These days hot start-ups are out of fashion while solid, old brand names are coming back in. In that spirit, we interviewed two of the business leaders behind the Christian Science Monitor's Electronic Edition (CSMonitor.com) -- Jonathan Wells, Director of Business Development & Electronic Publishing and Ajay Akatrai, Syndication Sales Specialist.
Some of their answers may surprise you -- we sure were stunned to learn how much bigger the four-year old CSMonitor.com is than its famed 90-year old print parent! You might also read this interview with an eye toward potential partnerships. Wells and Akatrai are interested in talking deals.
Q: What's your online business model?
Wells: There is an extremely close working relationship between print and electronic. The online edition is seen as a way of exposing a wider and more diverse audience to our content. Secondly it allows us to meet the needs of our readers on a more frequent and timely basis.
Advertisers on the site account for 30% of revenues. An additional 30% of sales is from our Monitor Extra which allows people to customize the content. They can see an individualized edition on the specific topics they choose. It's $5.95 per month, but if you are a print subscriber it's $3.95 a month. We prefer to charge their credit card monthly.
Our third revenue stream is our online archives which we sell for $1.50 per article. (If you subscribe to Monitor Extra it's included in the package.) We did research on this pricing when we launched it two years ago. We wanted to be under $2. It's under review now. It's about 10% of sales.
We're in the infancy of looking at a variety of transaction partners. We're currently working with BarnesandNoble.com for our book buying services. Readers can purchase copies of the books we review on the site.
Q: Do your regular print ad sales reps also sell for the online edition?
Wells: At this point we've decided to sell the print and online as a package. There's different bodies of opinion on this. Our ad people have had formal training and they work closely with the marketing manager of the site. We do have some advertisers who are Web-only, but the package has worked for us so far.
Q: What about content syndication revenues?
Akatrai: We started syndicating just over a year ago. Now revenues are primarily from third party syndication deals with Screaming Media and iSyndicate. We are currently in negotiations with others.
Screaming Media exceeded our expectations. The experience has been amazing. Revenues are fine -- these are small days relatively speaking. What's fascinating is the breadth of the purchases of our content and the types of purchasers: black history sites, travel sites, entertainment, business.... People we actually would have never anticipated have been buying content. It's been very educational for us, who buys and what they buy.
iSyndicate is lagging a bit but turning things around now. We had an extensive meeting with iSyndicate's sales people, enlightened them on what the Monitor is all about and sent them copies of our media kit. That meeting helped.
We've also licensed to Public Interactive, the competitors of NPR. They have a primary source that collects data and feeds it out to various radio station sites. Each radio station customizes the feed for their own market.
Q: How do you set your pricing for licensed content?
Akatrai: It's pretty mutual. At times we'll set a price and if it's not getting much sales we'll go back and reduce it. Screaming set their price. We've worked with iSyndicate to reduce theirs somewhat.
Screaming is selling on an article-by-article basis. iSyndicate is more of a package deal. We have different packages for international news, money news, etc. They sell all the stories in a package for a certain price. They are in the process of developing a per-article structure as well. Per article sales have been more robust. I think it's causing iSyndicate to rethink some of their pricing structures.
Q: Are your site visitors mainly members of the Faith?
Wells: We've spent significant amounts of time researching who and where our target audience is. The majority of our visitors are not Christian Scientists. Instead they tend to be interested in gathering information from a variety of sources and tend to not completely trust the mainstream media. They're somewhat cynical. Our readers also tend constantly to look for patterns about what's going on in the world, how things fit together.
So, we try to produce news and information they need, and also allow them to take action that compliments their lifestyle. That's a key point -- how can we help them facilitate their lives?
We're now launching Monitor Marketplace Mall and trying to design it around some key lifestyle areas. Our visitors are very values driven. They are like doing business with and supporting companies whose values are similar to their own. So we'll be providing information about our advertisers' companies so our visitors understand who they are and how they operate as a company. The Mall is in prelaunch, really in its infancy now.
We also just launched Monitor Talk, a new online community forum. Our technology partner is Prospero and they've been very helpful. Within the first two weeks of launch about 1,800 users registered. They had a passionate interest in certain categories and wanted to talk about them!
Q: What new partnerships are you interested in developing?
Wells: It's all going back to what can we be doing to facilitate the needs and interests of our users. Some areas we're exploring are gourmet cooking, educational travel and advice on philanthropy. Our readers tend not to be mass consumers, but they do buy a select number of really beautiful objects for their home -- so arts and antiques is another area we're developing.
Q: How are you driving traffic to the site?
Wells: We've run a national drive-time campaign with National Public Radio. Over the Summer we also hired a Link Officer and two interns who looked at content on the site, researched similar sites and invited them to link to our site. It's now a permanent part of our strategy. We notify major portals, news channels and news aggregators when we have special mini- sites on particular subjects. About 60% of our traffic comes from other referrers, so this is mainly link traffic.
About 6-8% of our traffic comes through search engines; Yahoo is by far the largest at 4%. We've been maximizing rankings by working with keywords and metatags. We've got a part-time employee who focuses entirely on that.
26% of our visitors just type the URL straight in or have us bookmarked.
Q: How much traffic are you getting online vs. your offline readership?
Wells: Our unique monthly visitors are getting close to 600,000. In October it was 580,000. We see a bit of a seasonal dip in the Summer, but overall month-to-month shows approximately a 20% increase in comparison with month-to-month last year.
The paper's print subscribers are around 70,000 and the print international edition has 5,000-6,000. It's a reflection of the challenges in print distribution. Getting a daily paper distributed nationally and internationally is no small undertaking! It's extremely costly. So, the availability and exposure of the paper has been limited somewhat.
None of that exists on the online side. If somebody wants to see Monitor Journalism, they just go to CSMonitor.com. It's more frictionless growth online. The electronic edition will be at the heart of what we're offering in the future as a communications organization.
The print newspaper won't go away, it will always be there too. In fact to our delight, people come to the site and then subscribe to the print! We have a free trial button and we find the people that decide to actually subscribe are a significantly higher percentage than conversions from similar direct mail offers. The cost of acquisition is a lot lower. We've sold about 2,500 print subscriptions so far online and that's a number we're going to grow substantially.
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