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Jul 30, 2009
How To

Buying an Established Blog: Lessons from Consumers Union

SUMMARY: Blogs can lift search rankings while introducing your content to new readers. But what happens when a publisher purchases an existing blog? How do you find a good blog to acquire and integrate its content? Can you attract new subscribers?

That’s what Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, was hoping to find out when it purchased an edgy, consumer-focused blog called The Consumerist last year. We spoke to John Sateja, Executive VP, Consumers Union, and Mark Perton, Executive Editor, to get the answers.
Consumers Union publishes several blogs on ConsumerReports.org as a way to provide free content that can entice readers to subscribe to its online and offline products. But the publisher’s own blogs often appeal to an established audience.

The Consumers Union team needed to reach beyond their core audience of consumers over the age of 40. It was specifically looking to target consumers aged 18-34, but knew that a younger audience did not have a high willingness to pay for content.

“We wanted to do market development and brand development that made us a little more visible and relevant to that audience,” says John Sateja, Executive VP, Consumers Union. “One of these days, they may want to buy some serious consumer products and do some research.”

Their solution: In December 2008, Consumers Union acquired The Consumerist, a well-established consumer advocacy blog that was popular among younger readers. The team quickly discovered several significant benefits from purchasing an existing blog, rather than creating their own, including:

o Tapping an existing audience
o Using the blog to test marketing ideas
o Increasing search rankings
o Attracting younger subscribers -- about 7,000 new subscriptions so far

Seven months into the relationship, we spoke with Consumers Union to learn how they found a blog to acquire, and how they’ve made The Consumerist work with their own editorial offerings.

Here are five questions to ask when considering a blog acquisition, and five steps to achieve a smooth integration:

->5 Questions to Consider When Purchasing a Blog

Question #1. What is the blog’s mission?

The blog’s mission should be parallel with your subscription site’s mission.

Consumers Union is a nonprofit organization that provides independent, unbiased assessments of consumer products, primarily through its flagship publication Consumer Reports. It helps consumers make educated decisions about purchases by separating marketing hype from reality.

The Consumerist takes an advocacy/watchdog position by covering the most important consumer issues of the day -- but in an entertaining way. The blog’s posts cover everything from customer service complaints and safety issues to snarky take-downs of TV infomercials.

Both are trying to achieve the same thing -- empowering and protecting consumers -- which makes the acquisition work.

Question #2. What is the blog’s Web traffic?

The higher the blog’s traffic, the higher potential benefit for the subscription site that purchases the blog.

The Consumerist was a popular destination for consumers. It generated more than 2 million unique visitors and 10 million page views per month. It also ranked as the 38th most popular blog in the world, according to Technorati, a site that tracks blogs.

Question #3. Is the audience a new market?

Growth is the name of the game, so the blog’s audience should represent a new market for potential subscriptions.

The Consumerist attracted readers aged 20- to 40-years-old. That’s a much younger audience than Consumer Reports’ traditional 40- to 60-year-old audience.

“It’s a nice complement to our demographic,” Sateja says. “And helps to build some identity with a younger audience.”

Question #4. Is it an established blog?

Established blogs have loyal audiences, making them more likely to survive and grow over time.

The Consumerist had been around for three years at the time of the acquisition. It had a growing, loyal audience that was highly engaged, demonstrated by the volume of comments on blog posts.

“That takes a long time to develop in the marketplace, so it just made a lot more sense to buy the blog site than to try to replicate it,” says Sateja.

Question #5. Will it increase search rankings?

The more poplar the blog, the better chance it ranks high on search engine results pages, which means it could help the subscription site’s search rankings.

The Consumerist’s frequent posting schedule and popularity made it highly visible to search engines. The site often appears on the first page of Google search results for phrases such as:
o “bad customer service”
o “[company name] customer service”
o “consumer blogs”

The site’s popularity means that links back to Consumer Reports’ content raises Consumer Reports’ search engine visibility as well.

->Using a Blog to Attract a New Audience of Subscribers: 5 Steps

Step #1. Retain original staff

It’s essential that you allow any blog you acquire to retain its editorial voice and character. After all, that’s what helped the blog attract a large following.

The best way to maintain the editorial voice is to retain staff members who have been interacting with the audience for a long time. They have the most knowledge of the audience’s identity, motivations, opinions, and interest areas.

