and across different digital channels of The Journal (Barron’s Online, MarketWatch, and WSJ Online), as well as Brightcove. The goal was to deliver high-quality video programming that can be accessed on www.wsj.com/video. In addition, the access to WSJ’s video access was available at Brightcove’s website to drive the traffic to the main site.
So, Did the video channel help increase the traffic on The Journal’s website? Yes, it did. Not only did it increase the engagement rate of the content, but it also attracted advertisers to promote their products and services. With the new video player, the publisher offered a video player to display pre-roll video ads (with an option to expand the ads). As the video channels were flash-based, they didn’t require an additional download of software which further resulted in seamless user experience.
Taking on the Japanese Market
From 2010 – 2015
When we got to know that a publisher like The Wall Street Journal had done blogging, we were surprised. After all, why would they start blogging when they were getting millions of traffic in a month on the website? So, we tried to dig deeper and found out why the publisher took the initiative to launch a blog in 2010.
Somewhere in the mid of 2010, various foreign media organizations (including publishing companies) got eliminated due to the great recession of 2009. However, the Japanese version of WSJ that was launched last December was getting heightened coverage in Japan. Reasons? Scarcity of available resources on business, economics, and lifestyle news in Tokyo and around Japan.
To capitalize on the current situation, the publisher launched Japanese Real-Time, a Japanese blog for the local audience.
“We are becoming the defining English-language news source in a country that, for all its troubles, remains a vital player in world economics and finance.”
– Jacob Schlesinger, Editor-in-Chief, The Wall Street Journal Japan
But why Japan? Why not any other country? Because at that time, Japan was the second-largest economy in the world and had fewer rivals as compared to other countries.
After staying behind the paywall for a decade, The Journal finally decided to make its content-free for the users. The idea of providing free content didn’t come out of the blue. It was the New York Times that removed the paywall from the website and allowed the readers to access its content without spending dollars.
So, The Journal had to do that. However, unlike NYTimes that offered news content for free, The Journal made its opinion and commentary articles accessible to both – subscribers and non-subscribers.
“By opening the door a little bit with the opinion pages, the Wall Street Journal will be operating two different business models side by side. You can be sure that if the free portion outperforms the paid portion, there will be a lot of pressure to open up the news sections as well.”
Visions of providing content for free were expected to work for the publisher. But as predicted by the critics, the plan failed because the audience interested in such content was inadequate. Now that the trial went wrong for The Journal, the publisher added the paywall again as before. But were they going to stop experimenting? Not at all.
iPad version of WSJ
Did you know Apple launched its first iPad in 2010? And The Journal was one of the first news organizations that launched a dedicated app on the new tablet. At the same time, when rivals were playing around with their app versions, The Journal thought of testing the iPad version of The WSJ.
It didn’t happen because the publisher was excited about the new launch and wanted to see how the iPad version goes. The reason was advertisers’ spending towards iPad ads. In those days, Time magazine partnered with Unilever, Toyota Motor, and some other major brands who were ready to pay $200,000 for a single ad spot on iPad.
When The Journal got to know about the partnership, the publisher had a strong belief that creating the iPad app could be an additional source of income. When the iPad app was launched, it required in-app purchases and a subscription of $17.29 per month. Which means $173,000 a month in subscription revenue or about $2.1 million a year.
And soon after the launch of the iPad app, the WSJ was approached by 6 advertisers with ad packages costing $400,000 per ad. Which means ~$2.4 million for the first four months of the apps. And if it had been combined with subscription revenue, then it would have reached ~$10 million.
The excellent move taken by The WSJ was to enable the users to download the app at free cost without iTunes. If the publisher had launched the app via iTunes, then Apple would have taken a 30% cut from any App sales. So, now whatever the cost a user had to pay was to access the WSJ. And the publisher kept all the sales revenue to itself.
“Unlike the Kindle, we keep 100 percent of the subscriber revenue from the iPad.”
– Rupert Murdoch, Founder, News Corp (Src)
In just two-months, WSJ garnered 10,000 customers which was an excellent start for the publishing company. That was almost 2.5% of the total online subscribers as stated by the publisher. By the end of 2014, 85% of WSJ’s total app usage was on iOS devices (Src).
WSJ Social Facebook App
In the fall of September 2011, the publisher launched WSJ Social, a Facebook app to bring its content to the Facebook platform. WSJ Social enabled the users to read, share, and comment on the WSJ articles and share it within the Facebook environment.
Since Facebook was gaining traction amongst the online community, it was the perfect time to introduce the app and create a new traffic acquisition channel. WSJ Social was launched with Dell that was shouldering all the costs for the app.
“We’re breaking the mold of using Facebook simply to drive traffic to our websites and are now creating an opportunity to engage with the Journal directly on the Facebook platform. WSJ Social creates a more integrated experience for users and innovative opportunities for advertisers.
– Alisa Bowen, Digital Network General Manager, WSJ (Src)
Although some of the content on WSJ Social could be accessed without any subscription, other content required the users to buy the subscription of the WSJ digital bundle. WSJ Social was a smart move by the WSJ to capitalize on Facebook traffic. But we’re dubious how it helped the publisher because eventually, users had to pay for everything on the website.
