As online journalism?s poster child for commercial success, The Wall Street Journal Online would seem to be the last candidate for a massive site renovation. After all, when 625,000 subscribers care enough to pay for your content, you must be doing more than one or two things right.
So why completely overhaul a Web site that works? And what on earth or online accounted for the $28 million price tag being bandied about?
Online Journal Publisher Neil Budde has the answers. As he prepared for the relaunch, he took some time out to answer these and other questions for OJR. It?s worth keeping in mind that this is the site?s first full rebuild since it launched as a pay site in 1996.
Unlike online media outlets that tried hard, sometimes way too hard, to avoid being anything like their print counterparts, the Online Journal patterned itself in many ways on its successful print parent down to the trademark miniature diamonds used in the layout. From the minute a print reader hit the site, it was unmistakably clear he or she was looking at the online version of The Wall Street Journal. Conversely, online users could flip to the print edition without feeling too lost.
The links in appearance are still there in the rebuild but that sense of connectivity, almost interchangeability, between the two is not.
Budde readily admits the new version is 'more of a departure from the print publication than in the past.' In fact, acknowledging the differences in the media was a core reason for sweeping changes in the way content is organized. He explains: 'In an online world, people navigate differently than with newspapers. They need labels.'
For instance, regular readers of the Journal know what to expect when an online section is labeled 'Marketplace' a la the second section of the U.S. print edition but the term is meaningless to the bulk of those who subscribe solely to on the online version. Only one-third of the site?s subscribers get the print and online editions. Add to that the subscribers who are used to the Asia or Europe print editions, which are constructed differently from their U.S. counterpart, and organizing the site becomes even more complex.
'Certain views of content online change over time, and they?ll change with different organizations,' Budde added. Some of those already protesting the redesign are blaming consultants, but many of the changes stemmed from comments sent in by users.
Another goal of the redesign is increasing the amount of time users spend on the site as well as the number of visits. More than half of the Online Journal?s subscribers have set up personalization features, but regular usage isn't nearly as high. Budde hopes to change that by moving personalization to the forefront. Literally. Personalization isn't new for the Online Journal. Customized portfolios, topic trackers and some other touches have been scattered across the site as the Personal Journal but not in the same coherent, front-page access way as My Yahoo or other sites with heavy personalization. The new design not only puts access to the personalized features all in one place, it anchors it to the front page.
Being personalized can help a site forge a deeper relationship with the subscriber, says Budde. 'It drives traffic, supports higher renewal rates.' They also want to expose people to more of the site. The Online Journal already has an 80-percent renewal rate and a 90-percent conversion rate from the 14-day trial, which requires complete registration.
Budde?s not sure personalization is for everyone. 'Business consumers? needs are more focused and are often better suited to things like personalization,' he contends. 'For other more general purpose news sites, it?s a lot harder to narrow your focus than in a business setting. From that perspective, I'm not sure that everyone needs to rush out and offer personalization. It may be overkill.'
Some of the changes are influenced by external circumstances. Constant updates to browsers made it difficult for an increasing number of subscribers to take advantage of frames that allowed users of a news tracking feature to look at headlines on the left and stories on the right. Pieces of the Personal Journal actually stopped working with the latest versions of Internet Explorer and Netscape.
As is the case in any major renovation, changes and trade-offs are in order. Some, like ditching the triangles that highlighted front-page stories, are cosmetic, the equivalent of recovering the couch you outgrew to go with the new carpet. Others are more substantive, like dropping for now the ability to browse past editions in complete packages or limiting the amount of options for personalization.
Now for the $28 million, a very real number that first became public during a presentation at a financial analyst?s meeting.
'What we are trying to say by putting that number out there is this is important, it is continuing to grow, it is worth spending on,' explains Budde. 'We?re also saying we have a business model with a subscription site that works and is continuing to grow.'
While other sites are retrenching as they look for ways to survive today?s faltering net economy, Budde and his bosses at the Journal are, in a way, following a time-honored Wall Street adage: buy when the market is down.
'If anything we think now is a good time to capture more people because there are fewer options out there. We think we can grow the business even more because people are looking at something more stable.'
Budde knows people look at the price tag and wonder 'what are you getting for that kind of money?' He isn?t breaking the number into pieces but the money was spent in three areas: hardware, software and consulting. Sounds vague, true, but it?s not like some launches where the mix is hardware, software, consultants and a really big party.
He was willing to get a little more specific. A large chunk went to increasing server capacity and processing power to manage changes like front-page personalization. Reminded of the IBM commercial where the executives call the police when they think their servers have been stolen because one server is now doing the work of dozens, Budde replied ruefully, 'What they don?t tell you in that IBM commercial is the one server it was replaced with cost more than all the others combined.' The Journal Online?s hardware provider is Sun Microsystems, by the way.
Personalization made delivery of the front-page more complicated. Instead of producing a flat page that everyone sees, each page is now dynamically produced to meet individual needs.
The price tag could have been even bigger. 'There were actually things we took out to keep the size of the project from being even larger, a few things we chose to delay that we?ll add in the next 6 months mostly using internal staff.' Budde also managed costs by avoiding proprietary software.
The changes are the foundation for the Online Journal?s recently submitted three-year plan, Budde explained in a follow-up e-mail. 'It will allow us to achieve the goals and be prepared for future years of further advancement. But no one measure will tell us the exact payoff.'
Two days into the official redesign, the initial feedback from users runs the gamut, reports Budde, who uses his own e-mail address as the collection box. (They?re in the process of adding a message board for the site.) 'We are getting a lot of feedback across a wide range of topics. Many glowing with praise for the design, improvements. Some unhappy with the departures from the print look and organization. Others who find change disruptive. We also get those who comment on color and typeface (pro and con). Even the wider screen width, which is actually scalable, has fans and detractors.'
When it comes to using the feedback, the first step is looking for common themes and needs. Everyone who sends in a comment gets an automated response, but Budde and his staff are replying personally to some. 'In many cases I'm looking for more information from those who seem most thoughtful in their comments because they can be good at pointing toward solutions.'
There may come a time when the size of this investment will look small compared to the return. To borrow another adage: making money costs money. But, as I was reminded in another context just the other day, some Web sites go through this much and more before disintegrating into little more than URLs. Spending money can make money as long it?s spent wisely.