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Should publishers get into the wine business?

Perhaps you’ve seen it before. You’re perusing the in-depth financial analysis of the Wall Street Journal and there it is: an offer to join WSJwine, the Journal‘s wine club. The ad is always slightly jarring. Why is a news publication also in the business of hawking a vintage Bordeaux?

But dig a little deeper and the Journal’s partnership with a high-end wine distributor may actually be a model for a viable revenue stream in the publishing industry. Launched in 2008 and separate from the Journal‘s editorial department, the wine partnership was designed to appeal to the tastes of the Journal’s readers, a clientele that testing showed had an affinity for fine wine. Anyone can join WSJwine, but Journal subscribers often receive special promotions.

The Journal is not unique in offering its readers special offers or discounts. The Financial Times, appealing to a similarly affluent demographic, has the Financial Times Privilege Club, which provides subscribers with additional editorial features from the newspaper, as well as exclusive offers from the FT‘s advertising partners, including BMW, Ralph Lauren and Jaeger LeCoultre. The Telegraph’s “hand-picked” site gives subscribers exclusive discounts on luxury hotels and holidays. The same publication also boasts its own wine club for readers in the UK.    

WSJwine has “resonated with existing subscribers,” Paul Bell, the Journal‘s vice-president for partner businesses, told me. “But I might also add that it does a nice job of attracting new audiences to the Journal brand. It’s really an introduction to the Journal experience”. Newspapers and magazines are no longer mere products to be read once and discarded; they’re now experiences to be enjoyed in many different contexts. Adding like-minded promotions and partnerships helps create those experiences.

That said, publishers shouldn’t look to clubs or special offers to fill their entire budget gap. “I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s going to make up lost advertising revenue by starting a club of this nature – with wine or some other product”, the Journal’s Bell cautioned. “It’s a very attractive source of incremental revenue. That is very different than trying to plug a fall off in display advertising”.

So wine clubs may not be publishing’s savior, but they can help add to the brand experience and perhaps even make up for part of the lost revenue. Just something to think about the next time you’re reading the Journal and sipping that glass of Merlot.