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Aug. 15, 2016, 3:15 p.m.
Business Models

The Wall Street Journal is changing up its paywall, offering guest passes and expanded link-sharing on social

“The destination has become a very hard place to protect.”

The Wall Street Journal’s proposition has, for many years, been clear: Pay for our journalism, including online.

Many do: The Journal recently hit 948,000 digital-only subscribers, according to owner News Corp, and it’s nudging its way toward the internal goal of 3 million subscribers across all of parent publisher Dow Jones’ properties by 2017.

But as a business-focused publication, the Journal has an affluent readership, and subscriptions are expensive, even with introductory offers or summer sales. With most of its stories under lock and key, casual readers have limited opportunity to try out Journal content, especially when paywall changes that catch the attention of these non-subscribing readers are tests to further tighten up access.

Now the Journal is trying to make its paywall neither stricter nor leakier, but bendier. It’s now testing 24-hour guest passes for non-subscribers, an offer that pops up when readers access a story shared by a subscriber or a Journal staffer. (If you don’t enter your email address, you just get to read the one story.) Down the line, the Journal may also be testing other time increments for the guest passes.


It’s also opening up opportunities for subscribers and members, as well as Journal staffers themselves, to share full articles for free through social media. If you click on any link shared by sportswriter Jason Gay, for instance, you’ll now definitely be able to read the story. These more significant paywall tweaks were first implemented last Friday, informed by experiments with distribution over the past several years, according to Dow Jones chief customer officer Katie Vanneck-Smith. (I asked about experiments like the closing of the Google search loophole, but she declined to go into specifics about previous tests but said in general tests have helped grow the Journal’s paying subscriber base.)

“We’ve been successful at having a digital paywall, but we haven’t innovated it in a number of years,” Vanneck-Smith said. “Now we’re making sure that instead of a one-size-fits-all approach for customer groups, we have a more sophisticated approach that’s dependent on customers and the stories they’re previously reading.”

“Everything our journalists and members share through social channels will act as an invitation and is the beginning of a personalized journey for the guest member,” Vanneck-Smith said. Depending on the reading profile of each referred guest, the recommendations and offers will vary — if I’m always coming to the Journal for earnings reports, for instance, I might start getting directed to specific relevant newsletters. “In some instances, we won’t know anything. This may be our first contact. Where we have a profile of a customer coming in, be that through first- or third-party data, if they have read on the site before, we will know the stories that appeal to them, and we will make sure they’re aware of all the great things they’re missing out on by not being a member of the Journal.”

Such personalization and recommendation tactics might be Marketing 101, Vanneck-Smith said, but paywalls of so many media outlets are relatively “blunt tools,” whether hard or metered. With its new change, the Journal is taking the line that the best way to add long-term subscribers is through referrals from other Journal readers and Journal reporters. (Not every paid news site is using a blunt instrument, of course. Tech site The Information allows subscribers to share a story with non-subscribers — provided they enter an email address. The Financial Times has seen success with paid trial subscriptions.) The Journal’s now expanded social sharing doesn’t mean it’s deferring to social media, Vanneck-Smith said, emphasizing that the company’s overall distributed content strategy has still been a very cautious one.

“The destination has become a very hard place to protect,” she said. “The big players — the Facebooks, the Googles — have in many ways become the default for many customers. As publishers, our job is to strike a balance between understanding how we protect the destination that is our brand, and also work with the consumer behavior of using distributed platforms as a gateway into news and information, and into the wider web.”

While other major publishers have flocked to Facebook’s Instant Articles and its heavily promoted livestreaming feature, News Corp has made no deals so far with Facebook to use Facebook Live. It deliberately publishes only its technology stories to Instant Articles, having found that to be a good “warmup” to paid subscriptions. And while the Journal has a seemingly out-of-place channel in Snapchat Discover, Vanneck-Smith reiterated that the Snapchat partnership was a “longterm play,” and that it, too can’t be ruled out as an eventual avenue to subscriptions.

“We’re still a destination. The Journal will always be a destination,” she said.

Photo of a hole in the wall by jasleen_kaur used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 15, 2016, 3:15 p.m.
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