United Communications Group (UCG), a business information company with subscription newsletters, databases and ancillary product lines for the telecom, healthcare, energy, transportation, government, financial and IT industries, has always been a leader in testing new technologies for marketing and fulfillment. In 1995 they decided to test something radical for a news organization used to one-way communication with subscribers: email discussion groups.
Back in 1995 most people didn't know what an email discussion group was, so the idea took some explaining. UCG's Carl Ayers says, "When we launch one, we put a box in the newsletter for a few weeks saying, 'Hey there's this great free resource for you thanks to our publication! Here's how to join and here's what you'll get out of it." Ayers would list seven benefits such as, "1. It's free. 2. You'll get answers to your most daunting questions. 3. You can network with your peers. 4. You'll get instant feedback. etc."
UCG also emailed a set of rules to everyone who joined the discussion groups so would know how to behave on them. Typical rules include "no attachments, don't post copyrighted materials, don't post sales messages, etc."
UCG started one of these groups for each of its publications that had a strong subscriber base who would be interested in networking with each other. Ayers says, "Historically we've found you need about 250-300 people in the group to get to the point where there's vibrant discussion." Some of UCG's groups have grown far beyond this target to number in the thousands!
Although UCG's groups are not formally moderated in terms of someone having to approve each message that goes to the list., they are informally moderated by editors who are involved in ongoing discussions. They post questions of their own to keep things perking and sometimes post breaking news items the group might like to know about.
UCG's marketers use the groups to get the word out about ancillary products, but they are careful not to abuse this privilege. Ayers says, "We'll say here's some breaking news and by the way we have a conference coming up on this topic, here's a link to the Web site for it." Ayers also advises in favor of short marketing copy, "The shorter, the better. If it's two lines and it says it all, that's the way I would go. People don't want to read long emails."
Ayers says, "I don't have a tidy number in thiscase. I guess the two biggest benefits are (1) fostering a sense of community and (2) capturing names and addresses that we can later market to." In both these cases UCG has seen outstanding results.
UCG's editors have gotten so much return for their 2-3 hours per week moderating their groups that they are more than willing to continue doing it. Ayers says, "It helps them keep their fingers on the pulse of the industry. We also encourage editors to post quick questions if they are looking for a reaction for a story. In addition, we'll do email surveys to the group and then use the results for a story."
UCG has also been very successful in achieving its second goal - gathering additional contacts to market to. In fact Ayers reports that on average 2/3 of the professionals who join UCG's discussion groups are not already paid customers. So, for every 500 paid subscribers, UCG gains email access to an additional 1,000 interested professionals!
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