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Feb 21, 2002
Case Study

How World Book Grew Online Sales 66% with an In-Store Sweeps and Search Engine Marketing

SUMMARY: If you are seeking ways to improve your Web site's conversion rate of visitors into buyers (or into opt-in sales leads), definitely check out this Case Study for ideas. Because of their deal with AOL, World Book Encyclopedia has always gotten a heck of a lot of site traffic. World Book's marketers were not satisfied with the percent of visitors who converted into buyers. Hear how they tested search engine optimization, a very clever series of mini-sites, and an unusual in-store sweeps to grow sales.

Traditionally most of World Book Encyclopedia's print book and encyclopedia-set sales have been made to the school and library market.

However, after watching its Web traffic grow steadily since its site first launched in 1995, the Company decided to try to leverage its popularity by using the site as a vehicle to sell directly to consumers. World Book added ecommerce capabilities to their Web site in the fall of 2000.

However, site sales conversion rates were a particularly thorny problem because the price of World Book's most popular product is $995. Although the online store offers 90-plus products, most people are only aware of the World Book Encyclopedia. Exposing shoppers to a wider range of products was a second challenge.

Marketing Research and Development Manager Julie Connors recalls, “the three metrics we monitored were conversion rates, basket size, and traffic. Our main goal was to increase conversion rates. We wanted to know what we could do to push a buyer to buy now. How could we create that sense of urgency?”


The first step toward increasing site sales conversion rates is making sure the traffic coming into your site is both interested in and qualified to become buyers.

In the past World Book had relied on its long-standing relationship with AOL to drive the majority of its traffic. (Ads for World Book run in the content they provide to AOL's Research and Learn Channel, as well as in the World Book Encyclopedia Online that AOL subscribers get as a benefit.) While this drove considerable traffic, visitors were not always the best sales prospects. So World Book's marketing team decided to test four low-cost tactics to drive more targeted traffic:

1. Search Engine Optimization

"We have a heavy Web search-engine-optimization effort," says Connors. This includes all the standard tactics such as meta tags, title tags, and visible copy packed with related keywords.

2. Search Engine Positioning

While optimization is the art of designing your main site so it is attractive as possible to visiting search engine spiders and robots, positioning is a slightly more proactive approach involving submitting your site to the sites for consideration.

Years ago the best way to get noticed was to repeatedly submit your site on a regular basis, however, these days most search engines eye repeat submissions with considerable disfavor -- in fact some call it "spam" and it can hurt, not help, your chances of being listed.

So, instead of submitting over and over again, the team invented an ongoing series of mini-sites (link to sample below). They create and launch a new one every month. Each is filled with articles, pictures and interactive content, such as quizzes, on a particular topic.

The content is almost entirely non-commercial, with just a simple link at the top of each page to the World Book home page and to the store. Each site has a unique URL that gets indexed by the search engines. So far the team has created more than 30 of them, all of which are permanently archived and available online.

3. Paid Google Ads

Connors says, “We bought keywords on Google for a while. I bought boxes on the side. We could see the traffic. They told me their click through rates were double the industry standard in their online media kit.”

4. Affiliate Program

In the fall of 2001, World Book implemented an affiliate program with Commission Junction. World Book chose the selective approach, and approved fewer than 50 of the over-900 sites that have applied to join the program. Affiliates include Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and USA Today.

With these changes in place driving traffic to the site, World Book's next challenge was to grow Holiday 2001 sales. The marketing team decided to test two ways to affect shoppers at point of purchase, when they were already on the site and engaged with the product. “We didn’t want a huge branding thing, or a big change, but a promotion to solve our little problem,” recalls Connors.

a. Offering Free Shipping

Multiple studies released just before the 2001 holiday shopping season revealed that online consumers were concerned about shipping costs. World Book decided to offer free shipping. However, they’d already offered free shipping for the previous holiday season, and they knew that that alone would not be enough to raise conversion rates substantially.

b. Running an In-Store Sweeps

Sweepstakes are typically used to drive traffic to a site, not to close sales. However, World Book decided to test something unusual -- offering sweepstakes entries to visitors already on the site. To enter online, a visitor had to buy something. (In order to remain in compliance with the law, World Book also accepted entries by less-convenient postcard, with no purchase being required.)

First prize was a $5000 face-value savings bond. Second prize was a Student Discovery Encyclopedia set. The consolation prize was the 2001 Premium CD-ROM Encyclopedia. “We had to find a pitch that appealed to the things that motivate parents. We decided to offer not something for them, but something for their kids . . . something for the future. We even called it ‘Win for the Kids,’” explains Connors.


The sweeps offer was more powerful than expected Connors says, “We expected sales to increase 33% as a result of the holidays, as they had the previous year. We actually saw a 66% increase in the average number of orders per week adjusted for the higher holiday traffic.” The site's sales conversion rate over the holiday season increased by 60%.

The sweeps cost $10,000 to implement, and Connors estimates it increased sales conversions enough to have earned them $21 for every hard dollar spent. “We measure basket size and traffic, in addition to conversion rate. The average basket size did go down during the promotion, but the product of basket size times conversion rate was higher,” explains Connors.

Other World Book marketing results include:

* The mini-sites are a solid hit. “The search engines love it. Because the [mini-sites] have such valuable content, directory editors often write back and tell us they’ll get it included the same day, and thank us,” reports Connors.

“Students will type in ‘Cinco de Mayo’ and find us at the top of the search engine. Kids come and end up at the store." Then presumably encourage their parents to shop there. Because mini-site content is evergreen, and World Book continues to see traffic from each months after it has been published.

* Traffic resulting from mini-sites and search engine optimization is more likely to convert to sales than traffic from the AOL deal. “There was a lot of AOL traffic, but it was less qualified, more curious,” recalls Connors.

* The Google AdWords program was not a success. Connors says, “At a 3-4% clickthrough rate, we could have broken even. It was more in the 1% range. I calculated what acquisition would cost, but it was not cost-effective with our typical conversion rate. I saw it as a gamble, and I saw pretty quickly that the cost of acquisition was going to be too high this way.”

* Connors learned affiliate marketing required a longer lead-time from launch to becoming a source of qualified traffic than she had initially expected. “It takes longer than you think because they have to put up the links.”

Links Related to this Article

World Book Encyclopedia:

Sample mini-site on Cinco de Mayo:

Archives of mini-sites :

Google Adwords:

TruePoints, sweepstakes vendor:
See Also:

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