How WSJ and Barron’s Group Grew Their Digital Ad Business Despite the Pandemic

An increase in readership about these uncertain times has been good for their bottom line

Digital advertising grew at The Wall Street Journal and Barron's Group titles. The Wall Street Journal
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The Wall Street Journal and Barron’s Group titles grew digital advertising by 25% in Q3 year-over-year despite the challenging economic climate brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The WSJ and Barron’s Group, which includes MarketWatch, Barron’s and Mansion Global, expanded their digital advertising business by retaining projects under The Trust (the publications’ shared branded content studio), growing its targeted ad offerings surrounding first-party data and monetizing an increase in traffic.

Across the industry, the pandemic is expected to accelerate digital and print advertising declines. According to the most recent prediction from Magna Global, print ad sales are forecast to see a 25% drop compared to last year, while digital ad sales are expected to grow only 4% compared to last year.

The New York Times, while seeing an uptick in subscriptions, reported an 8% decrease in digital ad revenue in Q1 compared to last year.

“The markets have obviously been very volatile due to the global pandemic, hence there’s a dedicated audience consuming financial and market news, probably on an extremely frequent basis,” said Rebecca Lieb, co-founder and analyst at Kaleido Insights. “This would be an affluent audience, attractive to advertisers and without the sensitivities of a more B2C readership, such as CPG, during these troubled times. So, it makes a good degree of sense.”

Traffic to Barron’s Group sites surged in the weeks following the pandemic, a trend that other media organizations experienced as well, especially when stay-at-home orders were established in the U.S. in mid-March.

Unique visitors to, for example, increased from 47 million in February to 78 million in March, according to the most recent Comscore figures. This occurred as the Journal dropped its paywall to make its coronavirus coverage more accessible.

The uptick in traffic resulted in more programmatic revenue. “There obviously, are a lot of things that are challenging about this market, and I think that will continue,” said Josh Stinchcomb, global chief revenue officer of the Journal and Barron’s Group. “But from a digital ad perspective, we’re coming into our own.”

That increase in traffic also enables the media organization to collect more information on those visitors, which can be used to build custom content and sold to advertising partners. Stinchcomb has emphasized data as a priority as two watershed moments are on the horizon: the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) enforcement starting in July and Google’s phasing out of third-party cookie usage by 2022.

WSJ’s custom branded content and ability to target specific audiences with first-party data have made for a “more meaningful advertising experience,” said Patrick Kelly, svp and group director of digital investments at Havas Media.

“With current volatility, financial service brands have the opportunity and obligation to get their perspective/message in front of the right audience. Therefore, a trusted environment like WSJ gets a first look for ad dollars,” Kelly said.

Barron’s Group CPM rates have remained steady through the pandemic and in line with other publishers in the financial services space, said one media buyer on the condition of anonymity, as advertisers in this category are shaping their messaging to reflect how to best ride out the crisis.

For example, a company looking to advertise about how it can save consumers money could easily do so next to journalism about that very topic.

“[WSJ’s] content is consistently appealing to advertisers,” said Karen Brophy, svp and head of publisher solutions at Nexstar Digital. “They are not like traditional news sites who have stories about crime or other topics that make advertisers wary.”

@SaraJerde Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.