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The Wall Street Journal: Niche Audience vs. The Free Public World

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of news reports about Rupert Murdoch’s intentions to lift the pay wall from The Wall Street Journal online and I’ve been wondering if this is a good idea. During the course of my research about the proposed plan, I even came across two Motley Fool’s reporters who were battling out the pros and cons of the idea. Back on November 15, Rich Smith wrote:

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of news reports about Rupert Murdoch’s intentions to lift the pay wall from The Wall Street Journal online and I’ve been wondering if this is a good idea. During the course of my research about the proposed plan, I even came across two Motley Fool’s reporters who were battling out the pros and cons of the idea.

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Back on November 15, Rich Smith wrote:

“Brand: People believe that “you get what you pay for.” By removing the price tag that tells people what WSJ.com’s value is, Murdoch will devalue the brand.”

While his colleague, Anand Chokkavelu wrote:

“By freeing the site, the trusted financial news source will attract more readers. How many more? If you believe Murdoch, 15 times more. He believes his 1 million online subscribers can be enlarged to as many as 15 million readers by ditching the cash register. And with more readers come more advertising dollars, especially if they turn out to be, in Murdoch’s words, “the most affluent, the most influential people in the world.””

Certainly any numbskull with half a brain could see the potential in numbers of readers to be gained if the tariff were lifted. And there’s also a potential cross-content strategy with the recent launch of the Fox Business News Network and MarketWatch. So if I can see what a numbskull can see, then what’s my problem with Murdoch’s plan?

Well, I think I’m hanging onto something that Rich Smith wrote about the brand. With a tried and true brand, both the audience and the advertisers know what they’re getting when they do business with WSJ. But with a free-for-all — even though Murdoch has stated that it will be an influential audience still — I’m not sure what either the audience or the advertisers will get. Would WSJ.com just turn into some sort of portal á la Yahoo! or AOL? Is this the correct competitive landscape for such a product as the WSJ — to run up against the likes of the Goliaths of content on the Web? AOL’s target market was America — in its entirety, after all. That’s a wide market to cater to, and even harder to define a sweet spot for. Often being everything to everyone simply means being nothing entirely good at all.

But we could be looking at the Financial Times and The New York Times as the WSJ competition. That lot might make better sense, and ultimately set the objectives at keeping the product and brand a lot more pure.

But if traffic spikes to the extent that Murdoch predicts, then a serious content challenge will be faced. Will 15 million world readers be interested in the current content brand identity of the WSJ? Or will the content become totally diluted in order to reach this wider audience base? I’m opting for that latter on this one. And if that’s how it’s going to go down, then it’s going to change the nature of both the content and the audience overall. Courting middle America isn’t necessarily going to land you that BMW or Fidelity account. But I could be entirely wrong. Why go after less dollars spent in online advertising from luxury brands when there’s more money being spent (and a better understanding of online) from lower-end brands?

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I don’t know, I’m torn on this one. I suppose that after the WSJ print became smaller, I’ve become more and more concerned about the demise of a stellar brand.

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About the author

Lynne d Johnson is a Content + Community Consultant developing content and community strategies that help brands better tell their stories and build better relationships with people toward driving brand awareness, loyalty, and purchase intent. She has been writing about tech and media since the Web 1.0 days, most recently about how the future of consumer interactions will be driven by augmented reality and wearable tech.

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