It’s either the best of times or the worst of times for the long-awaited relaunch of WSJ.com. With all the tectonic shifts on Wall Street — Lehman Bros. on the verge of bankruptcy, Merrill Lynch in buyout talks with Bank of America, AIG starting a massive reorg, just to name a few — if all goes as planned, WSJ.com readers will see a completely new site Tuesday `morning. Ditto for The Wall Street Journal Digital Network as Dow Jones (NYSE: NWS) implements a massive online makeover in the works even before News Corp took over.
The familiar blue and white no longer dominates, making way for a glossier look with charcoal backgrounds and beige accents, presaged by the microsite for the new WSJ. magazine. Even the masthead is charcoal. Even though this redesign moves the site further away from the newspaper, the overall look has the kind of elegance of the print Journal at its best. From a usability standpoint, the most dramatic changes are the elimination of the left-hand navigation and the shift from mirroring newspaper sections to an online-centric organization.
Gordon McLeod, president of The Wall Street Journal Digital Network, walked me through the changes as finishing touches were being made. Details after the jump.
(I did not have access to the actual site.) McLeod stressed: “There is no change of business model, no change of strategy.” Instead, it’s a technological and cosmetic overhaul after six years on the same platform, reflecting in no small part the move from a WSJ.com site primarily aimed at paid subscribers to the WSJ Digital Network designed for non-subs as well.
News Corp’s influence: The redesign has been underway for at least 18 months so was already in the works when News Corp bid for DJ and acquired it. “As recently as a few years ago all it had to do was please one million people.” McLeod credits News Corp for revving up the process: “New ownership has encouraged us to be very aggressive.” That aggression includes investment. In roughly the same time frame, McLeod pointed out, DJ has launched a new mobile reader, a wine club, the luxury WSJ. magazine and this site “all in what is essentially a crappy economy so that support has been great. If anything, it’s changed our tine a little bit. We’ve been more aggressive, we’ve gotten this out quicker and we’ve probably been able to able to develop even more tools.”
The look: McLeod offered part of the sales pitch, describing the front page as “a “clean, well lit environment.” On the old site, figuring out what content was accessible to non-subscribers was a guessing game. The new version will identify content as free or subscription as a user scrolls over. It’s also meant to show subscribers “the value of their subscription.” The network currently averages 17 million uniques, compared with 8 million two years ago, according to McLeod. WSJ.com has about 1 million subscribers. “In our minds, we can aggressively grow both subscriptions and the broader audience with this site. The new site is designed to do that even more effectively.” Every section has a newsreel that goes across the top, showing a clickable, visual snapshot of that moment in time.
The network: The site officially becomes the flagship of the WSJ Digital Network, with content from Barron’s, MarketWatch and AllThingsD highlighted across the top of the front page along with WSJ headlines. The latest headlines from all will run on every part of the network. The individual sites will retain their own looks.
Advertising: Generally fewer but larger and “more impactful” ads, says McLeod. All ads will have roll-up technology, can all run video, can all stream and they can be moved around. Pop-ups and pop-unders are banned. One major change: “Every ad unit is described to roll up and roll down. so we will no longer cover content again with any ad unit.” They’ve gotten rid of most of the smaller units. They’ve also gone to a sponsorship model where advertisers can “own” technology or a section. The network’s audience balance has remained the same even as it’s grown, providing what McLeod pitches as quality and quantity. CPMs? “We’re not talking publicly about what we charge. I will say that we have not increased prices for the launch.”
Video: In addition to the emphasis on ad video, the new design includes a new player for the 150 or so video pieces produced across the network every week. The player will be sued across the network. Like the current player, it relies on Brightcove for the backend but McLeod describes it as a “much-improved experience.” (It’s still on the old platform, but you can try out the video player via the magazine site. Do that trick with a digital publication.) It’s an all tab format, switching between the article and the video without leaving the page. In fact, clicking on a related story or anything else will keep users on the page. McLeod: “The whole idea is engagement.” Community site:
Tale of two worlds: McLeod calls the new WSJ.com “one site with two experiences: One for the world, one for subscribers.” The version for the “world” is meant to sell subscriptions while providing enough content to make visits worthwhile for non-subscribers. “The strategy really is to maximize subscriptions and overall audience. We clearly have an ad sales display strategy, where we want to grow our inventory and reach that core upscale audience we’ve always had.”
The Journal Community: The social component had its genesis in last year’s launch of MarketWatch Community, an in-house platform built out by the MarketWatch team. This is built on the same platform but adapted for the Journal with two major differences from that and most other sites: subscriber only and real names required. “It’s not going to be the biggest network in the world, but we think the quality and the discourse, the discussion groups, they’ll just be a different kind. I can’t honestly tell you which direction this is going to take.” But comments on news articles will be visible to non-subscribers. They’re talking to Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace about portable profiles.
New platform: McLeod describes the new platform as “really home grown” with almost exclusively CSS and HTML production, and extensive use of Flash. A new commerce platform is slated for March.