D2C Summit: How The Wall Street Journal uses events to acquire, engage and retain subscribers

On day two of the FIPP D2C Summit, Kim Last, Editor of Live Journalism and Special Content, The Wall Street Journal, USA, spoke about how the WSJ has changed its approach to events since the pandemic hit and what silver linings have emerged. 

Speaking with James Hewes, President and CEO, FIPP, Last’s talk came just as the WSJ emerged as a frontrunner in our recent Digital Subscription Snapshot Report, launched yesterday, with some 2.5 million digital subscribers. 

WSJ events during the pandemic

Last first outlined her role at the WSJ. “I oversee the group of journalists in the newsroom who build out the wide array of events,” she explained. Last’s team creates content and features alongside the events, with the aim of reaching audiences even if they didn’t attend. 

Most of these events, of course, used to be in person – then they shifted online, and now they’re moving towards a hybrid format. The majority are domestically focused in the US, but many have a huge global audience since moving online.

Events include the Future of Everything Festival, which used to be by far the WSJ’s largest in-person event, hosting 4,000 people over three days. It also included a monthly roadshow, covering a wide array of topics including climate change and the future of transport. 

During the pandemic, “This transitioned to a three-day virtual series which reached 15,000 unique subscribers to the WSJ,” said Last, with 30,000 visits in total. “To date, it has become the largest event we’ve hosted.”

Other events which have gone online include the CEO Council, hosting premier leaders across the spectrum of business, management, politics and the economy, and Women in the Workplace, which encompasses issues and successes for women. 

Another pandemic success which struck a particular chord for many people was the WSJ Job Summit. “This was designed as a public service for job seekers at a time of Covid uncertainty,” explained Last. As a newly launched franchise amidst the pandemic, it was a bit of a risk – but it was a huge success, with 5,000 attendees. 

It’s been wonderful to see how this crazy experiment of the past year has democratised our access.

Kim Last

“There was a lot of uncertainty, but through our reporting and coverage we found that this was a particular event that could really help people if we designed it as a toolkit,” added Last. “It could heighten our service journalism and it became a unique opportunity for the WSJ to help people during this tough time. It proved the concept: if you find the right service-related content and think practically and tactically, it can be a big audience hit.” 

Looking ahead, the hybrid format seems likely to last. The WSJ is planning a two-day physical event in October with bi-coastal audience, to include a big virtual audience as well. 

Transition to online events

The WSJ already had an impressive cohort of people who joined their events, but that’s now grown even bigger. In addition to overseeing the editors, Last’s role also involves working with producers to make events happen. 

“It was almost like building out a war room when Covid-19 first hit,” she said. “Like everyone else, we encountered technical failures; it took us a while to figure out the right technology. We tried to preserve the best of what we did in person and transition it in a seamless way into an online format.”

There have been some unexpected silver linings. “It’s been very interesting to see the global reach, since the WSJ is primarily a domestic US-based news organisation,” said Last. “We’ve seen pickup of our stories in Asia and Europe, and it’s been wonderful to see how this crazy experiment of the past year has democratised our access. This is truly the bright spot for me.”

A chance for experimentation 

The WSJ has experimented by facilitating pre-recorded Q&As from audiences to see how that changes audience interaction. Last agreed with Hewes that the flavour and level of debate around online events is very different compared to in-person events. 

“C-suite members and business people are the ones asking for us to facilitate the hybrid/in person events because networking online is harder,” explained Last. “But this is less of a problem for broad-base, popular global online events, which attract a different kind of audience.”

Last also highlighted the way that her team has played around with designing an agenda and an on-demand hub which map onto different markets and time zones. “This is what I call ‘choose your own adventure’,” she said, “where sessions are happening across a whole 24-hour day. One thing we learned early on is that not everyone is going to sit there glued to their chair watching, and that’s okay. We just want to give people opportunities to watch when it suits them. 

“In the early days of the pandemic, everything stopped. People were looking for things to do from home. Initially we did a ‘lift and shift’ of in-person agendas to online, which produced deep engagement. I wouldn’t recommend doing a big evening thing now, when some parts of the world are reopening – but back in the thick of the pandemic, that worked quite well for the WSJ. I recommend following the temperature of what’s going on around you and always thinking – who are you building content for?”

How events contribute to the broader WSJ news and content agenda 

One particular way that the WSJ stands out when it comes to events is by using them specifically as a chance to generate headlines and content. By way of example, a recent headline reads that Pershing Square holds nearly 6 per cent of Domino’s Pizza – a statistic directly lifted from a WSJ event with Bill Ackman live on stage.

We’re specifically picking news-makers – people who say something and it reverberates around the world.

Kim Last

Such news items which come from events provide a litmus test in real-time as the WSJ tracks the live conversations they produce. “If you marry news-oriented conversations with practical, tactical content that our audience is craving, there’s a happy medium where the two can coexist together,” explained Last. “This translates to higher engagement and more readers tuning in.”

This “news-maker centric approach” means that Last’s team seeks the most intriguing, most provocative guest and then tries to find angles which will generate unique conversations. “When we host an interview with one of these people, there is a lot of preparation that goes into it beforehand,” Last explained. “How can we get them to talk about something, or give a new angle that will generate a headline from the event?

That’s why we’re specifically picking news-makers – people who say something and it reverberates around the world.”

Asked about the role of data, Last added that online events have given the WSJ a much bigger pool of data to work with. “Weaving the data in, this undoubtedly contributes to reader engagement,” said Last. “But there’s still a big role for instinct and gut feeling – 100 per cent! We are data-driven, but we also have instincts. We try something, we do things differently, and we learn from it. Often we’re thinking: what’s the headline we’re going for?”

The future of WSJ events

Going forward, Last sees a huge ongoing place for online audiences. “Events in the past could be closed-door events. But really what we want now is to take the big highlights from our events and stream them via our social channels and other platforms,” she explained. “We want to provide the added benefit to audiences who want to learn from events but cannot be there. There are big distribution opportunities here. We’re using a complex series of data points which then connect across all the platforms, and thinking about how we can maximise reach.”

Undoubtedly, the pandemic has changed the way that events are experienced. “ I think there will be a rise of two different camps as we head into the fall,” said Last. “There is pent-up demand across the board, at least in the US, so people are willing to travel but I think many people would rather not travel and do an online event instead. The ease of logging on to Zoom vs effort of physical events is obvious.”

What is more, with diversity now more on the media agenda, this is also something that can be more easily achieved through online events, with people from all over the world more easily able to speak and attend.

How events drive subscriptions – and vice versa

Last ended by explaining that events can certainly be a tool for retaining subscribers. In the past, an event such as the Future of Everything Festival was an in-person event which drove new audiences to tune in to the WSJ. But online, that flipped. “It became a subscriber-benefit event, prominently displayed as such by our marketing team,” said Last.

“Return attendance was linked to this. As I said before, we had 15,000 unique watchers for the festival but 30,000 total views, so subscribers evidently came back for more.”

Despite the many hardships and losses, Last finished by cautiously stating that the pandemic has ultimately had a net positive effect on audience engagement at the WSJ. “Full of hard work and steep learning curves!” she said.

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