How the Wall Street Journal brought media buying in-house with The&Partnership's aid

The Wall Street Journal's new Don't Wait activity

The latest instalment of the Wall Street Journal's long-running 'Don't Wait' campaign is the first ad fully distributed by the newsbrand's purpose-built, in-house media buying team. It was agency partner The&Partnership that helped it set up the team, designed to be driven by the audience insight of the subscriptions team and the knowledge of its acclaimed newsroom.

WSJ's executive vice-president and chief marketing and membership officer Suzi Watford tells The Drum that the team has grown to 10 people over the last 18 months.

By going in-house, she says she is saving time, driving cost savings and reaping the effectiveness benefits of delivering newsworthy creative to market faster than ever before.

How to in-house media

Watford started bringing media buying in-house as early as February 2017. The&Partnership was on-hand to guide the process. On the surface it looks like the agency was weaning the client off of its agency dependency. But that's not how Watford sees it.

“We took a few things in-house. We always had some of these capabilities, we often do work for external brands. We first took in social media because it needs that vital link to the newsroom. Then we went for the full media buy. We hired media agency talent and connected them into the business.

“We had a lot of help from our agency partners, were very transparent that we wanted to do it – you have to be. We had a handoff between teams. It was a relatively stress-free process.”

The WSJ will still go through the The&Partnership and its media partner M/Six for guidance and advice on its biggest campaigns however.

“They are a real integrated agency with the same goals to grow the WSJ as we do. Ultimately it is a proper partnership. They’ve been on a journey with us.”

On top of its expertise and insight, this external set of eyes provides something invaluable – perspective.

“The reason we value having the guys at Soho is context – being able to bring a different point of view. In media, the turnaround is so fast. You get so many campaigns out of the door, so there has to be someone who can give you a customer view that is outside of yourself. It is incredibly valuable.”

The latest ad is hinged on the agency’s insights. “They identified that we have to challenge ourselves to change perceptions around the WSJ. That can't be done if you are only thinking about yourself every day.”

To this end, digital buying has been positioned around “moments of ambition”.

As a newsbrand, its marketing must be just as timely as the content it is promoting. Watford’s buying team plug into moments like “university graduation time or when prominent people get a new job or when a company secures a good financial result".

"It can be very dynamic and relate to audience and newscycle," she says.

This agility, in particular, has driven further performance benefits. In the Trumpian news cycle, the creative and content can’t afford to be caught up cycling back and forth across offices.

“As a media brand, we are able – especially around Trump messaging – to change our media buy to reflect the news cycle and what's going on. We can be up to date and respond really quickly.”

Paul Plumeri, vice-president of global brand marketing at the WSJ, offers some insight into buying strategy. “In digital, we have a strong foundation of looking at who is engaging with certain things and nurturing that relationship all the way down the funnel. But when we have to target our above-the-line spend we look at regions where we see best conversion rates, and that comes down to places like New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Chicago."

Internationally, the publisher is going digital-only with its spend, serving selected segments with offers and then matching them with content. Again, this requires multiple teams working together in tandem – and quickly.

“Social, display and media buying teams, they all work hand-in-hand with our data and marketing teams," says Plumeri. "The person in charge of above-the-line and attribution sits next to me. We talk constantly. It is a collaborative enterprise. It has to be. We couldn’t get it if some work went outside.”

In October, the firm started laying out inspirational chalk lines in six cities across the US. They urged viewers to 'Start #DontWait'. It targeted places brimming with ambitious people and high footfall – Advertising Week New York, for example.

Furthermore, out-of-home buys were used to help spread the message. Digital out-of-home ad placements utilised animations that illustrate top-performing WSJ articles. It is the first time the title has run its content live through DOOH. Plumeri admits that there has been a wait for outdoor advertising technology to catch up with the team’s aspirations, saying it presents a great new opportunity for publishers.

“The digital boards make it much easier," he says. "We can update these stories really easily. We have a lot of stories around leadership, career advancement and management and other pieces of timely analysis that can very quickly be put up on boards within our campaign wrapper to ensure consistency in messaging.

“We were waiting for the marketplace to catch up in terms of where we can buy digital out-of-home. Currently there is a day or two turnarounds on deployment.”

Returning to Watford, she points to the machine learning paywall as an example of how its marketing and subscriptions will get smarter and more nuanced. While these propensity models improve how the group uses its data, the title will look to understand ever more about its customers. As a subscriber title, it has a lot of freedom to ask questions of readers in order to deliver to their interests.

Watford says: “We can find out more by asking them explicitly what industry, position and seniority they are. When we understand that, we can get very clever about the content we are serving them. We can then also find lookalike prospects that we can bring in [as new subscribers]. The machine learning, and us understanding customers better, is what we’re looking to do.”

The 'smart funnel'

The latest ad built upon the performance of ‘The Runner’ creative (below), launched earlier in 2018. This aspirational film spoke to a new audience and sparked the start of the new 'Don’t Wait' spot.

Watford says: "The interest in quality news and paying for it has dramatically increased in the last couple of years, so we see an opportunity to speak to an audience who are crying out for quality news that helps them in their careers and to be more successful.”

Of the 'The Runner' she says: “It tested really well and we saw an increase in consideration for the WSJ. Our research says the thing that connected was the inspiration to act on their ambitions. We can then change the campaign from being inspirational to actually activating someone to do something.”

Watford highlights that the reader base is bigger now than it has ever been. The most recent subscription figures, from April 2018, sat at more than 3 million. This supposedly legacy media title has also attracted hundreds of thousands of students into paid memberships this year. With spots like 'The Runner', it has skewed younger and more female to the tune of almost 200,000 student subscribers.

This creative drives curious on-lookers towards the title's "smart funnel" – a process built around a machine-learning hybrid paywall that adapts to reader behaviour and decides how many free (sample) articles they can access. It balances sampling content with "people that we know need it" while not devaluing it by letting affluent people repeatedly binge it (this reportedly "kills the response rate" of subscription CTAs). Perhaps counter-intuitively, the more times a reader visits the WSJ, the less access they are afforded to samples. It is at this point that can make the leap to subscribe.

Now with this intelligence team in place, reader retention is the new focus of the WSJ’s media buy. Once it had in place a working propensity model for subscription likelihood (simply cold, warm and hot), it then developed a similar process for keeping paying customers.

The team grew an understanding of customer consumption habits, chiefly across frequency, recency, depth, favoured devices and preferred content types.

It will now be applying these insights in targeting its media buys to potential and existing readers accordingly.

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