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Dec 01, 2005
Case Study

How to Sell Online Subscriptions to (Very Old) Newspaper Archives

SUMMARY: A decade ago, the hot idea in newspaper publishing was: Let's put our archives online and make lots of profits from them! Results were less exciting than hoped for. A few students, researchers and libraries bought subs, and the rest of the world ignored them. Undaunted, this year The launched a new archive site with a slightly different spin. Why not appeal to genealogy fans? After all, sites such as are raking in more than $100 million a year.
“We wanted to put our back issues online and sell them five years ago, but it wasn’t feasible. It was too expensive for a publisher our size,” describes Alistair Brown, General Manager for The

The Scotsman (Scotland’s national print newspaper) had launched a successful online counterpart -- -- that had attracted a mass of registered users and a healthy stream advertising revenues.

Knowing the growing popularity of online genealogical searches (individuals tracing their family roots), Brown envisioned even more online profits by taking thousands of articles from The Scotsman’s print back issues (going clear back to 1817) and making them accessible in a searchable digital archive.

While Brown’s initial research in the late 1990s on digitizing print archives proved that it would be too costly for the, Brown later found more affordable solutions as the technology advanced.

The success for this huge archive project would involve jumping three hurdles:

Hurdle #1. Convincing The Scotsman (a privately-held company) board of directors to make a substantial financial investment in technology and resources.

Hurdle #2. Finding sources of quality print originals and/or microfilm archives of every back issue. And these had to be scanned into a digital format optimized for search on the site. If the thousands of articles could not be searched, the online archive would be useless, unsaleable and result in a complete throwaway of the financial investment. Finding the right vendors to do this -- and testing the results -- was key.

Hurdle #3. Determining the best pricing strategy for selling historical content. While there were success stories of selling news-based content online, Brown was uncertain that these same pricing models would work for the Scotsman Archives.

Brown’s proposal to The Scotsman’s board of directors rested on estimated ROI from subscription sales. But Brown knew that appealing to the board’s sense of preserving the past was equally important in getting the OK to move forward. “We’re not only going to preserve this, we’re going to help make folks gain a connection to Scottish history from all over the world.”

With that pitch, the board did give Brown the green light; in early 2004 the team set out to build and sell the Scotsman Archive.

Step #1. Scanning and search issues

With some back issues almost 200 years old, finding ones that weren’t decayed was a challenge. Every single back issue had to be transferred to microfilm and then scanned into digital format in order to build a comprehensive archive. Brown partnered with a network of libraries and universities who worked together to gather the very best originals.

A digital scan is only as good as the quality of microfilm, so it was imperative that each page of each back issue was carefully handled and transferred to microfilm by a highly skilled service provider. While some back issues were already stored on microfilm, many of these -- particularly from the 1950s -- had seriously deteriorated. “We had to re-film the whole lot from that period of time,” describes Brown.

The OCR (optical character recognition) scanning technology used to record the text in digital format was also key. To maximize the search of keywords (and thereby the usefulness of the archives to subscribers), the scanning had to accurately capture both text and text segments (i.e., individual newspaper stories, their headlines, etc.).

“We had very ambitious quality schedules,” says Brown. Brown’s team spent several months of extensive back-and-forth benchmarking with microfilm and scanning vendors testing results for visual clarity, technical accuracy and ease of search. “For tests, we would pull out an original volume, look up a couple of items in it, search for them, and if they were found, it passed the test,” Brown explains. “If it didn’t pass, it was sent back and done all over again.”

Step #2. Researching prospective subscribers

Brown conducted readers surveys and found several indicators on who would likely subscribe to the archive:

o The archive would be used by two major groups: 70% consumers (individuals doing genealogical searches) and 30% institutions (government record offices, educators, libraries, etc.).

o More than 30% of the subscribers would be outside of Scotland – particularly those living in the US or Canada with Scottish heritage or interests. This was key data for planning effective marketing campaigns.

Step #3. Determining pricing

“We knew that in the first year, the majority of our revenues would come from those who were going to make good connections with the material and the experience of looking up history,” Brown says.

The key in selling the archive would be to make sure the subscriber enjoyed the experience “so people will drift to related stories adjacent to what they were looking for as they made connections to the past.”

