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Apr 24, 2008
How To

How to Transform Your Subscription Site into a Paid Social Network – 6 Launch Tactics

SUMMARY: With all the content available on the Internet, how do subscription sites compete? Perhaps Web 2.0 can help. One real estate site transformed itself into a complimentary news site for visitors and a social network for subscribers.

Here’s how to navigate the route from an all-pay news site to a social network with premium content and other Web 2.0 features.
Joel Burslem, Marketing Director, Inman News, was caught in a common dilemma for subscription marketers: Competition from free online news sources made it harder to keep Inman’s real estate news behind a membership barrier. But Burslem and his team weren’t ready to completely abandon subscription revenues.

“We were struggling conceptually not just with flattening membership rates, but with all the down sides that come from having that pay wall up -- bloggers can’t link to our news [and] search engines have a hard time indexing it,” he says. “If not expiring, this certainly was a model that was changing with online news.”

The team had watched the growth of social networks. They also had developed close relationships with their own readers by hosting real estate conferences. They decided to merge the two elements into a whole new approach: Offer daily news for free to any visitor but create an online community for subscribers with several membership levels for Web 2.0 features and premium content.

After more than a year of planning and development, Burslem and his team launched the online community in March. Already, they’ve seen huge improvements in key site metrics, such as the time users spend on site jumping 400% and page views per visitor increasing 100%. Although he is not yet tracking site-conversion rates, Burslem has received feedback from new subscribers who have been intrigued enough by the social networking features to become paying customers for the first time.

Turning an all-pay news site into a social network required careful planning and answering these types of questions: What features to include? How to balance free content and paid? How to bring subscribers along for the ride?

Here are Burslem’s top six tactics for managing the transformation:

-> Tactic #1. Use firm’s strengths to design community

Burslem and his team began planning the social network “with all the options on the table.” They settled on two key principals:

- Real estate news would remain the site’s strength.
The team made most of its news content free to visitors. But they built on their editorial tradition by creating social networking features that enhanced news content, increased conversations about industry trends, created dialogue and urged feedback.

Features include:
o Ability for members to create and join groups around specific topics, such as mortgage reform, real estate marketing or legal issues
o Real estate wiki that members could update and edit
o 5-point rating scale for news stories, which contributes to a “top stories” navigation feature
o Ability for registered users to comment on every article

- Goals couldn’t outstrip company resources.
The team made sure the small company had the time, resources and expertise to build and manage the desired features for the new site.

For example, they considered allowing members to host their own blogs on But they realized that feature would require an additional technology platform, more bandwidth, and continual monitoring by Inman staff. They scrapped the idea.

-> Tactic #2. Create three-tiered membership structure

To reach the broadest possible audience, Burslem and his team created a three-tiered site structure. It allows users to access additional features and content depending on their status.

- Visitors can:
o Read news
o Search archives
o Watch certain videos
o Receive headlines by RSS

- Registered users, who provide name, email address and information about their role in the real estate industry, have access to additional content and features:
o Email newsletters
o Commenting on articles
o Creating a community profile
o Joining groups
o Contributing to the wiki
o Requesting introductions among other community members

- Paid members receive enhanced community features:
o Reprint rights for Inman articles
o Ability to create community groups
o Access to a profile dashboard
o Featured listing in the community marketplace
o Ability to add extra images to their community profile page
o Special discounts on Inman products

“[Users] can sign up for a free account and leave comments or dip their toes into the waters of the community,” says Burslem. “If they’re really interested in going full hog and creating groups, linking profiles together and interacting with the site, they can take that step up and become a member.”

-> Tactic #3. Post premium content for paying members

Another bonus feature for paid members is access to premium content produced by the Inman news staff. Real estate news is becoming a commodity online, so the team looks for content unique to Inman. Or content comes with an additional level of service from the Inman staff that adds value for readers.

Premium content for paid members includes:

- Week-in-Review email newsletter.
This product came directly from reader feedback, which indicated that busy real estate professionals often can’t keep up with Inman’s free, twice-daily news updates. One member said he was willing to pay for someone to be an expert filter, pointing him toward “must reads.”

