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Feb 04, 2005
How To

How to Get (And Track) a High Volume of New Opt-Ins: Lessons From USAToday.com's Email Newsletters

SUMMARY: This week we go behind-the-scenes at USAToday.com to learn how they grow and manage their lists. Discover their lessons on:
- Buying co-registration names
- Getting names (cheaply) via online sweeps partnerships
- Tracking the value of a name
Plus, hear about their auto-unsub program (you should consider doing this too.) And, how RSS Feeds are changing things:
USAToday.com just started publishing email newsletters less than 18 months ago, so they had a lot of catching up to do to get opt-in readership lists worth talking about.

How do you grow opt-in lists very quickly on a low per-name budget, and maintain high readership quality? Director of Marketing Susan Lavington and Senior Marketing Manager Matt Jones took us on a behind-the-scenes tour of their opt-in management operations, and here's what we learned for you:

How to buy quality co-registration opt-ins

"We're a big enough brand name and a broad enough product that we can get names fairly cheaply. I'm not going after a very targeted group," says Lavington.

Tip #1. Names from similar-activity sites do best

Although some marketers buy co-regs based on demographic alone, USAToday.com has found that name quality varies based on what a name was doing at the site they co-regged at. For example, a 35-year old woman from a news site winds up being a better newsletter reader for them than an otherwise identical woman from a couponing, ecommerce, generic sweeps, or free stuff site.

Niche lists also do better than broader ones. "We find a lot of success with really small sites. We get really great qualified names." High name quality often makes it worth putting up with the extra aggravation of buying and tracking low-volume co-regs.

Tip #2. Vet media buyers carefully

Not all co-registration networks and media buying specialists are alike. Some are, well a bit slimy.

So, Matt Jones vets new vendors by previewing each site in their network (never trust a network that won't reveal site names, he warns), and he even signs up on many of the sites to see what will happen to his name. Plus, he insists on a contract that gives him credit for immediate bounces and names that are duplicate to USAToday.com's current active file.

Lavington advises you to ask detailed questions about the vendor's name scrubbing process. They all claim to scrub, but what exactly do they mean? She prefers to buy double opt-ins and notes these are not always more expensive than single.

Interesting data note: Although we've heard of heavy co-reg buyers having as much as a 50% duplicate name rate, USAToday.com say they only get about 1% dupes with their actives from co-reg now. They assume that number will rise over time.

Tip #3. Send a special welcome, plus the first issue within 24 hours

Instead of sending a generic Welcome, USAToday's templated email system automatically inserts the name of the site the new name opted-in at into the welcome letter, so people will remember the activity. This is an easy-to-accomplish best practice everyone should do.

If your next regular issue isn't due out for a few days or longer, Lavington strongly urges you to have the system automatically send out the latest back-issue within 24 hours of opt-in. "You want to get them while they're hot, when they've just held up their hand, and not a week later when they'll be going, 'What's this again?'"

How to gain great names - free - with co-branded sweeps

USAToday.com are currently using a great tactic we first heard from eBags back in 2000 to gather opt-ins without cost. (In fact, we wonder why more marketers don't try it.)

USAToday.com contacts companies that are complementary to the newsletters -- such as travel providers for the USAToday.com travel newsletter -- and offer to run a sweepstakes to gather opt-ins for both sides. The partner contributes the prize and promises to send promotions to its own house list to drive traffic to the sweeps.

In exchange, USAToday.com powers the back-end of the sweeps, creating the sweeps entry landing page and handling name collection and distribution. Plus, USAToday.com also sends traffic from its site and newsletters to the sweeps.

The team tends to run sweeps with three partners at once to maximize efforts so one sweeps is promoted to three companies' house lists. If they include more partners, the message gets diffused and landing page results go down because there's too much marketing copy from too many brands on it.

Overall, by keeping the sweeps landing page as clean as possible, trying to keep the entry form above the fold, and only asking for email address and no other contact info, USAToday.com gets an average 50% conversion rate. (That's roughly four times higher than average.)