So how about a free trial?

Brown examined heavily the free trial subscription offers (with auto-renew to paid) that were successfully being implemented by some daily news sites. But he realized that the Scotsman Archive was not going to publish the same “must-have” daily news feeds. “Offering a free trial on the archive would likely allow folks to save up a bunch of searches, and then they’d do a burst of them during a free trial, perhaps never returning. This would mean we couldn’t capture revenue.”

Brown also noticed that some pricing models were too restrictive for historical-content-type searches. Those models often limited the number of pages viewed or articles read in an certain frame. “They seemed a bit harsh for our customers in order to allow them to fully engage in the history.”

With this in mind, Brown implemented two pricing strategies – one for each subscriber group:

-> Consumer package

Search would be all free, all the time. This would allow users to “demo” the rich search capabilities of the content related to their interests.

No ongoing free trials, but a free sampler of content. The user needed to be able to examine the quality and readability of the scans before forking out subscription dollars. Brown’s team selected a variety of interesting articles along a timeline of history to use as a sampler. (See links at the end of this article for an example.)

Paid access would be offered in time-based subscription passes (24-hour, 48-hour, one week or annual). There would be no limit on the amount of page views or articles read.

-> Institutional package

These would mostly be big ticket site license subscriptions sold on an annual basis – with substantial profit coming from subsequent renewals. Allowing the key decision maker to use the archive on an extended trial basis would be important. Introductory pricing, such as “buy X months, get X months free” type offers would also be effective in getting key institutional buyers to adopt the archive.

Step #4. Launch marketing campaigns

After months of research and development, the Scotsman Archive launched in November 2004 with these initial campaign efforts (see link below for samples):

-> Cross-promotions in The Scotsman (print) and (online)

The offer was a reduced-rate annual pass to capture the low hanging fruit of hard-core history hounds. The promotions included:

-> Four-page print insert in The Scotsman with a sampling of the kinds of articles that were in the archive. The Scotsman also included “best of week” feature articles highlighting an interesting article from the archive to stir up interest.

-> Email promos broadcasted to all registered readers of the, plus rotating banner ads throughout the site.

-> The home page also devoted a content box of teasers with contextual links to archive excerpts.

-> US special event promotions.

To capture the significant interest in Scottish heritage in the US and Canada, Brown’s team worked with the Scottish tourism authority to promote the archive at special events.

Example: Tartan Week 2005 in New York City, where the Scotsman Archive exhibited in the “Scottish Village” in Grand Central Station. The archive was presented as part of the genealogy sessions, free passes were given away and 10,000 postcards were handed out announcing a “free access day” at the end of the week for those who registered from the US and Canada.

In a little more than a year, Scotsman Archive consumer subscriptions have soared to more than 20% beyond Brown’s goal.

Quality control tests of scanned content have steadied at 95%. “It’s easy to cut corners. We stuck to our guns on quality,” Brown says. “It’s all about picking the right partners and measuring the quality.” To date, the archives are up to 1950 and will soon be brought up to present day.

Initial marketing campaigns yielded the following results:

- 48% of subscriptions came from links on the; 8% came from email alerts; Less than 4% came from print newspaper ads. “We expected that the online ads would pull the best,” says Brown.

- The Tartan Week event promotion delivered a 10% response rate from the postcards handed out in NYC. And users who registered for the free access day did a lot searching: that day that page views jumped to seven times the normal daily average. Subscription sales that week increased four times what would normally be expected in a week. Subscriptions the month following the event were up by more than 62%.

While the sales closing cycle is much longer for institutional subscribers, the Scotsman Archive is getting two to three new institutions a day asking for a trial and many long-term subscriptions have been sold.

“It took over our lives a bit for the last year and a half, but we are very proud of what we achieved,” says Brown.

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples - email promotions, print insert, postcard and press release plus content sampler for prospective subscribers

eMeta Corporation – the ecommerce and access control vendor used by the to manage subscriptions and site licenses.

UK Archiving – the vendor used to digitize back issues

Olives Software – the tech vendor used to store and organize the digital archives

Scotsman Archives

See Also:

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