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Jul 23, 2002
Case Study

Hundreds of Ford Thunderbird Fans Join New Membership Site

SUMMARY: Internet entrepreneur Al Walentis wanted to share his excitement about Ford's new retro Thunderbird cars with other enthusiasts, so he started a subscription Web site. Even before the site officially launched, fans were trying to buy memberships. This Case Study includes useful notes on the six key types of content Walentis put in his site to make it appealing (and which two types are visitors' favorites.)


Al Walentis has always loved classic Ford Thunderbirds
(aka TBirds) from the 1950s and early 1960s. "I have a cousin who
had an original 1955 model and my late uncle owned a '58. There's
a heritage in my family."

Walentis himself never owned a TBird because by the 1990s the
models had, as he puts it, "devolved into very unattractive, clunky
cars." Sales were so lackluster that Ford discontinued the line in

Then last year inspired in part by the current nostalgia craze
that is fueling sales of the new Volkswagon Bug and the PT Cruiser,
Ford decided to bring TBirds back, using a retro design harkening
to their days of glory.

Walentis wanted a red one very, very badly.

He happens to be both a professional journalist by trade (he is the
Internet Editor for The Reading Eagle newspaper) and an Internet
entrepreneur by moonlight (he has sold a variety of documentary and
training videotapes online).

He wondered if there was some way he could use his background to
share his excitement with other new TBird owners and wannabes; make
a little money at it; and, what the heck, claim his new TBird as a
business tax deduction.


First Walentis researched online looking for site models
to copy. He found plenty of free TBird fan sites, but was not
dissuaded from creating a subscription version because these
carried tons of annoying pop-ups and pop-under ads to make money.
"The pop-ups don't make the experience as enjoyable."

Instead a successful subscription site for PT Cruiser fans inspired
him. (Link below.) He also carefully examined a variety of
subscription sites, which were run using the same software package
he planned to use. (Link below.)

By last Fall, Walentis was ready to launch in a big way.
Unfortunately Ford was not. "They're ironically making less cars
than in the late '90s. They're deliberately making it a
collectible with a limited run."

In fact Walentis himself could not find a dealer with an available
TBird until March 2002, and even then he had to use his newspaper
connections to grab it before another fan did. (He gets to see
Sunday classifieds two days before they run.)

This brings up the problem inherent in all fan sites, to a large
extent outside forces beyond your control dominate your success.

Walentis matched his marketing expenditures to Ford's output.
At first with a soft (not promoted) launch in the Fall of 2001, and
then slowly ramping up his marketing investment in PPC advertising
bought through Overture starting in January 2002 and Google in
March. If Ford produces the promised number of cars this Fall,
he will promote more aggressively accordingly.

His site's content falls into six categories:

1. Articles about TBirds. Walentis says he writes these
articles in a more casual tone than the newspaper content he edits
for his day job. "In newspaper journalism, anything that strays
from objectivity may be eliminated, whereas a fan site is going to
be more opinionated and reflect your thoughts and feelings."

A brief clip of the start of each article appears as a teaser on
the home page, so Walentis tries to be aware when
writing that those first few words will be visible and read on
their own as a form of marketing copy.

He even often includes the word "you" as close to the start of the
teaser as possible to get people involved in the story.

2. Regular Blog entries. Blogs (short for "weblog") are a form
of online diary. Although Walentis writes his articles in the
third person, he writes his Blogs in the first person. They tend
to be about his experiences with his own TBird, his fond memories
of TBirds of the past, etc.

The Blogs enable readers to have a one-on-one emotional attachment
with Walentis and feel a shared personal sense of fandom, which
articles, while valuable, do not.

3. Pricing data. Walentis scours the Net for TBird prices from
dealers and eBay.

4. Links to other sites. Walentis also frequently updates the
site's links library with every article he can find elsewhere on
TBirds. He feels this is valuable for the busy fan who does not
have time to look on their own.

Although he is aware of the deep-linking debate (a few publishers
have stated they do not want other sites linking directly to
particular stories), he has not had any problems as of yet.

5. Pictures and other downloads. Walentis contacted Ford's
press office directly to get authorized photos of new TBirds to
share on the site. They were doubtful at first because the site
did not even exist yet, after some persuasion came around.

Walentis notes, "I haven't received any flack about using things
out of the Ford press kit as long as I identify it as such."

However, he was careful to add, "When anything deals with products,
there are trademark issues involved. You have to make it very
clear you're not affiliated with them so nobody gets the impression
the site's run by Ford." In fact, the footer on each page of the
site notes: and this Web site are not affiliated with the
Ford Motor Company. The products and opinions expressed on this
Web site and sites linked to it are not necessarily those of
the Ford Motor Company. or the Ford Motor Company
are not responsible for errors published on this Web site. This
site is owned and operated by TBirdFans, Reading, PA.

6. Members-own content. Members are encouraged to send in
photos of their own TBirds, and to share stories and tips on an
online discussion group. They can also post classifieds for free
to other members under the "Swap & Sell" section of the site.


TBird fans began subscribing to the site at $19.95 per annual membership even before it formally launched. Since then,
"several hundred" have subscribed with more joining every day
despite Walentis' deliberately throttled back marketing campaign.

Interesting facts:

- Far more members are female than Walentis expected.

- Google pulls in significantly more traffic than Overture does,
although Walentis is getting about the same click through rate of
2-3% on both.

- The pricing content is the most popular and most searched for
in the site's search box followed by the term "screensavers."

- While members do not spend much time on the bulletin boards
(yet anyway) they definitely like to email in photos of themselves
in their new TBirds to be posted on the site.

Walentis notes that he never expects the site to be a huge
moneymaker, "It's a niche. A realistic goal for this site is
probably only about 2,000 members." However, he hopes to make a
respectable income from it by continuing to add quality content and
by raising the subscription price to match the PT Cruiser's fan
site at $39 year after he has "built up the membership base a bit."

He also plans to increase subscriptions by offering a real-world
premium (free gift with order) such as a mug or a calendar, by
launching a free companion email newsletter for the viral pass-
along effect, and by tweaking his home page and the members-only
barrier page to maximize its sales conversion potential.

Membergate (software system)
PT Cruiser fan site
See Also:

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