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Mar 02, 2007
Case Study

How to Generate 10X More Subscriptions From Your Email List

SUMMARY: With the cost of paid search keywords skyrocketing (up 24.5% last year for content sites according to MarketingSherpa data) and their performance falling, many online subscription sites are looking at other channels to fill the void.

Discover how one marketer leveraged their site’s high search traffic to rebuild an “old and tired” email list. The rejuvenated directive helped push the percentage of new subscribers by email marketing from 1% to 10% in a year.
If you staked the majority of your subscription marketing budget on a certain technique, what happens when it’s getting more expensive and less effective? That was the dilemma last year for Questia, a subscription-based term paper research site featuring a searchable database of more than 67,000 books and millions of articles.

Paid search accounted for as much as 70% of the company’s marketing budget in recent years, but rising costs and changes to Google’s algorithm meant the technique wasn’t the slam dunk it used to be, says Questia CEO Troy Williams.

Williams knew he and his team had to beef up their other marketing channels, preferably one that could deal with Questia’s long sales cycle for new subscriptions. “We need to educate the marketplace on who we are. For people who show up on the site, we’re asking a lot for you to buy from us if you’ve never heard of us before.”

Williams and his marketing team used email marketing years ago, but they hadn’t paid much attention to it since the advent of pop-up ad blockers limited their previous address-collection technique. As a result, their email list was “old and tired.” Yet, they knew the site’s millions of monthly visitors made for rich waters to fish for opt-in email addresses. Here’s what they did:

-> Step #1. Web intercept layer to capture email address

Working off the same concept as a pop-up ad. they turned to an intercept layer on their Web pages. It was a technique they first used to help direct visitors to Questia’s home page if a click from a search engine brought them to a deeply buried page on the site.

In January 2006, the team tweaked the intercept layer so it opened on the screen when a new visitor arrived and invited them to receive their email newsletter. The intercept screen included:

o A box to submit an email address
o A description of the free newsletter
o The promise of free access to one book per newsletter
o A general pitch for Questia’s huge database and term paper research tools

The team placed the intercept on the home page, as well as inside pages, to continue capturing visitors clicking in from search results or from the home page to another section of the site. But the system was designed to present the intercept layer only twice in one site session, so as not to be annoying.

-> Step #2. Welcome emails to new opt-ins

Users who offered their email addresses received a welcome email, one of three preliminary emails sent before the newsletter content kicked in. This welcome message was intended to engage new users with the site right away -- rather than make them wait for the regular email newsletter blast -- and to immediately educate them about the site’s features.

The welcome emails also helped Williams’ team manage the email list. Those who opened the messages were considered active addresses. If a new subscriber didn’t open the welcome emails, they were not sent the email newsletter. “We’re aggressive about cleaning up our list. If people are not opening an email from us, they’re probably treating it like spam.”

-> Step #3. Regular email newsletters to active list

People who opened the welcome emails began receiving a semi-monthly email newsletter and could sign up for a daily quiz. The content was designed not to hard-sell Questia subscriptions but to continue driving people to explore the site and learn about its features. They also added more content to get users involved. Typical newsletters included:

- Research or study tips
- Trivia
- Spotlights on Questia’s features
- Q&A about using the site

-> Step #4. Emails with special promotions to new subscribers

A few times each school semester, Questia sent its newsletter recipients marketing emails encouraging them to buy a subscription.

Emails featured a thematic hook, such as “The Research Crunch,” which pointed out the fact that Questia subscribers save an average of more than four hours on every research project.

Promotions also offered incentives to subscribe, such a $20 gift certificate for members who chose an annual subscription ($99.95) instead of monthly or quarterly options.


After feeling like he was swimming upstream with paid search, Williams is now excited again about email’s potential. Thanks to the intercept layer and tiered-message campaign, email accounted for 10% of new subscriptions in 2006 compared to just 1% the previous year. “It works and it’s cost effective.”

The scope of the campaign is key here. The intercept layer gets 6% to 8% of visitors to give their email addresses. The conversion rate from actual newsletter subscriptions is only 0.1%, but that doesn’t account for subscribers who join on the site itself after becoming familiar with Questia through the emails.

Ongoing changes to the newsletter have improved engagement with the Web site. The newsletter’s average open rate is 13.3%, with a clickthrough rate of 2.5%. But thanks to list clean-up efforts and the addition of polls and other interactive features, recent emails have seen open rates as high as 20.7% and clickthrough rates of 4.2%. The daily quiz is a big driver, accounting for 30% of all clickthroughs.

Promotional emails also get higher open rates and clickthroughs. The research crunch email had a 12.9% open rate with a 1.4% clickthrough rate. Then, a re-mail campaign to those who had opened and clicked received a 52.5% open rate and 4.3% clickthrough rate. The final conversion rate: 0.14%

Williams sees last year as the first step in the evolution of their email marketing model. Building on his team’s experience with paid search -- such as developing nearly 7,000 unique landing pages for key search terms -- the next step is to segment their email list and deliver different, unique messages.

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from Questia’s email campaign and intercept layer:

Epsilon - Questia’s email service provider:


See Also:

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