The “Wall Street Journal” Marketing Problem

If you’ve worked in the marketing field long enough, either with consulting clients or as an in-house practitioner with executive participation, you’ve encountered a scenario just like this one.

Marketer: “Based on this market research, we know our primary audience: tabletop board game enthusiasts with kids. So, we’ve designed a content marketing campaign, followed by PR and social media outreach, to make sure our new game reaches the right people, with the right message, in the places they pay attention.”

CEO/CMO/VP Marketing: “The right people, the right message, in the right places… Smart! But, look… can you get us a piece in the Wall Street Journal?”

Marketer: “Uh… The Wall Street Journal? Why?”

Exec: “Well, I don’t see it on your list, but I know our customers read the Wall Street Journal. I talk to them. I golf with them. They read it.”

Marketer: “O… kay… We will add that to our list.”

Exec: “The rest of this looks fine, but I really want to see that WSJ piece. It’s important to our success, and really skyrocketed competitor X’s business”

Marketer: (who knows that competitor X was covered by the WSJ because they had success in other channels, not the other way around) “Got it. Wall Street Journal. It’ll be top of our list.”

In fairness to executives, they often inhabit worlds that other employees don’t. They have experiences and relationships typically unavailable to marketers, whether consultants or in-house. If you’re in marketing, it pays to recognize why this problem happens, and what you can do about it (if you decide to have those tough conversations).

Before we dive in, a clarification: The Wall Street Journal problem doesn’t just (or even, usually) happen with The Wall Street Journal. In various industries, niches, and rooms, I’ve heard marketers refer to executives who demanded or nudged marketing toward The New York Times, The Washington Post, TechCrunch, The New England Journal of Medicine, Oprah magazine, Beyoncé’s Instagram, and plenty of others.

Even in the marketing industry itself, this happens! Marketing execs will want their work to show up in AdAge or the NYT, claiming it’ll help with recruiting, when a blog post on Hubspot, Moz, or SearchEngineLand would almost certainly be seen by 10X as many marketers. We’re as guilty as anyone else of putting certain kinds of prestige ahead of pragmatic, data-driven decisions.

What Causes the Exec <-> Marketer Disconnect?

Executives aren’t always wrong, but neither are they always right. Bias exists. To solve it, you’ve gotta understand and empathize with it. The root of the problem, in my experience, comes from one (or more) of these:

  • Correlation vs. causation — lots of successful companies have stories written about them in high prestige publications. Sometimes, this can make it seem like stories about a firm predict success, rather than following it.
  • Market signalling — if the goal is to tell other high-status executives in an industry (competitors, or potential acquirers) that your company is successful (or lauded, or unique, or whatever signalling you’re trying to achieve), a high-prestige piece may indeed help. This can be especially true if the executive’s plan for sharing that information is through their own 1:1 communications. I’ve received plenty of emails, especially from sales executives, that link to or highlight a high-prestige publication’s coverage. Others like it simply to be able to put the logo on the homepage or sales materials.
  • Investor relations — when fundraising, executives sometimes use high-status publication coverage as introductory material, to get on an investor’s radar, or to help create pressure or leverage in a deal. My experience has been that this doesn’t work well (at least in venture deals), but that doesn’t change the perception that it works.
  • Recruiting — if a CEO is seeking other C-level executives (or VPs), high prestige coverage can be helpful. That coverage reinforces the perception that the company is on an interesting trajectory, since other companies the publication has covered in such ways have also gone on to achievements at scale.
  • Bragging Rights — many, many times, an executive wants the coverage primarily for reasons of personal pride. There’s nothing wrong with that! I desperately, desperately wanted the New York Times to write about Moz in my years as CEO, but tried to be honest that while it would be fun to get covered, it would do almost nothing for the business. I liked to joke with my team that the best reason to pitch the NYT was to make my Times-subscribing grandmother happy. The challenge is getting an exec to admit that pride is the primary (or partial) driver.

None of these are wrong or even negative. They all have value (yes, even showing it off to your grandmother). But, for a marketer, whether we’re talking about a PR pitch, content placement, an advertisement, a guest editorial, an appearance on a podcast or at an event, the issue is how to prioritize time and energy.

How Do We Solve The Wall Street Journal Problem?

Want to spend $50,000 on a Wall Street Journal ad so you can rile up competitors, signal to investors, and show your grandparents? If you’ve got the budget to spare, and don’t need high ROI from ad spend, go for it! You’ll be far from alone.

But marketers, WE need to have the honest, uncomfortable conversation with our execs that time and resources are limited, and that outcomes match inputs. Throw $50K of ad spend (or $50K of a PR team’s time) at the Wall Street Journal, and even if you’re hugely successful, you cannot hope to earn a large number of board-game-enthusiast parents’ eyeballs.

The enemy here is often demographic targeting.

Look at the Wall Street Journal’s advertising rate card (warning, big long PDF), and you can probably squint to find data supporting your hypothesis that an ad (or a story, or a guest editorial) can reach the right audience. But use nearly any third-party data source and you’ll find the behavior and profile stats of visitors and those who engage with the site’s content is very different.

SparkToro analysis of~1MM profiles that frequently engage with content on

The WSJ is a great place to reach wealthy, male, white, conservative, American readers with an interest in politics and finance. If that’s your customer target, great!

Let’s expand this outside the WSJ example. If you’re in the food world and trying to get your exciting new pandemic-friendly meal concept featured in The New York Times Cooking section. Even if you find a superb match between the audience you want to reach and the high-prestige publication an executive wants you to target, be wary.

SparkToro analysis of ~22K profiles that engage with content from NYT Cooking

It’s incredibly difficult (and/or incredibly expensive) to earn coverage (or buy advertising) from high-prestige sources. Prioritizing one publication because of an executive’s passion isn’t always wrong, but it will often bias a marketer, or an entire team, to spend far more time, energy, and dollars than the coverage (or ad) is worth.

Have that hard conversation to make it clear what’s being sacrificed.

You can spend months relationship-building and story-priming, or tens of thousands on that low-ROI ad. OR… You can redirect some portion of that to dozens of smaller sources of influence that might combine for a vastly stronger reach.

It’s true in PR, advertising, content, SEO, email, and every other channel you can name: many impressions from multiple sources > one impression from one source.

When I worked in SEO, I saw again and again how poorly the few “money keywords” performed vs. the long-tail. I see the same thing in podcasting, in content placement, in influencer marketing, in email newsletter sponsorships. If you’re running up against the one vs. many debate, competitive intelligence might help that conversation go more smoothly. Show your executives the one-hit wonders that received singular coverage (or ran that one big ad) vs. those that spread out their marketing. Explain that surveys and interviews will almost always bias to receiving a few consistent answers about “how they found you,” but clickstream data like SimilarWeb or your own Analytics can show how wrong that is.

Sorry, New York! 4X as many “amateur chefs” engage with than NYT Cooking

We miss 100% of the shots we don’t take. And if all our effort is spent trying to score against the toughest opponents (or, in this case, web media gatekeepers), we’re gonna miss an awful lot of shots.