"We get wonderful names with sweeps," notes Lavington. We'd like to note that this is not the norm and generally sweeps-generated names are infamously poor-quality. In this case the high-quality is because the offer is only seen by pre-qualified partners' house lists. If you limit your intake to great lists, your output is bound to be great.

Lavington had two pieces of advice for any marketer considering copying the tactic:

Tip #1. Be clear about the offer.

USAToday's lawyers said it's ok to force all sweeps entries to join the lists in question because they can opt-out again of their own accord five seconds later. Lavington keeps the tactic ethically kosher by copywriting the entry to explicitly tell the consumer they will be added to a list as part of their entry. "It's extremely clear," Lavington asserts.

Tip #2. Make partners put the calendar in writing.

Partners who sound all enthusiastic in the get-acquainted meeting can fall down when it comes to actual execution. That's why USAToday.com handles so much of the back-end and even the outgoing creative for them. It's truly turn-key for partners.

Plus, Lavington gets partners to promise -- in writing -- the exact dates they'll send out emails, place banners on their site, etc.

Measuring opt-in name quality -- and unsubbing the bad names

Every single incoming opt-in is assigned a tracking code by USAToday.com's system so the team knows which promotion generated it. Then Jones produces regular reports measuring source qualities by open rate, click rate, hard bounce percent and unsubscribes. He notes you can't judge name quality just by opens alone because so many email programs, including Gmail, strip out the HTML tracking pixels. You may have a reader who loves your newsletter, even though they never appear to be "opening" it.

About every six months Jones cleans the list removing all names that haven't opened and/or clicked in the past 120 days. It's an involuntary unsubscribe.

Why? Lavington explains, "They're a cost. We pay our broadcast vendor on a CPM basis every time we send emails. We pay a relatively small amount, but over time it adds up."

Plus, removing non-readers may help you to stay whitelisted at AOL and other email systems. Jones explains, "Most people don't unsubscribe. They vote with their delete key, and that 'this is spam' button is awfully close to the delete."

USAToday does send all the involuntary unsubs a nice letter explaining why they've been taken off the list and offering to put them back on again if they reply. A "couple of percent" reply in the affirmative.

RSS feed traffic growing - but it's not replacing email

"Our take is that RSS is not going to supplant email anymore than email supplants Web sites or Web supplants TV," declares Lavington (and we agree with her wholeheartedly).

"These are all complimentary ways to get information that work for different people. What drives me crazy about this whole 'Email is bad' story is email works tremendously!" She adds.

The site does offer RSS along with email. Jones notes, "What we're tracking are the clicks coming in from RSS. We have no idea how many people are signed up for it, it's my understanding you can parse through logs to find it, but we haven't gotten to it."

RSS-driven visits are growing more rapidly than expected. Lavington says, "It's still a small number, but if it keeps growing at the current rate, within a few months it will be significant."

Jones, however, doesn't see it as the killer app quite yet. "I was really excited to get RSS feeds as a user, but then I got tired of running another application [an RSS reader] on my desktop. I'm not sure it warrants all the buzz it's getting."

When should marketers and online publishers start taking RSS seriously? Lavington says wait until readers are incorporated into a large portion of the real estate that email and Net users view already -- such as their Web browsers and online email accounts. Which may be sooner than you think. (Firefox supports RSS, as does MyYahoo.)

Final note: Combined with increased deeplinking traffic from search optimization, emailed story links, and blogs, RSS traffic is another reason why you may need a site redesign fairly soon.

"In the golden old days, the majority of traffic came to our home - the front page of USAToday.com. Now deeplinking is having a huge affect on traffic patterns. How these people navigate the site is different from people who come to the home page," explains Lavington.

"Our home is very very well designed from a navigational taxonomy. We make such an effort to design it to pull people further into the site. But people are no longer starting out there. Now we have to apply the effort to all inside pages."

She laughs, "It never gets boring."

Useful links related to this article:

Innovation Ads - One of the co-registration vendors USAToday.com relies on to make its opt-in buys: http://www.innovationads.com

Cheetah Mail - The broadcast vendor USAToday.com uses to send its newsletters and track delivery http://www.cheetahmail.com

USAToday.com http://www.usatoday.com

See Also:

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