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Special report: how your website can pay faster and power your print circulation.

My business is running faster these days. From my browser, I can authorize my company's payroll on Wednesday and hand out checks Friday morning. I can order yet another computer and receive shipment within 48 hours. I can nearly forget my wedding anniversary at 9 a.m., purchase roses online at 10 a.m., and the bouquet is delivered, heroically, that very afternoon.

But when I subscribe to a newsletter, four to six weeks pass before I receive my first copy. Could it be that newsletter publishers have become snail-mail slowpokes in an electronic age?

If your newsletter has a large circulation and you outsource fulfillment, you know exactly what I am talking about. You know subscribers gripe about the wait. Plus, you chafe a little because you can't ding the subscriber's credit card until the sub's first issue goes out. Four to six weeks is a long wait for your money.

A publisher I know has implemented an effective strategy that gets around this timing problem. This publisher operates 56 consumer titles, many of them on the web. The. CFO recently assured me that online orders are now their largest single source of new subscriptions, accounting for 25 percent of all new subs. Yup, one quarter of all their new subs originate on their websites. That's more than their traditional mail campaigns produce by good measure.

Their trick? This client publishes every issue on their website (paid, of course) not so much as a new revenue vehicle, but as a means to increase their print circulation. They do it by "binding" their web subscription to their print subscription, meaning that if a subscriber buys the web subscription, the sub also gets the print subscription at minimal or no extra cost. Slick. Actually, this tactic solves a number of problems:

* Immediate gratification

With the right systems, you can fulfill the web subscription immediately. Although the sub may not receive his or her snail-mailed print edition for a month, they do receive a username and password via e-mail within minutes and can access a complete issue on your site right away. You can process the credit card transaction right away, too.

* Lowered cost of free trials

Doing free trials? You ought to be. Using an online version of your newsletter can help you substantially lower the cost of subscriber acquisition through free trials. How? The online subscription has a lower fulfillment cost because you do not increase your list size with your fulfillment service. The free trial is processed automatically online. The actual order for the print subscription is not sent to fulfillment until the end of the free trial period.

* More direct e-mail marketing

With your complete issues online, you can take full advantage of direct e-mail marketing. You can test offers and marketing ideas, measure responses, and get sales reports whenever you like. You can also implement the electronic equivalent of a "forced free trial" by opening subscription accounts for lists of prospects and sending issues by e-mail for free as a method of enticing them to subscribe.

* Let 'em browse before they buy Take a lesson from the newsstand operators. Get 'em to look, then buy. Do this by enabling non-subscribers to browse and search all your web issues online. Does this mean the public is free to read your complete issues? Nope, this ain't no library. Create an index for every issue that contains links to single-paragraph abstracts, or "snippets," of all issue articles, including limited amounts of photography--in front of the subscription firewall. These snippets are easily picked up by search engines like Yahoo, Google, and Lycos. They'll perform a Pied Piper routine for you and a surprising number of new readers will follow on to your site.

But will people pay for an online issue?

Some will. The number and rate depends on your editorial franchise and the strength of your market position. One of my clients, a regional business publication, recently conducted a reader survey and learned that 15 percent of their readers actually prefer to read online. That number is up from last year. The new rule? If you do not offer the web option, you will lose a growing percentage of your readers every year to a quality competitor who meets this online need. (Why do some subs prefer online? Many are becoming addicted to keyword search and related-content navigation. I know I am.)

In my experience, 15 to 20 percent of your print circulation will likely pay for an online version of your title, although the penetration will certainly vary depending on your franchise. For instance, a techology- related publication might perform better than a title on home improvement simply because the technology reader is likely to be more comfortable with electronic media. This relates completely to the adoption of computers and the use of the internet among your readers.

Do subscription riches await you on the web?

I can give no guarantees of success to any newsletter, even the biggest, most successful print titles. But there are key measures I look for when trying to predict success:

1. On the web, content is king. Is yours exclusive? If your market views you as unique and none of your competitors has your game, congrats! You're in business and can charge a healthy subscription price for your online product. Are you at the other end of the spectum? Well how to put this? no publisher I've known has ever, ever made any money by selling commodity content on the web. Fewer still have profited from repackaging syndicated stuff.

