Wall Street Journal drives subscription growth with student programme

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


Few people are as excited to go back to school as Jodi Harrison. After two years of reaching out to students digitally, Harrison said The Wall Street Journal will resume its on-campus, in-person events — and that’s something the company has been looking forward to.

Harrison, vice president of student sales at WSJ, explained how the company has leveraged the student market during the members-only INMA Webinar, How students are helping The Wall Street Journal drive future growth.

WSJ has had a school programme for many years but launched its current digital-only version in 2017. Harrison’s role is to work on “moving [readers] from the kids’ table to the adult table, so when they graduate, they have had such a wonderful experience with the Journal that they want to keep it and, more importantly, they want to pay for it.”

There is great value in acquiring subscribers at a younger age, as it allows for the creation of lifelong relationships with all of the brands in the Dow Jones portfolio, she said.

“We know that the student audiences are large, they consume a great deal of content, and they will support our future growth goals,” Harrison said.

Approaching a youth market

Harrison said WSJ divides the young market into two groups:

  • Gen Z, ages 18-24.
  • Millennials, ages 25-40.
WSJ divides young audiences into two groups, and each one is marketed to a little bit differently.
WSJ divides young audiences into two groups, and each one is marketed to a little bit differently.

The Gen Z market comprises current students and recent graduates, while Millennials are recent graduates and young professionals. Harrison’s work has primarily been in schools, working with Gen Z, and she said the student programme is designed to generate awareness and increase engagement with that demographic.

The school pays for the student memberships, which then are offered free to students. That membership includes complete digital access to the WSJ, a complimentary benefits programme with exclusive, members-only offers, and curated content, newsletters, and podcasts.

Harrison made a compelling argument for paying attention to the student population, noting it has provided substantial subscription growth for the WSJ. More than 350 colleges and universities have signed on to the programme, giving it an overall reach of more than 4 million students.

WSJ has targeted all types of higher education institutions throughout the United States and Canada, from Ivy League and private schools to religious and military campuses. Its next push will be to target community colleges, because the two-year schools offer a large and attractive opportunity: “About 39% of the undergraduate base in the U.S. attend community colleges, so it’s a big focus for us,” Harrison said.  

The student population offers a considerable amount of opportunity for subscription growth.
The student population offers a considerable amount of opportunity for subscription growth.

As with all subscribers, getting students to sign up is just the beginning. WSJ uses a variety of marketing options to promote student activation, including marketing from the school, advertising partners, paid media, and professors. The strategy involves having many different touchpoints to make sure students are aware of the school-sponsored programme.

One key component of the programme is the personalisation aspect, Harrison emphasised: “It needs to be personal to them. And we do this by delivering the right experience when, where, and how the student wants to receive it. We live in an attention economy, and so personalisation is an expectation of all users, regardless of what age group they fall into.”

Back-to-school specials

On-campus events have factored heavily into gaining the attention of students. After a pandemic-induced hiatus from live events, WSJ is beginning to have “an influx of requests to have our teams come back to campus,” Harrison said. It will continue to hold some of the virtual events that it created during lockdowns, but schools see a clear benefit from having the WSJ teams come back and “having a clear presence on campus,” she noted.

Orientation events are an ideal opportunity to connect with new students, and she pointed out that at a four-year college, 25% of the students are just beginning and are probably hearing about the WSJ student programme for the first time. At a community college, that number doubles.   

In-person events are particularly useful in attracting students.
In-person events are particularly useful in attracting students.

However, once orientation has passed, WSJ maintains a presence through such events as a Student/Editor Summit, in which WSJ journalists engage with students, either virtually or in-person, and can ask questions, and the Job Summit, which lets students connect with business leaders.

One of the most successful components is the Professor Programme, in which WSJ works with faculty and staff to offer a variety of resources including reviews, newsletters, critical thinking resources, Webinars, and how-to guides. It also offers an annual instructors’ conference. Together, these many aspects create a strong interaction with the brand and also help attract a demographic that is historically hard to acquire and retain.

Moving into the future

WSJ is making headway in the highly competitive young audience market, and Harrison said the company sees many opportunities ahead — not the least is its ability to change the perception of the brand among younger readers, which it appears to be doing.

“We know the young audience has a greater lifetime value than the older demographic,” Harrison said. “Acquiring and engaging them will increase our staying power and guarantee our future.”

Building student habits from the beginning is what best drives lasting results, she said. After they activate that membership, WSJ works to keep them engaged.

“Think of this like a gym membership,” she said, pointing to the large number of gym memberships purchased around the new year that quickly go unused. If customers still aren’t using them when it’s time to renew, the likelihood of renewing plummets. “That’s true with anything. So with the Journal, we need the students not only to activate, we need them to engage.” 

About Paula Felps

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