How to engage and monetise audiences across platforms was the key focus of INMA study tour visits of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today Network, and CBS Interactive Monday in New York. The visits were part of the INMA World Congress of News Media Study Tour, which attracted 70 delegates from 18 countries over two days.

Executives at all companies discussed how they are better engaging with audiences, transforming their companies into audience-first and (primarily) audience-supported. While some of the information shared was off the record — only for the benefit of those attending to share with their peers back at home — here’s a look at some of what tour participants learned.

Independent Media's Amit Makan, Vasantha Angamuthu, Siyavuya Mzantsi and RIana Andrews at The New York Times on Monday.
Independent Media's Amit Makan, Vasantha Angamuthu, Siyavuya Mzantsi and RIana Andrews at The New York Times on Monday.

When Karl Wells joined The Wall Street Journal, he learned about the company goal of 3 million paid memberships. At that point, in 2015, the company was at 1.8 million. The telling information was that that number had been steady for the previous seven years, recalled Wells, now general manager of subscription sales and marketing. 

Ambitious though it was, the 3 million figure gave the Journal its North Star: moving from a print circulation business to a subscription-first business. It also helped with visioning, leading to this goal for the news media company: “The world’s foremost membership for the ambitious.” 

There are two key words in that vision statement: 

  • Membership: WSJ had to be customer-first.
  • Ambitious: This was one thing that united WSJ’s audience. “Ambition was the guiding light for how we thought about our audience,” Wells said. “Whether in the classroom or the boardroom, ambition is the driver of our audience.”

The Wall Street Journal is now at 2.6 million paying members, making progress toward the 3 million goal Wells and others have been working on. Part of that progress has been made by focusing on three tiers of membership, with a general manager overseeing each. Picturing a pyramid, here are the three: 

  1. Bottom: WSJ student membership.
  2. Middle: WSJ core membership (which Wells oversees).
  3. Top: Professional membership.

As an example of the culture change at the Wall Street Journal, Wells pointed to the student membership: 

“This is a great example of where you can see the pivot to membership has taken hold. Historically, our student membership programme was a way to drive print circulation. That didn’t change much from 1976 until five years ago. The way we now see students is very much the oxygen to our future growth.”

After college, students are offered a graduate rate for two years, then mature to a young person’s proposition before moving into the core membership offer. 

As Wells displayed a straightforward customer journey, he pointed to what questions that journey asks.

“One of the most useful things we’ve done is to ask the right questions,” he said. “What’s the question that’s important for us to ask at each point along the way? The starting point for us … is the point of conversion.” 

At that point, he begins to consider other parts of the subscription funnel: awareness, consideration, the welcome, trial, churn. 

A question to ask, for example: How do you ensure a new member starts key habits? 

Why should you ask this? Because the first 100 days are key. How can you help? Onboarding and understanding sticky habits.

Other key takeaways:

  • WSJ categorises its audiences by their propensity to subscribe: hot, warm, and cool. “Consumers who actually hit the paywall limit are likely to subscribe,” Wells said. 
  • Previously, the newsroom decided what went behind the paywall. “If you’re customer-led, why would you create a paywall that’s content-led?”
  • There is still so much low-hanging fruit. 
Peter Gray, vice president of product optimization at The Wall Street Journal, explains how sometimes easy changes can make big audiences differences.
Peter Gray, vice president of product optimization at The Wall Street Journal, explains how sometimes easy changes can make big audiences differences.

Peter Gray, vice president of product optimization at The Wall Street Journal, has yet to run out of easy gains. He calls them the “sweet honey words.” For example: 

  • The vast majority of upside audience experiments are copy and design (67%), compared to product feature testing (16%) and package/price testing (17%) — the latter two being much more difficult. 
  • Gray’s team cut the subscription check-out process from 20 steps and 60 seconds to 15 steps and 45 seconds, creating a 13% increase in completed subscription orders. 
  • One easy gain is telling your audience something you thought they knew. One campaign touted “New Politics. Know the Impact” when a customer hit the paywall. Gray’s team changed it to “Continue reading your article with a WSJ membership” and increased subscription orders by 37%.

“This stuff is so cheap,” he said. “I didn’t have to make anything else. I just had to figure out how to talk about it.”

At CBS Interactive, audience engagement has taken an unexpected journey. Christy Tanner, executive vice president and general manager of CBS News Digital, and Adam Wiener, executive vice president and general manager for the company’s local digital media, explained that when 24/7 news channels became all the rage, CBS passed on the offer. Others — CNN, CNBC, ESPN, MSNBC, Fox News, for example — signed complicated agreements with cable companies and distributors. 

What does that mean? They can’t go straight to consumers with their news.

Adam Wiener, executive vice president and general manager for CBSN's local digital media, explains how many devices its product can be viewed on.
Adam Wiener, executive vice president and general manager for CBSN's local digital media, explains how many devices its product can be viewed on.

When CBS launched its 24/7 option, CBSN, in 2014, what was previously considered a failure suddenly allowed the company to leapfrog over its 24/7 competitors. CBSN started on Apple TV, Roku, and some Amazon devices. It is now on many more, including PlayStation and Samsung TV. 

“We had the infrastructure of CBS Interactive being one of the largest players,” Tanner said. “We don’t have a centralised tech service. Each one of these brands has its own engineering and product team. That enabled us to start live news streams and to have it work on all these different devices and services. It gave us a competitive advantage.” 

CBSN is now leveraging for local. It has launched CBSN New York, is close to launching CBSN LA, and will launch Boston and Bay Area versions later this year.

Some interesting statistics Tanner and Wiener shared: 

  • More than 50% of 21- to 37-year-olds watch TV and digital news. 
  • CBSN’s average audience is 37, which is 20 years younger than the average age of cable news audiences. 
  • 29% of CBSN audiences are watching on an OTT (over-the-top) channels, while 29% watch on their desktop and 6% watch on a mobile app. 
  • The average viewer watches 20 minutes of content on mobile, 40 minutes on desktop, and 80 minutes total OTT. 

“These consumers are coming for the live stream and stay in it,” Wiener said. 

Audiences are growing. The first quarter of 2019 was its biggest quarter and March its No. 1 month of all time. The content is free, supported by advertising. 

Content is made up of live with anchors, orginal series, as well as repackaged or extended content from other CBS shows: “Our goal is to break exclusive news and have Elizabeth Warren or other people share it,” Tanner said. “We would be dead in the water if we were just doing rehashes of news and broadcasted shows.”