2. Is your content evergreen? Do your stories retain value over a long period of time? If so, atta-boy, atta-girl. The value of your title grows with every issue because your archive keeps getting biggger without leaking air. Your grandkids will thank you.

3. Do you have both of these? You're solid gold. Friends, this is how Martha Stewart got so rich so fast.

Five good ways to lose

Some people do better by avoiding failure rather than seeking success. If you are a failure-avoider, here are five of the best ways to lose money by publishing titles on the web. Avoid these critical mistakes and you could go far.

Mistake #1: Publish your complete issue on your website for free and continue to charge full subscription price for your print version. The classic blunder. Publishers who do this are shooting themselves in both feet. It is somewhat understandable if you look at the primary reasons many publishers take this route.

1.) Most writers and editors want everybody on the planet to be able to read their stuff.

2.) All publishers want as much traffic as possible on their website.

3.) Novice publishers have convinced themselves that unqualified "free" readers appeal to advertisers.

4.) Dedicated systems are needed to securely process and fulfill web subscriptions, and homemade versions take forever to get right, so many publishers choose not to do it at all.

These are all good excuses, perhaps, but this is still a world-class web publishing mistake.

Mistake #2: Produce extra content for your site and give it away.

This is a beauty. Think about it. "Gee, we're losing some money on the web, so let's hire more writers and editors and put even more free content on the site so we can lose really big money." Hard to believe, but people still do it. If you feel your website is thin, then your print is probably thin, too. Strengthen both or neither.

Mistake #3: Put off the inevitable decision.

This is an unwitting mistake made by otherwise competent publishers. They say, "Let's see how the web goes before we decide what to do with it." Friends, you are either on the boat or you are not on the boat. Either put your entire issue on your website with all the bells and whistles and make subscribers pay to get it, or reveal no issue content and use the site as a marketing tool to promote your titles and to give people your toll-free phone number. The in- betweeners are among those who are losing on the web.

Mistake #4: Staff up for the web.

This misguided tactic holds great allure to those publishers with deep pockets. But keeping an army of programmers on staff to build applications that are already available commercially is a display of pure "dot-bomb" mentality. If you want to survive in this business, get a system that enables your existing editorial and production team to run your site. Remember that on the web, systems can outproduce people any day of the week.

Mistake #5: Start big.

Again, this is a mistake often made by the well-heeled. Better to start with the editorial product you already spend good money to produce: your regular issues. Put these issues on the web and establish a paid web circulation. Then, gradually and strategically improve content quality and volume (both print and web) and gradually raise the subscription price.

Don't spend any more than you receive from web subscriptions, per-per-view, web advertising, and other revenue sources to develop the business. In time, your online circulation will begin to diverge from your print circulation.

Keep in mind the pattern I've seen repeatedly so far: 15 percent of your print circulation will opt out of print each year in favor of your online version if you offer it to them at a reasonable price. Follow this path and over time your web and print versions can become two discreet, profitable products originating from a single editorial franchise and a single editorial team.

Where you want to be.

My previous sentence bears repeating, because it will help you envision a goal line for your publication. Your web and print versions can become two discreet, profitable products originating from a single editorial franchise and a single editorial team.

That's where you want to be. Right there. When you arrive, celebrate in moderation, hand off the day-to-day stuff to a competent subordinate, and move on to the next challenge. And be glad knowing that you've succeeded where a lot of big-name publishers have fallen short.

Steve Laliberte is president of iProduction, a publishing software firm based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Steve has worked in the publishing business since 1985 and is an active member of the Newsletter & Electronic Publishers Association.

Visit his company site at www.iproduction.com E-mail Steve at saliberte@inproduction.com.
COPYRIGHT 2003 The Newsletter on Newsletters LLC
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Laliberte, Steve
Publication:The Newsletter on Newsletters
Date:May 15, 2003
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