WSJ builds a collaborative marketing model while Scientific American works toward brand relevance

By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, USA


By Yuki Liang


New York, New York, United States


Behind the scenes of every digital subscriptions strategy at news media companies around the world is a team doing the marketing for that effort.

During the recent INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in New York, 40 media leaders spent two days visiting 10 media and media-adjacent companies throughout the city. Two of those — The Wall Street Journal and Scientific American — shared how their marketing and branding efforts feed into their digital subscription goals.

The Wall Street Journal collaborates for maximum marketing impact

In addition to a rare tour of the newsroom, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) unveiled its innovative approach to integrating news and marketing to study tour attendees, sharing insights into their collaborative model, designed to enhance audience growth and monetisation.

The primary objective is to establish cohesion between the newsroom and marketing strategies, ensuring a unified effort that leverages the full potential of WSJ’s content across various channels. By aligning on key themes and coverage, the team is poised to provide timely marketing support, enhancing the reach and influence of breaking and exclusive news.

At the heart of The Wall Street Journal’s innovative approach is a unique collaboration model that tightly integrates the efforts of the newsroom and marketing teams. This model is designed to ensure that both teams are not only aligned on the editorial calendar but also on the strategic deployment of content to maximise audience engagement and conversion.

By fostering a symbiotic relationship, WSJ enables a seamless workflow where marketing initiatives complement and amplify journalistic efforts, creating a powerful synergy that enhances the visibility and impact of their content. 

WSJ's collaborative model is a shift toward a more responsive media operation.
WSJ's collaborative model is a shift toward a more responsive media operation.

“We are meeting regularly to be able to share insights on both sides of the aisle so that we understand, from their side, what’s working, but also from our side in terms of our subscribers and our prospects, what types of content is performing well so that we can have that mutual dialog between each other,” Katie Fabry, senior marketing director at The Wall Street Journal, told study tour attendees.

WSJ’s approach is anchored in three content pillars: 

  • Prioritising breaking and exclusive news to capitalise on conversions.

  • Leveraging top-performing articles and collections based on brand platform performance.

  • Testing new content to drive non-traditional traffic. 

Real-world case studies, such as the rapid response to the Silicon Valley Bank collapse, illustrate the effectiveness of WSJ’s model:

In early 2023, the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, marking the third-largest bank failure in U.S. history, served as a testbed for WSJ’s marketing and newsroom collaboration. The marketing team had pre-prepared templates for “sweet spot” news stories — significant events that sat squarely in WSJ’s editorial wheelhouse with sufficient public interest and longevity. The bank’s failure provided the perfect scenario to deploy this strategy.

“We have continued to strengthen our relationship with the newsroom to capitalise on these sweet spot moments,” said Jane Mahoney, director of global subscriber acquisition. “So having those lines of communication open before news breaks, instead of trying to establish them in the moment, has been hugely helpful to us.”

The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank fell directly in the "marketing sweet spot" of the WSJ's marketing strategy.
The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank fell directly in the "marketing sweet spot" of the WSJ's marketing strategy.

As the news broke on March 10 and another bank, Signature Bank, followed suit, WSJ’s cross-functional teams swiftly mobilised.

Marketing-specific ads were launched across offsite and owned channels by March 14, underpinned by a cross-departmental meeting early on March 13 to strategise. This rapid response, facilitated by pre-planned marketing assets and a tight-knit collaboration with the newsroom, not only amplified the reach of WSJ’s coverage but also significantly boosted conversions.

This incident underscored the efficacy of having a proactive marketing strategy aligned with potential breaking news scenarios. It also highlighted the importance of real-time adjustments and close coordination between marketing and editorial teams to capitalise on immediate news events.

Scientific American works to make its brand relevant again

Scientific American did an audience study in recent years, asking one question: “What member of the family would this publication be?”

The answer? “Grandpa.”

That was a wake-up call for the team.

When Kimberly Lau, vice president/consumer media at Springer Nature, started at Scientific American, the media brand was only 15% digital with the vast majority of revenues and business model tied up in print. 

“We’re trying to transform that and it starts with the vision,” she said. “What is Scientific American to our readers, subscribers, potential future subscribers? People love our brand but tend to talk about it in the past tense. Everybody knows the brand but we wanted to make it relevant today.”

The brand, which publishes a print magazine 11 times a year, needed to be more than that magazine, Lau said: “We have to be in people’s inboxes, be on social platforms, be in all the places our readers are on a daily and hourly basis to make sure they’re running into us. This is not the kind of thing you can change overnight. We’ve been working very hard on this the last two years and making progress.”

The strategy to make the brand relevant included three levers:

  1. Drive digital platforms and capabilities: Increasing the team — which includes people from product, development, and data — from five to 18 people.

  2. Grow audience and engagement: Creating must-read journalism that “people read and say oh my god!” Lau said. “Developing a habit is hard when you’re not a newspaper. It’s hard to create habits when you actually aren’t a huge organisation.”

  3. Grow subscriptions and media revenues: The goal is to increase advertising and digital revenue so the company can break even by 2026 then begin growing to profitability with new and multiple revenue sources.

All of this builds from the brand.

“The evolution of our brand in the past two years has been incredible,” said Chris Monello-Johnson, director of marketing. “It’s almost unrecognisable.”

Wanting to be “obsessed with every single customer touchpoint,” Monello-Johnson and his team optimised the subscriber funnel in 2023: “Our goal was to get to profitability. That’s my main KPI: to really focus on improving the conversion rate of our existing audience.”

Core projects of 2024 include upselling personalised offers to the current subscriber base to get them from entry or mid-level subscribers up to premium subscribers (US$200 per year for unlimited content). 

The team at Scientific American is working to upsell its current subscribers to its premium offer.
The team at Scientific American is working to upsell its current subscribers to its premium offer.

Since the team is small, marketing automation is a key strategy for accomplishing this goal. Subscribers received automated e-mails from the editor-in-chief, information about signing up for newsletters, podcasts, and how to follow the latest news. 

New technology is key for Scientific American's small marketing team.
New technology is key for Scientific American's small marketing team.

The “grandpa” survey sent Scientific America looking for new audiences. 

“We’re trying to perpetuate a demographic shift in our audience,” said Jeffery DelViscio, president/chief multimedia editor at the company. “To reach an audience that’s sustainable, we need to reach out to new places.”

It’s working. In the last year, Scientific American has organically (with very little paid promotion and marketing) gained 50,000 followers onTikTok, 25,000 subscribers on YouTube, and has 10 million downloads of its podcast, Science Quickly. This is where future audiences live, DelViscio said: “They don’t know our brand, but they’re getting to know it.”

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