Quick stat -- according to MRI's Fall 2003 data on how typical media consumers use the Web, readers of Field & Stream and Outdoor Life magazines are among the absolute least likely to spend much time online.
That didn't stop Don Causey, President Oxpecker Enterprises, from worrying about the impact free online content might have on his paid print subscriber rolls to publications including The Hunting Report and The Angling Report.
"I remember going to a publishing conference in 2000, and everybody was in the middle of a crisis about the Web. I came back stressed out. I thought, 'If we don't do something about the Internet it will destroy us. This is an information medium.'"
Causey's been publishing since 1981, and relied nearly 100% on direct mail to sell subscriptions to new readers.
His newsletters mainly feature compilations of hunting and angling expedition stories his readers send in. (The best stories are buffed-and-expanded by in-house editorial staff.) This makes for a pretty good renewal rate, especially because he adds featured reader-contributors at a named Honor Roll on page two of each edition.
However, he (like all other publishers we've spoken with) was seeing declining and softened direct mail response rates. Could the Internet be turned from something to be feared into a fabulous marketing tool?CAMPAIGN
After months of careful thought and research, Causey came up with a plan. He launched a test for The Hunting Report in 2003, and then a test for The Angling Report six months later in 2004.
Step #1. Launch a content-heavy Web site
Causey's webmaster knew that the more highly-specific keywords he could create pages for, the better for search engine optimization. While it might be hard to get a high ranking for a general term such as "hunting," there wasn't a lot of competition for terribly specific terms such as Zebra Hunting or Czech Republic Hunting.
That's good news, because more qualified (and likely to convert) searchers tend to use more specific terms when searching.
So, the webmaster created free-access teaser pages for every single type of animal one might hunt, as well as every nation one might hunt in. Each of these pages pitched subscriptions. Only a tiny amount of real content was outside the paid barrier though.
Step #2. Upgrade paid subs to online access plus ezine
Causey's marketing team sent out direct mail pieces and issue stuffers to all current print subscribers offering to upgrade their subscriptions to include online access and an alerts newsletter.
The cost for a regular subscription was $60. The offer for an upgraded version was $96 -- expressed in marketing copy as a low-sounding "$3 per month."
Luckily, much of past newsletters' content was still useful, especially when presented in an easy-to-search database format with loads of keyword links already listed. In one fell swoop, Causey became a database publisher with a print update edition.
So much email is free and lacks true value, that Causey decided against offering alerts on a set editorial schedule. Instead, he would only publish an alert to the upgraded subscriber list when there was something of enormous interest and value to them.
For example, last week he published a detailed alert on how new South African firearm laws would affect hunters entering the region, and what new forms and applications they'd need to fill out at customs.
So, although the ezine is "newsy" it's important news presented with invaluable details rather than news for the sake of news.
Step #3. Add ancillary offers to the newsletter and site
Causey had always wanted to offer his subscribers "best-of" hunting books and maps. Many of these are not readily available in the US because they're printed in limited editions in other countries. However, he didn't want to insert flyers into his print editions because it would bump postage costs with no certainty of profit.
However, the ezine was a perfect format to experiment with.
So, he worked bulk deals with foreign and best US publishers to receive at least 40-50% of every book and map he sold. Then he placed ads for the books in the newsletter alerts, and watched and waited.
Encouraged by results, he began to cast about for other items to sell. The key was, as subscription publications Causey's newsletters must be editorially unbiased toward vendors he carries reviews for, such as tour guides and hotels. So, running ads for these would be impossible.
However, he was able to find a few more related hunting vendors to carry ads for -- each on a CPA (cost per acquisition) basis where he got a commission for sales. For example, he now offers satellite phone rentals to hunters.
After only one year of testing, the Internet is now a major revenue source for Causey. "As of June 30th, 35% of our revenues came in over the Internet," he says. "When I totaled it up, I couldn't believe it!"
Search engine optimization has proven a big success. "My guy has done a sensational job. When you type in something like Botswana hunting, we are right up at the top. People click and come to the site, and it's just visibly loaded with stuff they want. It's sticky. They can't get out of it. They finally come back and subscribe."
In fact, Causey now gets so many new paid subscriptions from Web surfers that he has cut back on acquisition direct mail.
"Now I don't mail a single list, except for experiments, that I don't know will return at least the money I spent on it. My DM is break-even plus, and often profitable on the first year. That's unusual for a newsletter."
He adds, "I used to be forced to go ahead and mail marginal lists just to maintain circulation and keep the business going even though I knew I wasn't going to make any money on those names for a long time. I hated it."
Plus, over the past year, 26% of The Hunting Report print subscribers have converted to upgrading to the premium online edition.
However, it's not always easy. While Hunting Report readers tended to be CEOs of major corporations who normally spend very little time online, Angling Report readers tended to be top lawyers and other professionals who did go online as a natural course of their daily business.
Turns out for Causey's business at least, the more time a reader spends on the Internet in general, the less likely they are to convert to pay for content because they become convinced they can "find it free somewhere else."
So, while hunters would gladly ante up a little extra for online access, the more Net-savvy anglers were less likely to upgrade.
Causey began to test alternate offers. He found that he could upgrade anglers if, instead of pushing content access, he offered them the chance to win a free trip. Now every month he runs free trip offers for upgraded subscribers only.
Slowly The Angling Report upgraded readership is moving upwards to match its sibling publication's.
Last but not least, the ancillary offers in emails have proven very popular. Causey has added about 8% to his bottom line with these sales.
He notes, "The Internet still poses a challenge, and we haven't quite figured out how to completely overcome it yet. But now it's more of a positive than a negative."Useful links related to this story:
The Hunting Report http://www.huntingreport.com
The Angling Report http://www.anglingreport.com