They’re also a key resource to tap about how to engage the new audience.

Consumer Reports kept The Consumerist’s original editors and re-hired writers that the previous owners had let go.

Step #2. Respect editorial independence

Don’t change the tone of bloggers’ writing, the content they write, or the topics they write about.

“We really didn’t want to mess it up,” Sateja says. “We wanted to have a distance between Consumer Reports and The Consumerist so they can continue to have the editorial freedom to do what they do best, because that’s what attracted us to begin with.”

However, Mark Perton, Executive Editor Online Media, Consumer Reports, met with The Consumerist team to provide guidance about editorial standards. Rather than dictating what The Consumerist team could or could not cover, he focused on the overarching goal of accountability and responsibility -- for example, not publishing criticism of companies that could not be substantiated.

It wasn’t a tough sell, says Perton: These were standards that The Consumerist team was already following on their own.

“Consumerist was not trying the way other blogs have to only focus on sensational or salacious stories. They’re serving consumers with useful, actionable information,” says Perton. “If all they did was bash companies or post whining rants, we wouldn’t have bought them.”

Step #3. Keep readers informed

Be transparent about the relationship between the blog and the subscription site. It builds trust with the readers.

The Consumerist Co-Executive Editor Ben Popken posted news of the acquisition the day it took effect. He outlined exactly what would change and what wouldn’t change.

Here’s the post:

“We are thrilled to announce Consumers Union has purchased The Consumerist effective 1/1/09.

What changes?

o Chris and Carey are back!
o Meghann Marco is promoted to co-executive editor and will reign supreme alongside Ben Popken.
o The only ads will be for Consumer Reports and Consumers Union-related stuff.
o There will be a new privacy policy and user agreement. We will let you know when they’re up and you can check them out.

What doesn’t change?

o Our voice, content, or independence.
o The blog stays free and open, no paid-subscription required.
o You keep your same commenter login and name.”

Step #4. Find appropriate ways to share editorial content

You want to make it easy for the blog’s audience to find content from the subscription site, without overloading blog readers with links. The goal is to introduce the new audience to your other products without resorting to hard-sell tactics.

Consumer Reports shared its content with The Consumerist in several ways:

- Creating a news feed

Consumer Reports created a mini RSS feed listing the latest consumer news, which is updated in real time. They placed those headlines in the left column of The Consumerist blog. Each article links to a blog post on the subscription site.

- Referencing Consumer Reports articles in blog posts

The Consumerists’ bloggers write their own posts related to Consumer Reports’ articles when appropriate. Those bloggers are allowed to write their own summaries or comments on the article in their own style, and there’s no effort to force them to link to the content. If Consumer Reports forced the bloggers to link to content that’s not relevant, they risk losing readers.

TIP: Meet with the blog’s staff on a regular basis.

Perton tells Consumer Reports’ bloggers to keep The Consumerist editors privy to content that might be of interest to the blog’s readers.

“The goal is to make sure they know about our content,” Perton says. “Know what we consider worth linking to and then really leaving the final decision up to the editors.”

- Adding contextually related links

The bloggers add contextually related links to Consumer Reports’ content when the links are relevant to The Consumerist’s blog posts. Contextual links take visitors to content that’s complementary to a blog post.

- Collaborating on co-branded projects

The two editorial teams communicate via instant messaging every day, and occasionally the Consumer Reports team takes on a project suggested by The Consumerist.

For example, The Consumerist team suggested a Consumer Reports test of the online and infomercial sensation “The Snuggie” -- which resulted in blog posts and videos for both properties.

Step #5. Incorporate online ads for subscription content

Consumer Reports waited two months to start advertising on The Consumerist.

“We wanted to make sure that before we did anything like that, or extend our brand in any major, aggressive way, that the readers on the site had a chance to get used to the idea,” Perton says.

The first phase of advertising promoted the Consumer Reports brand. Clicking on those ads took visitors to the Consumer Reports website, not to a landing page.

Later, the team began testing direct subscription appeals, including a free-trial offer for Consumerist readers.

Useful links related to this article:

Creative Samples from Consumers Union and The Consumerist
http://www.marketingsherpa.com/cs/ConsumersUnionandTheC
nsumerist/index.html


The Consumerist:
http://consumerist.com/


Consumer Reports:
http://www.consumerreports.org/



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