WSJ Live, A Video application
In the same month, the publisher launched a new interactive video application, WSJ Live, to boast video advertising. The motto behind the step was to create a sole platform dedicated to video advertising where advertisers can run pre-roll ads with a range from less than 60 seconds to 30 minutes.
WSJ Live was an Internet-ready and set-top box based application that brings 4 hours of live TV from The WSJ in front of users each business day. It was occupied with breaking news, exclusive interviews, and many more.
For video advertising, the publisher specifically preferred pre-roll video ads because every time users click on the videos, they have to see the video ad, giving a better engagement rate and viewability for the advertisers.
“WSJ Live brings our existing — and growing — stable of video programming to an unprecedented level of distribution and exposure.”
– Alan Murray, Deputy Managing Editor and Executive Editor, Online(Src)
Driving Traffic By Rich Pins
Social media has been booming since 2012. While some waited for the right time, others leveraged the platforms for years. And one such example is The Journal who is very active on Pinterest, the social media channel ignored by many publishers.
The WSJ tried to be creative and created WSJ Quotes on Pinterest. Here’s how they described the board:
“Editors are pinning memorable quotes appearing in the Wall Street Journal. (Src)”
Each pin is an image of a quote from a recent WSJ story shown floating over a column of blurred out text, much like pull-quotes do in an actual story. A short description accompanies each pin, allowing the quote to stand alone. By clicking on an individual quote, readers/pinners are taken to the original story it was published in.
“We haven’t been shy about trying things [on Pinterest], seeing what catches on,” Aguilar said in his email. “This was an extension of that. We had a theory that quotes could do well and we just put it out there.”
And as of today, the publisher has 10 million followers on Pinterest and is one of the important channels for The Journal.
Introducing private exchange
Back in 2013 when the programmatic industry was embracing Real-time bidding, the publisher pushed on and created a private ad exchange for the advertisers. The Journal’s advertising team partnered with Rubicon Project and introduced WSJ AUDEX.
The invite-only exchange allows only selected advertisers to leverage WSJ’s first-party data and enhance the targeting capabilities. As a greater number of advertisers were buying the ads through trading desks and DSPs, the publisher thought to provide brand-protection and boost the traditional direct sales via the private exchange.
“You’re not going to see ‘garbage’ inventory from us on the exchange. If we’re going to play in the exchange space, we want to play correctly. We’re going to place quality inventory on AUDEX, but with very tight controls. We believe that a major marketer who hasn’t necessarily looked at the WSJ before, thinking that we’re a strictly financial, business professional play, might want to reach younger men through our RTB environment. Once they see what we can deliver, they may want to take a closer look at what else we can do.”
Not only did the AUDEX increase the value of the unsold inventories on the WSJ website, but it also helped the advertisers to reach their audience more effectively and leverage first-party data on making ad-buying decisions.
AUDEX was an excellent product to expose the ad inventories to the premium advertisers. But still, there was a thick line between the editorial content and other ads on the WSJ website. To erase this line, the publisher moved to the new hybrid advertising model, native ads.
Introducing a native ad studio
In 2014, the publisher introduced a native ad studio to enter into the native advertising and named it WSJ Custom Studios. Rather than showcasing native ads on the WSJ website, the publishing company started native ads with CMO Today, the WSJ’s new blog for Marketing Executives.
At first, CMO Today promoted Sponsored Content in two different ways – Underwritten Sponsored Content and Custom Sponsored Content. While Custom content was created by the advertiser or the publisher on the behalf of the brand, Underwritten content was created by advertisers.
Once The Journal saw the success and engagement rate of sponsored content ads, the publisher introduced its first native ad product Narratives. The aim of Narratives was to display content-driven ads to better connect with the audiences and included the opportunity to integrate infographics, videos, and other interactive elements into the ad campaigns.
As said by the publisher, Narratives would be with the organic content of WSJ and complement the same without the reading experience.
“Our readers trust us, and the WSJ. Custom Studios team has created clear and thorough labeling guidelines around the advertiser’s content in order to protect that trust,”
– Gerard Baker, Editor-in-Chief, The WSJ (Src)
Even though the publisher was late in the native ecosystem, they took a lot of time to make sure the native advertising goes right. To make things right, the publisher found out the highest engagement pages which are most likely to get shared by the people.
Additional Traffic Acquisition Channels
Mobile traffic was increasing on the WSJ by the end of 2014. When the publisher saw a surge of 30% in mobile traffic, the company partnered with Flipboard to attract more visitors. At that time, Flipboard had 100 million users and attracted more than 300 publishers since 2010.
Additionally, the publisher started promoting WSJ’s content on Line and WeChat as the two platforms had more than 400 million users on the platform.
“Given so many conversations are happening off of our websites and outside of our mobile apps, if we want to be relevant, if we want to be part of those conversations — or even start them — the news media has to be on a broader mix of social media platforms.”
