WSJ.com launched its first paid model in 1996. Since then, the digital landscape has changed dramatically, heavily impacting the way readers consume news and information.

In the summer of 2016, The Wall Street Journal implemented a new paywall strategy. Where we had previously unlocked articles based on subject type, our approach under the new strategy is for articles to remain locked on direct visits, but open for specific use cases based on attributes, such as referral channel or advertising capacity restraints.

The new strategy is designed to reflect changing consumption habits, while also enhancing the prominent role that membership plays in the Journal’s new revenue growth strategy.

As part of the new model, 95% of prospective members now see introductory offers when reading a WSJ.com article — whether they visit the site directly (left) or access an article via social (right).
As part of the new model, 95% of prospective members now see introductory offers when reading a WSJ.com article — whether they visit the site directly (left) or access an article via social (right).

Between experimenting with new avenues of discovery for potential members, enhancing our onsite acquisition strategy, and collaborating across internal departments, we’ve learned a lot, and these lessons are guiding our next steps.

1. Continue to experiment and optimise.

For 20 years, the WSJ paywall remained largely unchanged. Since we implemented the new strategy, our approach has been to constantly iterate and test. As a result, we’ve put nearly half a dozen new updates into effect over the past six months. We have embraced a constant process of testing, and are dedicated to incorporating the learnings into new strategies. 

2. Create a shared mission across the company.

With change comes uncertainty, but we’ve proven that preparation, good communication, and flexibility create an atmosphere of true collaboration amongst all of our internal partners.

For several months prior to changing the paywall, a core group of cross-functional leads from advertising, circulation, news technology, finance, and other teams worked together to scope new models; stress testing them to prepare for launch. This company-wide group meets regularly to ensure key areas of the business have a voice in the planning, and are updated on the results and changes. This feedback loop has been essential in allowing us to iterate quickly.

3. Be clear and bold in your messaging.

In the past, we weren’t actively asking our audience to subscribe to the Journal every time they visited the site. Now, all non-members see marketing offers from us, regardless of what channel they come in from: direct, search, or social. This has allowed us to move from a world where approximately 25% of prospective members saw introductory offers to one where 95% see offers.

Asking people to pay for content, regardless of whether they are visiting from desktop, mobile, etc., has helped move the needle on conversion — creating more than 70% growth in new digital subscriptions versus the same time period the year prior, and more than 165% growth in subscriptions directly from a piece of content.

4. Use social to your advantage.

Finding new ways to engage prospective members will always be top of mind. We’ve made a concerted effort to diversify our traffic sources over the past 12 months, and as a result, have grown social referrals more than 30% over that time period.

We are able to increase conversion by identifying tipping points when a prospect is likely to subscribe. This allows us to more efficiently and effectively spend our marketing funds, highlighting value and reason-to-buy messaging for people who have a lower propensity to subscribe and direct, and offer-focused promotion to those with a higher propensity to subscribe.

In shifting the WSJ paywall from a content-led model to a customer-led model, we are also driving more value from a wider selection of content, as a larger number of stories are leading to acquisition.

For example, the average number of stories producing sales increased 66% over the past six months, while our top converting stories are producing 139% more subscriptions compared to the prior period. While our top converting content continues to be business, markets and opinion coverage, we’ve also seen huge gains from lifestyle, politics, and tech content, amongst others.

5. Keep it simple and fair for customers.

The Journal decided to keep the paywall up during the week of the U.S. presidential election, resulting in record traffic and the biggest week for organic subscription sales on record. Changing the paywall dynamic isn’t just about acquisition, but also retention.

When you give content away at the exact moment that it is most valuable, you are betraying members by giving away the key subscriber benefit. We’ve always believed that quality journalism is worth paying for, and maintaining membership value is critical to future growth.