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Jun 28, 2004
Case Study

How to Stem Email Opt-in List Shrinkage: BLR Grows Email Lists by 6% in 8 Weeks

SUMMARY: If you have a house list, you know the pain of churn. Names come and names go... sometimes your intake doesn't come close to matching the losses.

When BLR's house list size declined by 10%, despite promotions and value-laden editorial newsletter issues, the team had to act quickly.

In this quick Case Study, you'll hear the six steps BLR used to reverse the trend. Includes vendor names and creative samples.
CHALLENGE

Business and Legal Reports Inc. (BLR) needed to stop the email newsletter circulation bleeding, and fast.

The 27-year-old media company saw up to 30,000 names across its 10 email newsletter titles vanish in just two years -- 2% lost in one month alone at its 80,000-circ flagship 'HR Ezine'.

"The most disturbing thing we found was that large blocks of people were being pruned due to hard bounces," notes Senior ME/Web Chris Kilbourne.

BLR execs estimated the average value of each opt-in name was $1.50-$2.00, partly from free readers converting buy special reports and/or paid premium site subscriptions averaging $500 year.

How could they lower their email opt-in list churn? Was there a way to keep opt-ins on as actively reading prospects longer?

CAMPAIGN

Senior Managing Editor, Web, Chris Kilbourne and his redesign team at BLR launched a six-point plan to overhaul their entire email newsletter program:

Step #1: Switch email broadcast vendors for better delivery

"April was our last month with our previous email service provider," Kilbourne says. "We had some suspicions about them, that they might have hosted some spammers. We didn't have a dedicated IP address then. We could have, but the cost was outrageous."

One of the key items on Kilbourne's checklist for choosing a new vendor was a reasonable cost for a dedicated IP address. (That means you won't suffer the collateral damage that comes when you share an IP address or mail server with somebody who IS blacklisted or blocked.)

Step #2: Retest previously bounced addresses

"We weren't convinced (all the vanished emails) were all bad addresses," Kilbourne says. So he launched a "prunes recovery project."

First, just before switching vendors, BLR's IT staff downloaded a list of all addresses that had been reported as invalid or blocked over the previous two years. Then, Kilbourne's team sent a single email message to the list and eliminated any that bounced as invalid.

"We said, 'We know you didn't unsubscribe. If your address is still valid, and you want to continue receiving your newsletter, please sign up with a different email address'," Kilbourne says.

(Note: Why not just re-add them to your regular list? Two reasons -- firstly some of the older names might think you're spamming them if you start to send again out of the blue. Secondly, retrying hard bounces repeatedly is a fast way to get yourself blacklisted or filtered out completely by many ISPs who hate list owners with bad hygiene.)

Step #3: Streamline post-delivery email handling

The old email delivery system overwhelmed BLR's customer service reps, who had to comb through thousands of messages that flooded in post-delivery in order to find feedback, address changes, and unsubscribes.

Crucial messages -- unsubscribes, address changes, feedback, challenge-response queries -- got lost in the tidal waves of autoresponders and spam that each newsletter delivery triggered.

Now the team programmed their email system to filter out the junk and divert "live" messages to folders for speedy customer service handling. That made the job manageable for just one or two CSRs, Kilbourne says.

"We collected 25 address-change requests in just one week," he says. "By not looking at and monitoring that mail, we were not keeping with the spirit of the (CAN-SPAM) law. Now we won't foster ill will by not seeing unsubscribe messages."

Step #4: Optimize email sign-up forms

As Kilbourne describes it, BLR's email sign-up forms were "clunky." For example, site visitors had to click to an interior site page to opt-in.

Not anymore. The redesigned homepages and newsletters now have sign-up boxes posted at top, right side, and bottom (depending on location):

-- Newsletters: To the right of each newsletter title is a text "Subscribe" link that shoots the reader right to the bottom sign-up box.

-- Homepages: The general BLR.com homepage sports two subscribe locations: an attention-getting red link in the top navigation bar, which leads to a sign-up form on an inside page, and a sign-up box, also with red attention-getting bars (white type on a red bar) just above the "fold," or the top half of the Web page that the reader sees first.

-- Topic homepages: Each of the four topic areas (HR, Compensation, Environment, and Safety) has its own website within the BLR network. Here, the redesign team put a text link to a Javascript pop-up box in the top navigation bar and sign-up boxes along the top right side of the homepage and at the bottom, where it repeats the attention-getting red color scheme.

The team also tested which boxes delivered the most sign-ups. (See Results.)

Step #5: Overhaul the email newsletters themselves

"We did get feedback from people that the newsletters were too long, that people got too much email already, they didn't have enough time to read the newsletters," Kilbourne says.

So, the BLR turnaround team shortened and redesigned their information-rich newsletters to make them easier and faster to read. "We chose to sacrifice some information because we are more interested in growing the list."

The new design was also more printer-friendly for people who still prefer printouts over online viewing. Now the right side doesn't cut off.

The editorial team also began tracking which topics readers responded to most, and tailoring content to match favorites. What's a popular topic across all of its content categories? "The 20 hottest job markets. That was off the charts," Kilbourne says.

Step #6: Launch spin-off newsletters to widen reach

"We've got these four main verticals but we weren't mining them," Kilbourne says. "We decided to create additional newsletters based on material already in the verticals and to make them short, self-contained, something you can take and print out and read on the train and which people would be likely to forward to others."

The team tested the concept in April by launching 'HR Strange But True,' previously a popular feature in the main HR newsletter, as a stand-alone title. They gave the new opt-in offer a prime spot in the newsletter sign-up box but no other publicity.



RESULTS

BLR's total goal was to grow email opt-ins by 10% in a year -- and so far in just eight weeks, they've grown names by 6%.

Growth varies by title, with extremely established titles growing more slowly than newer ones.

The "prunes recovery project" has reclaimed about 700 addresses -- roughly a 2.3% re-opt-in response rate. "It's a significant number to us, so we're pretty happy about that," Kilbourne says.

The right hand sign-up box on the topic homepages delivered the greatest number of subscribers: 51% compared to the bottom sign-up box (35%) and the top text link in the nav bar (14%).

Plus, with 700 opt-ins in just two months, the spin-off 'HR Strange But True!' newsletter has proven so popular that the team will launch another new spin off, 'Safety Training Tips,' this month.

Seems that business readers prefer shorter, more targeted email newsletters to longer, subject inclusive ones.


Useful links related to this article:

Samples before-and-after newsletter design and opt-in forms:
http://www.marketingsherpa.com/blr/ad.html


Return Path -- a deliverability consultancy BLR used:
http://www.ReturnPath.biz


SubscriberMail -- BLR's new broadcast email vendor:
http://www.subscribermail.com


Business and Legal Reports Inc.:
http://www.blr.com/

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