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Wall Street Journal data makes the case for a robust onboarding experience

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Following an in-depth research of churn, The Wall Street Journal overhauled its onboarding programme for new subscribers. It focused on helping readers form new habits.

Anne Powell, director of engagement at the Journal, presented the new programme that had been tested during the COVID-19 pandemic at the ongoing INMA Master Class on Digital Subscriber Retention.

The programme was inspired by the findings of the Journal’s Habit Project, a 2019 study that compared survival rates of subscribers based on their actions, such as downloading an app or subscribing to a newsletter.

Internally, Powell and her colleagues called all those actions “habits,” as they are intended to help increase the number of active days readers spend on a site or in an app within a month.

This metric is strongly correlated with retention — the more active days the reader visits, the less likely she is to churn. 

The Habit Project’s insights added to a growing evidence that the first months are key to help readers form a habit and prevent churn.

  • The Journal’s study revealed habits are formed early: A likelihood to take an action or adopt a new feature was highest in the first 100 days of the subscription (see chart).
  • This finding is broadly supported by a seminal 2009 study published by the University College London, in which 96 volunteers repeated a number of behaviours daily until they performed them automatically. The researchers found it took between 18 and 254 days to form a new habit. The median time required was 66 days.
  • A 2020 study of 285 news sites by the publishing platform Piano at the INMA Media Subscription Summit showed the churn rate for monthly subscriptions was the highest in the first three months and then stabilised, further proving that the opportunity to reduce churn was highest at the early stage of the relationship. 

The new onboarding programme at The Wall Street Journal focused on encouraging readers to adopt new features, or habits from day 0, for the first 100 days.

  • The Journal built an on-site onboarding experience that, based on my June review, remains the longest and the most comprehensive among the top 50 leading news subscription sites. The new subscriber is invited to swipe more than a dozen cards presenting benefits, helping to set up features, or asking to customise the experience. Despite the length, per Powell, 60% of readers complete the whole flow. And up to 80% take at least one recommended action.
  • The Journal has also extended its welcome e-mail series to 93 days, that is also one of the longest series observed in the news industry. In a poll of the Retention Master Class participants, 90% publishers had a series shorter than 90 days and 63% had a series shorter than 30 days.
  • The on-site and e-mail experiences are supported with paid targeted campaigns on Facebook and other channels.
  • Together with the optimisation team, Powell’s team runs three to four experiments every month, tweaking the onboarding experience. The engagement team of five also collaborates with the product and editorial teams to develop new features and content aimed at forming habits. 

Rethink your onboarding approach with insights from The Wall Street Journal and other retention masters:  Buy a ticket to the INMA Master Class on Digital Subscriber Retention, watch recordings, download presentations and additional reading materials. 

Banner image courtesy of The Lazy Artist Gallery from Pexels.

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