– Adam Najberg, Editor, Wall Street Journal (Src)
With time, the number of monthly visitors increased and the publisher tried to figure out how to attract more. At that moment, it was equally important to retain the visitors (or you can say, subscribers).
Deepening Relationship With Audience
According to a report by FIPP, podcasts are perhaps the greatest new revenue and subscription tool. The report was published in the last year, but The Journal knew the significance of podcasts way back before.
In 2015, the publisher introduced a series of podcasts available to the subscribers and non-subscribers for free. These podcasts covered a range of topics from daily updates to weekly opinion and can be accessed by Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, etc.
“WSJ Podcasts give voice to the Journal’s world-class reporting, creating new opportunities for audiences to engage with our news, analysis and commentary.”
– John Wordock, Executive Producer, WSJ Podcasts (Src)
Podcasts are a great way to increase traffic on a website and give the visitors an engaging experience. But they can also contribute to the ad revenue due to the higher responsiveness and engagement.
“Through WSJ Podcasts, advertisers can develop an even deeper relationship with our ambitious audience; the world’s most important decision-makers.”
– Trevor Fellows, Global Head of Advertising, The Journal (Src)
From 2016 till present
When Facebook unveiled the bot for FB messenger, the WSJ became one of the first news publishers to experiment with the bot. The bot was launched in 2016 and WSJ used to send notifications to its readers.
As more people actively were using messaging bots than the social media platform itself, the WSJ leveraged the bot to reach an active and unique audience.
Besides, the usage of bot didn’t just help to attract an audience. But it also helped to collect data like email address, phone number, and other data points. Consequently, these enabled the publisher to build an audience base and personalize the services accordingly.
Shifting to Programmatic
The publisher partnered with Smartology to display content-driven ads so that visitors can see contextually relevant ads next to the right article. But this isn’t the first time the WSJ started contextual ads and we have discussed this before. So, what was new here?
Moving to programmatic. Almost a year ago, in 2016, The Journal had contextual ads on the website but those ads were sold traditionally by the ad server. What made the publisher shift to programmatic? It was the inefficiencies of traditional ad selling and buying methods.
With the previous set-up, Smartology wasn’t able to bid on all the ad impressions and look at impressions to display ads by matching specific semantic profiles. Via Smartology’s SmartWatch, the publisher displayed targeted ads next to the closely-related editorial topics. Moreover, the new platform of Smartology could act as a demand-side platform that removed the need for any SSPs. As a result, the publisher simplified the programmatic ecosystem to increase transparency. Which further attracted the premium advertisers and sold the impressions at a premium price.
“Using Smartology’s unique platform, we can run highly-engaging campaigns that deliver a return on investment and align with our editorial content – while ensuring the highest possible level of brand safety for our customers.”
– Anna Foot, VP Advertising Sales EMEA, The Wall Street Journal (Src)
Although Smartology helped to increase the ad revenue, the publisher couldn’t work with it for long as header bidding was coming to the surface. And when the publisher understood the benefits of the technique, they had one question.
Is there anything better than header bidding?
Header bidding is gaining traction, and almost 75% of US web publishers have implemented the technique to monetize their traffic effectively. For The Wall Street Journal, the publishing company started with header bidding by the mid of 2018.
The publisher partnered with top demand partners including Index Exchange, AppNexus, Rubicon Project, and OpenX to sell the ad impression to multiple advertisers. Now that everything was set, there were a few major concerns in front of the publishers.
What were those? Viewability, ad fraud, and browsers blocking third-party cookies. To face these challenges, the publisher partnered with MOAT and Bluekai DMP. Via MOAT, the publisher leveraged its Analytics tool to improve the ad viewability. On the other hand, Bluekai helped the publisher to collect the first-party audience data to improve the targeting in a cookie-less environment.
A new suite of ad products
Recently, the publisher has introduced a new suite of ad products, The Exchange. The suite is meant to combine first-party targeting, ad-tech, and native publishing tools to create a brand-sare and targeting environment.
The Exchange consists of three products i.e. SafeSuite, Trust Direct, and InSite. While SafeSuite is an intelligence solution that aims to align the company’s message with suitable advertisers by using context and sentiment analysis, InSite offers Dow Jones’ audience segments (first-party data).
And the third product Trust Direct is meant for the clients who already have high-quality content and want to publish their content via WSJ’s CMS.
“Together, the four components of The Exchange provide accurate audience targeting, thematic alignment and enhanced brand suitability. The goal is to maximize the performance of B2B advertising,”
– Josh Stinchcomb, Global Chief Revenue Officer (Src)
The Wall Street Journal is considered as one of the publishers with a mixed revenue generation model. Till today, the publisher has tried more than 9 digital subscription models. And it’s not easy to receive information first than anyone else. The publishing company has shown huge growth in traffic and considerable growth in digital subscribers.
Although all of WSJ’s strategies cannot be replicated, some of them can be. What we have learned is that consistency and scarcity in business can yield results that no other strategy can. What have you learned from WSJ? Let us know in the comments.