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Redesign drives paid strategy for WSJ Online

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When News Corp. finalized its acquisition of The Wall Street Journal parent Dow Jones & Co. nine months ago, News Corp. Chairman-CEO Rupert Murdoch suggested that WSJ.com—one of the most successful paid-subscription media sites—might become completely ad supported and free to users.

The major overhaul of WSJ Online unveiled last week, however, shows that the brand is more dedicated than ever to attracting and serving paid subscribers.

Since September 2006, WSJ.com has doubled its number of unique monthly visitors to more than 17 million (Omniture), said Gordon McLeod, president of The Wall Street Journal Digital Network. During the same period, the subscriber total soared 26% to top 1 million.

“We found that those 17 million visitors are the best prospects to be the subscribers of the future,” McLeod said. “They’re comfortable with the content; they’re comfortable with the brand and what it stands for.”

Even though the number of visitors has doubled, the demographics of the audience have remained about the same. “The great news for us from an advertiser as well as an audience perspective is that we’ve been able to see this tremendous growth without any degradation in the quality of the audience,” McLeod said.

The relaunched site “was designed to maximize the user experience” for both paid subscribers and nonpaying visitors, he said. There is more content available in total, with increases in free as well as paid content.

“One of the drivers behind the new look and feel of the site is improved navigation and the surfacing of much more content,” McLeod said. “We now have so many more people coming to the site who aren’t subscribers, we want to make it more obvious upfront which content is free versus paid.” A light gray graphic of a key accompanies stories available only to subscribers.

WSJ.com has been increasing the amount of free content on the site for some time, with decisions on which stories are free made on a case-by-case basis. With the latest redesign, the differentiation between free and paid content follows more consistent rules than before.

“Our core business and financial news, for the most part, remains paid,” McLeod said. Nonsubscribers, meanwhile, now have access to more content in small business, technology, U.S. and world news, politics, personal finance and lifestyle categories. All offerings in the expanded video section will also be free to everyone.

Two new technological offerings are also available to all. One is the Newsreel, an RSS feed that highlights the most important stories of each major section; it can be ported to users’ MySpace or Facebook pages or to their blogs. The other is the mobile reader, which is currently only available for BlackBerry devices. “It’s a relatively straightforward tool that lets you access all the material from the Journal, MarketWatch and Barron’s in a live, constantly updated format,” McLeod said, adding that mobile delivery is “a very big deal, potentially.”

A major goal of the redesign “was to deliver a lot of new things to build up the subscriber experience,” McLeod noted. “We now have a brand new subscriber-only Community section, a new management section only for subscribers and the two pillars of our core news—What’s News and Heard on the Street—have been dramatically expanded and they are subscriber-only as well.”

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