- Special reports and industry white papers.
These monthly, in-depth reports focus on major industry topics, such as mortgage reform, advanced real estate marketing techniques, or annual industry outlooks. “We focused on topics our members would absolutely want to read, with the idea that they’d be hit in the pocketbook if they don’t read them.”

- Videos from company’s industry conferences.
Experiments with video on their previous site indicated that footage from sessions at Inman’s real estate conferences is popular. The videos offer highlights from these paid events. Burslem’s team decided they should be a benefit for paid members.

-> Tactic #4. Use private test to create mix of members

No one wants to join an online community if no one else is there. It’s also hard to know how a site’s features and functionality will work under real-world conditions without a group of people using them frequently.

The team approached these problems by inviting approximately 400 people to participate in a private beta test of the community site. When extending those invitations, the team targeted two groups who might otherwise be resistant to joining a social network. The goal was to seed the community with a good mix of members who would help attract new subscribers.

Target group #1:
Young, technically savvy real estate professionals who already belong to Linked In, Facebook or other communities.

- For this group, Burslem reached out to popular real estate bloggers, industry pundits and industry contacts he had made through his own participation in other social networks. He sent them an email inviting them to participate in the private beta and asking them to contribute their expertise to the site’s development.

Target group #2.
Older real estate pros who did not understand or were uncomfortable with social networks.

- Working through the company’s contacts at conferences, Burslem invited C-level executives and other established professionals from well-known companies.

The team provided this group with intense, one-on-one assistance over the phone to help them create profiles and use social-networking features.

-> Tactic #5. Work closely with existing subscribers

Re-launching wasn’t just a site redesign -- it was a new product for subscribers. Burslem undertook a full-scale education campaign to let existing subscribers know the change was coming.

“We realized that this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Our readers are very fanatical; they love our news and come to the site multiple times a day. We couldn’t jump out of the bushes and say we’ve changed.”

The team used a multi-channel strategy to ease existing subscribers into the paid membership community.

- Online and offline communications told readers that a site redesign was in the works. Messages included:
o Announcement at a conference in January that the new site would launch in a few months, with printed collateral telling members about new features
o Debut of a new logo design at the same January conference
o Posts on the company’s blog
o Email messages to existing subscribers one week and the day before the launch
o Preview graphic showing the new site design, linked from the home page
o Series of articles on the homepage

- A public beta test for all current subscribers followed the closed, private test. This test automatically converted all subscriber accounts into paid memberships in the new community. It allowed them to explore the new features and provide feedback to Burslem’s team.

- Price of the community membership was kept the same as a previous news subscription.

- Popular pages –- like the main news page -- kept the same look and feel to provide some continuity between the old and new sites.

-> Tactic #6. Monitor and respond to user feedback and Internet chatter

Immediately after the launch, Burslem’s team focused on fielding questions and responding to comments. Their strategy included:

- Providing telephone and email support to existing members who had questions or concerns about the new site.

Although the team anticipated a flood of calls and complaints, Burslem says they were pleasantly surprised by the response from existing subscribers when the new community site went live. They fielded a few complaints and questions, but found the response overwhelmingly positive.

- Emailing new members after signup, and using customer-service calls from new members, to ask why they joined the community.

“I’m a really firm believer in treating every member as an individual. The more you can do to reach out to readers on an individual basis, get to know them, understand why they decided to spend money with us, the more they love it.”

- Monitoring “back-channel conversations” about the new site across the Internet. Burslem used several tools to keep track of these conversations:

o -- a service that lets you receive alerts for specific keywords mentioned in Twitter posts
o RSS feeds from Technorati to monitor blog posts mentioning
o Google Alerts for other Web mentions of keywords, such as, new website

When alerted to a comment, Burslem would respond to specific concerns or criticisms posted on blogs, or thank users who posted positive comments about the new site. That chatter also helped him fix a minor error on the new site that a user uncovered.

“By responding, we let people know we were listening. I think that’s a critical point,” he says. “It’s one thing to listen, but you have to be proactive and engaged as well.”

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from Inman News’ social networking launch:

Google Alerts:


Tweet Scan:

Inman News:

See Also:

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