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Oct 04, 2007
Case Study

How Niche Publisher Cut Subscriber Acquisition Costs in Half

SUMMARY: When interest in your publishing niche is booming but your target audience is spread out among several demographic groups, how can you afford to reach them?

A green publisher was admittedly "hemorrhaging money" and seeing less ROI on their direct marketing. Using email and targeted list purchases, they're now seeing conversion rates as high as 20%. Best of all, they reduced by half the cost of adding a subscriber.
Knowing a publication’s core demographic audience is a cornerstone of most subscription marketing. But when readers are defined by lifestyle choices that cut across wide swaths of age and economic categories, marketers struggle to find the best places to target their subscription offers.

The publishers of The Green Guide, which targets consumers interested in personal health and environmentally sustainable living, knew they had a growing audience, but those readers were hard to fit into a simple demographic box: readers were split between male and female and occupied such a wide economic and age range that made traditional targeting efforts almost meaningless.

“We’ve been around for a while and had been doing direct marketing for years. In the ’90s, those campaigns were doing extremely well, but in the early part of this century the numbers started to drop. We were hemorrhaging money and not bringing a lot of names in,” says Wendy Gordon, General Manager.

Gordon and her team needed a new approach that was flexible enough to reach niche consumers among those broad demographic groups. The marketing also needed to be less expensive and time-consuming than direct mail, so the team could quickly move onto new prospects when a campaign’s effectiveness began to decline.

Gordon and her team turned to email marketing, using lists from carefully chosen partners whose audiences shared key characteristics of The Green Guide’s focus on a sustainable lifestyle.

Here’s how they managed email campaigns targeting psychographics, rather than demographics:

-> Step #1. Identify partners with complementary email lists

Finding the right lists is paramount when targeting a psychographic group. For The Green Guide, this meant finding partners whose email lists reached a similar health-conscious and environmentally aware audience, and then placing ads in those newsletters or sending promotional blasts to those opt-ins lists.

Gordon and her team sought lists from a variety of newsletter publishers that fit their message:

- Nonprofit groups. They sought out primarily environmental or animal-rights organizations, such as the National Wildlife Federation, whose supporters were likely to be receptive to The Green Guide’s environmental message.

Besides offering a potentially receptive audience, nonprofits also tended to have more inventory available in their newsletters or fewer third-party promotions to their lists, making The Green Guide’s message stand out.

- Magazines with complementary audiences. The team sought publications that appealed to some aspect of the broader healthy or sustainable lifestyle psychographic, including titles focused on health, spirituality and left-leaning politics.

- Businesses in the sustainable lifestyle market, such as Care2, an online network dedicated to health, environmentalism, human rights and other causes.

Gordon’s team would rotate through those lists on a monthly basis, assessing how each month’s campaign performed and then shifting the focus to new audiences as needed.

-> Step #2. Write email copy appealing to prospects’ personal interests

Although The Green Guide’s focus is on environmental and social issues, Gordon’s team learned over the years that subscribers were most responsive when broader concepts were placed in a personal context. “People care more about themselves than they do the planet.”

With this in mind, they crafted appeals that focused on the personal benefits of making environmental or socially responsible choices. The team’s previous experience with sustainable-lifestyle marketing also had shown them that prospects tended to respond to compelling copy, rather than to graphics or special offers that might work in general-interest subscription marketing.

The result was a series of short, text-based ads and emails, with messages, such as:

- “Would you eat cloned meat? The FDA says cloned meat is safe to eat, but the public doesn’t buy it. Get the latest on the livestock cloning debate, how it affects you and other green trends with The Green Guide.”

- “Which products should you buy organic and why? Can you keep your home clean without toxic chemicals? How can you be green in home furnishings and improvements? The Green Guide is *the* source for green living and environmental health and wellness advice.”

In some cases, messages were tweaked to directly reflect the interests of the email lists’ audience. For example, an ad they placed in an email newsletter from The Nation, a left-leaning political magazine, highlighted Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and talked about the political debate over environmental issues.

Each message contained a special subscription offer, such as a limited-time discount rate, and hotlinks that took prospects to a microsite for more information.

-> Step #3. Microsite for campaign landing page

Although the emails were kept concise and tightly focused on hot issues and personal concerns, the team developed a microsite to serve as the campaigns’ landing page. The microsite provided additional information to build upon the interest generated in the email appeals.

Despite containing several sections of information, the microsite was focused on the campaigns’ primary task: Giving prospects enough information to convert them into subscribers.

Key features of the microsite included:

- A catchy headline. This typically was a quote from a third party, such as, “The Green Living Source for Today’s Conscious Consumer -- Elle Magazine.”

- A hero shot in the upper right corner that showed samples of magazine covers.

- Copy that reiterated and expanded on the issues most important to their audience, such as the health of their families.

- A section containing testimonials from existing subscribers and media reviews, to help establish the organization’s credibility and authority.

- Information on the Green Guide Institute, the nonprofit organization (recently acquired by National Geographic) that published The Green Guide. The organization traces its history back to an initiative of the National Resources Defense Council and was co-founded by Meryl Streep -- details which Gordon’s team included to help give the publication more credibility.

- More details about the subscription offer, including access to print or digital editions, archives, user product ratings and discounts from vendors.

- A subscription registration form.


Targeted campaigns to a range of email lists are finding those customers with the right psychographic profile that direct mail missed. In the first few months of the email campaign, Gordon saw conversion rates average 8%-9% a month, with some lists delivering rates above 20%. “We’ve had steady and strong results on a monthly basis.”

Over time, the average monthly conversion rate has declined to closer to 5%, but that performance is still far outpacing previous marketing efforts, especially in terms of ROI. For direct mail campaigns, the cost per subscriber was often close to $20. Electronic campaigns are delivering new subscribers for less than $10.

“For every dollar we spend, we’re getting two times as many people. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Along the way, they have also learned important lessons about which appeals resonate most with prospects. For example, the politically focused ad to subscribers of The Nation didn’t perform as well as other messages highlighting health and safety, reiterating Gordon’s belief that framing environmental issues in personal terms is the best approach.

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from The Green Guide’s campaign:

SRB Marketing Inc. - helped develop and manage The Green Guide’s email campaigns:

The Green Guide:

See Also:

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