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Nov 15, 2001
Case Study

Reader's Digest Grows Online Sales by Adding a Console-Style Pre-Home Page

SUMMARY: Does your company's Web site home page contain a lot of elements, such as a lengthy navigation bar, and lots of clickthrough options?  Then, you definitely need to check out this Case Study. When Reader's Digest relaunched their Web site this Spring, it had a jam-packed home page, with links to articles, its store, customer service, corporate information, etc.  Andrew Bein, the site's General Manager, began to wonder if there was a way to make the home page a more effective sales and customer service tool -- so he tested a radical new "console" design.

When Reader's Digest first launched its Web site back
in 1996, they were pretty much pioneering. Typical of many
traditional publishers, the Company decided not to invest
aggressively until there was a proven business model. So, they
left the old site up, pretty much untouched aside from content
freshners, for a very long time.

By late-2000 the site was generating a few million pageviews
every month. Figuring they could rpfit a bit more from visitors,
and fearing the outdated site design could be hurting their
brand, management decided to authorize a redesign. They also
began headhunting for a new site General Manager who could make
their investment pay off.

They wanted someone who was Net savvy, but also had a solid, old-
fashioned direct response background. Andrew Bein who was a
direct marketer for Danbury Mint prior to leading a variety of
Net start-ups, including, came on board in February

Why was this direct response background so important for a
consumer site getting millions of pageviews? Bein explains, "Our
four-to-five million pageviews per month is a 15 minutes on
Yahoo. It's such an insignificant little blip to major
advertisers who want to reach a major audience. It gets you
really quickly into the question of which business to be in
online -- the business of competing with Yahoo or not? It's not
cheap to be competitive [selling online ads] it's about tracking,
billing, managing inventory, and the ad sales force itself and
commissions. It's an expensive business to be in if you're not
going to be in it in a big way."

However, Reader's Digest did have lots of in-house books, videos
and other products to sell online… plus there were always
magazine subscriptions. And the ever-present desire to cut
customer service costs by going from phone to electronic.


First Bein helped with the final stages of the site
redesign that launched in May 2001 (link below.) It looks a
great deal like most other media company Web sites. You can read
the latest stories, or surf the many options on the navigation
bar to find content to your liking.

While it's a thoroughly professional and pleasant redesign, Bein
kept picking at it. Was there a way to do it better? Could he
get more visitors to go beyond the home page and to take a
specific action that would make or save Reader's Digest money?

He says, "It's a fairly busy beast. Lots of different places to
tune into -- magazine, book products, corporate info. It has
been somewhat designed by group with many views all taken into
account; not a committee exactly, but 'here's a lot of things we
need the site to do.'" Bein began to survey the Web's busiest
sites and the most popular simple ones - such as and
Yahoo. He also did informal "101 usability testing", talking to
experts, customers and "people you pick up down the hall" to get
reactions about what people do when they got to the new Home

The constant feedback was, "It's not obvious where to go first.
I'm not as directed as ideally the experience ought to be."

He began work on a new "console" approach. It had to be very,
very simple, but at the same time fresh every day so it wouldn't
go stale. He decided to test adding a pre-home splash page to
the existing site. Everyone going to or
would have to click through this one-page screen to get deeper
into the site, including the official home page. This far
simpler splash page, which fits into a single 800x600 viewed
screen without scrolling, features eight big buttons:

1. In this Issue (with a graphic of the issue and a new
featured headline daily)
2. Submit a Joke
3. Customer Service
4. Subscribe (to magazine)
5. Preview (A product offer changed regularly)
6. Do (an interactive feature changed regularly)
7. Search

The page also includes a free email newsletter sign-up box in the
upper right corner, and a fat button to " Home Page"
centered at the bottom of the screen. Both this button and the
very first "In this Issue" button click to the "real" home


Without the pre-home page, a highly respectable 65-70% of site visitors had clicked on at least one link from the home
page to take some action (whether to read a story, subscribe,
view products, whatever.)

Even so, the new pre-home page was a significant improvement.
About 80% of visitors now click through to take some action from

The Customer Service button is the most popular one, which
probably means a cost savings because easy-to-find online
customer service can reduce costlier in-bound phone calls.

But even better, the number of site visitors who now convert to
paid magazine subscribers has definitely improved, because the
offer is more obvious now. Bein can't reveal exact figures, but
he happily says, "It's a multiple, not just a few percent!"

Encouraged, Bein is also testing a new, far simpler, layout for
product sales pages. Instead of directing all product links to
the store (which you can still visit if that's your
preferred shopping method), individual product links from site
ads and best-sellers rankings, now go to a one-screen info and
order page. This means everything the visitor needs to know to
both make a buying decision, and everything they need to do to
purchase the product, including credit card and shipping info, is
all on one single screen.

Hopefully this will improve site product sales, because
traditional online shopping cart systems generally lose about 10%
of shoppers at each step along the check-out process. If there
are no steps, then there's less chance of shopping cart
abandonment. That's the theory anyway.

Bein, being a never-quite-satisfied kind of Web design leader,
isn't perfectly happy with his product sales page design yet. He
says, "It's being tested so stay tuned." We will.
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