How Wall Street Journal uses metrics and engagement to drive digital subscriptions

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


The Wall Street Journal remained steadfastly print-based for a long time — so much so that up until 2015, it had experienced no significant digital growth in seven years. Finding out why people weren’t paying and staying in the digital WSJ experience was something the company had to figure out, Vice President of Media and Subscriptions Jon Buckley told INMA members during a recent Webinar.

The key to growth is understanding and adapting to customers’ needs, Buckley said. A look at other business models sheds some light on how major companies failed to do this in the past:

  • Netflix did not kill Blockbuster — inconvenience and late fees did.
  • Uber did not kill the taxi business — limited access and fare control did.
  • Apple did not kill the music industry — being forced to buy full-length albums did.
  • Amazon did not kill other retailers — poor customer service and experience did.
  • Airbnb did not kill the hotel industry — limited availability and pricing options did.

“Our goals and our mission weren’t aligned to be customer-centric enough,” Buckley said of the WSJ in 2015.

Building the acquisition funnel

Starting in 2015, the company reorganised and began focusing on digital growth. “The primary drivers that got us from a place of sort of stagnation to significant growth over the past couple of years, there are basically four components,” Buckley explained.

  • A reach and frequency goals.
  • A media strategy focused on filling the funnel.
  • A customer or propensity-led paywall.
  • Optimising everything.
The Wall Street Journal acquisition funnel more effectly acquires new members.
The Wall Street Journal acquisition funnel more effectly acquires new members.

The objective was to monetise the WSJ’s high-quality journalism with new and diverse audiences to deliver on short-term goals and build a foundation for long-term growth. Buckley said to do this, the company focused on three pillars of growth: habitual scale and reach, customer choice, and habit.

“The No. 1 primary goal to grow is understanding the importance of scaling and fattening the funnel,” Buckley said. This focus also applies to their media-buying strategy.

WSJ developed a wave acquisition funnel strategy to amplify and optimise owned and paid media efforts to effectively and efficiently acquire new members. The aim of building the prospect funnel was to increase awareness and consideration to subscribe. To do this, driving up frequency of return visits is key. Most of their time is spent not in trying to get potential subscribers to buy, but in warming them up.

“We focus on finding net new, and then once they’ve come to the site or they’ve been engaged with The Wall Street Journal, get them back more often,” Buckley said. “It’s a frequency play.”

To that effect, the company doesn’t show pricing messages to people on its first visits to the WSJ Web site, but rather show them more content they might be interested in and focus on building repeat visits and engagement before making buy offers.

The WSJ wave strategy

To accomplish this, the team created a wave strategy of marketing to prospective subscribers that consisted of four steps:

  • Find: Identify potential subscribers and target them with information to direct them to WSJ.
  • Attract: Retargeting, providing them with information to bring them back.
  • Convert: Focus on converting from a browser to a subscriber, sometimes through paid ads.
  • Engage: Keep them coming back and using regularly.
The WSJ wave strategy consists of awareness, consideration, conversion, and engagement.
The WSJ wave strategy consists of awareness, consideration, conversion, and engagement.

Key was understanding the signals that drive subscriptions. WSJ identified 65 signals that influenced a propensity to buy, including everything from geographic location and demographics to number of visits and article views.

“We essentially fused these 65 key variables together in real-time and we scored every user who came on the site,” Buckley said. This score is piped into the DMP, which then pushes a content experience to each user based on their score, either locking down the content or enabling them to sample based on their propensity to convert.

“The other key benefit of this as the cookie limitations continue to come into our industry, the importance in turning more unknowns into knowns is obviously extremely important. We’re getting to know who they are so we can retarget them,” Buckley added.

This propensity-led paywall allowed The Wall Street Journal to transition away from having a one-size-fits-all experience and create solutions based on different audience segments.

“By moving away from a content-led [approach] to becoming a customer propensity-led model, we have 4x our onsite conversion rate, which is huge,” Buckley shared. “It’s worth noting we are not locking down any more content than we were doing in the past, but today we are locking it down for the right audience.”

Optimisation testing

WSJ decisions are made on data and not on option. The team tests everything.

“We built out an optimisation team that ensures we aren’t letting opinion sway any thought or idea,” Buckley said.

One example is the reorganisation the team did of the customer journey, removing friction points. The team tested this new user experience, going from a 20-step process that took the user about one minute to a 15-step process that took 45 seconds. The result was a 13% uplift in orders.

Top 5 engagement lessons           

Next, Buckley shared the top five lessons the team learned from engagement metrics as WSJ and Barron’s.

  • Make active days the engagement north star.
  • Consider the who, what, and where of your content strategy.
  • Onboarding trials are key to long-term retention.
  • Automate re-engagement efforts to reach scale.
  • Leverage moments that matter.

“If we can’t get a member to build a habit within the first 100 days, their likelihood of building a habit thereafter is very, very low,” Buckley said. “So as soon as somebody signs up with The Wall Street Journal or Barron’s, they go through what we call an onboarding flow.”

The onboarding process begins immediately after subscription, which is an important part of retention.
The onboarding process begins immediately after subscription, which is an important part of retention.

He added that re-engaging and personalising at scale is a priority at WSJ. The team employs a multi-channel system of engagement touchpoints to personalise the member experience.

Summary: What have we learned along the way

In short, the biggest lesson learned at the WSJ has been to ask the right questions. Some of the most important questions the team asks themselves are:

  • How do we find more unknown audiences that are look-alikes to our subscribers? Answer: use member data.
  • How do we increase their likelihood to subscribe? Answer: the wave approach.
  • How do we optimise the buying experience? Answer: paid media, paywall, and shop/checkout conversion.
  • How do we ensure a new member starts key habits? Answer: onboarding and understanding popular and sticky habits.
  • Who and what should we talk to members about to increase engagement and decrease the likelihood of cancellation? This is something they are still working on.
  • How do we increase the likelihood of saving a customer? Answer: creating product experts and introducing the option of downsell.

“It’s a very customer- and data-led approach to identifying people, warming them up, providing choice, driving engagement, and saving those who we believe we can save,” Buckley said.

About Shelley Seale

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