December 03, 2001
Case Study

SearchEngineWatch - Story of a Profitable Paid Subscription Web Site

SUMMARY: Pioneer Danny Sullivan has been selling subscriptions to his Web site and newsletter SearchEngineWatch since 1997.  Now you can discover the two big subscription-marketing secrets he tripped over in the process (yes, these secrets affect every paid subscription Web site out there.) Plus, learn how he's diversified his revenue model, and what the most profitable part of the business is now.
Danny Sullivan, now arguably the most famous search engine marketing journalist on this planet, started out as an ordinary consultant. Back in 1996, he added a section to his consulting Web site called, "A Webmaster's Guide to Search

By mid-1997 the section was getting serious traffic. Sullivan says, "People kept referring to this site and the information. I realized I really wanted it to stand alone." He also wanted the credibility a separate site would bring when approaching sources. Executives who wouldn't give the time of day to an ordinary consultant, would happily agree to be interviewed by a trade publication journalist.

So, Sullivan moved his site section onto its own domain -- -- which quickly grew so popular, in part due to a promotion on Eric Ward's URLWire, that (now INT Media) purchased the site along with Sullivan's services as editor, just a few months later.

However, Sullivan's site was different from the rest of's fast-growing collection of sites in one key way -- from the start Sullivan decided to charge for subscriptions.

As's network of sites grew, SearchEngineWatch gained traffic from intra-site links. Sullivan also proactively sought out links on other sites relating to the subject. He says, "I continually did online networking. I'd go to search engines to look for terms I thought were important (ideally I'd find a million relevant search terms), see what sites were coming up under them and email the sites, 'I've got a great search engine site, I see you have a page on the topic. Would you add a link to me? I've already added a link to you.'"

Sullivan adds, "The guilt thing works. You give a link before you request one. It's fair, it's nice."

He also began to get a lot of mentions in the press. Often reporters would first learn of him from the search engines themselves. "That's very common in PR. Obviously reporters don't want to just talk to companies, you want third party perspective, and I would get referred by some of the search engines." Plus, whenever he saw a search engine-related article,he dropped a note to the author, offering his services as a source for future articles. Pretty soon Sullivan was one of the most frequently cited sources in his field, which in turn led to more coverage because reporters are an incestuous lot and tend to borrow each other's sources.

While this sounds like an easy way to build site traffic and credibility, Sullivan cautions that it can be a time-suck. He says, "Be prepared to spend two-four hours a week talking to reporters. Often you're dealing with people with no background, so you have to do a whole lot of education, bring them up to speed." He also notes that it's important not to pitch your own site too much during the conversation -- reporters strongly prefer to talk to sources who are not overtly using them as a platform to sell something.

Sullivan had two goals for his site traffic. The first was to get new visitors to sign up for a free subscription to his monthly newsletter. The second was to convert monthly readers into paid subscribers to his biweekly news service.

Unusually, instead of plastering the site with free subscription forms, Sullivan simply added a sign-up box at the very bottom of each free content page. He explains, "I feel that when people come to a page they're there for a specific activity -- to read the article -- then when they get to the bottom of the page, there's the form telling them to sign up for the free newsletter."

When Sullivan first started offering paid subscriptions in 1997, he simply asked readers to make a voluntary donation of $5. He says, "By the end of half a year maybe four people donated." At the same time as he was surfing the Net, he was upset to find sites that had lifted his articles wholesale. "I was working so hard to update information!" To stop the thievery, he immediately slammed up a password-protected barrier around his archives and best in-depth articles, which only paid subscribers could access.

Although the barrier, "was to protect content a bit more rather than to explicitly boost subscription sales", suddenly subscriptions went rocketing upwards. Sullivan had discovered a key secret to selling online subscriptions, "People only want to buy things when they have the buy things. People won't do it until they absolutely have to do it."

At first he set his price "really low" at less than $15 per year, and then raised it every couple of months in four dollar increments. "I watched it really closely to see what happened as I took it up." During these tests, Sullivan discovered another key secret to selling online content -- sometimes higher prices can work far better than ultra-low ones.

He explains, "We found the higher price put more value into it. Something at $34 was more valued and sold better than something at $19!"

Currently the price is at $89 per year. Sullivan also added a half-year price, now $59, because he recognized some of his readers were currently researching the topic but not involved in search engine marketing as a full-time job. He likens that part of his business to wedding magazines, which only keep subscribers for a short time period.

Paid subscribers get access to all back-issue archives, as well as a biweekly newsletter with many more in-depth articles than the free monthly has. Sullivan uses the free monthly and free articles posted on his site to push paid subscriptions.

He says, "There are significant differences in paid versus free articles. The paid is twice as long. For example last month I posted a series on how to submit to Yahoo. At the bottom of the free version it says, 'That's the basic stuff, but it would really behoove you to read the three-part gigantic guide [in the paid version] to do this correctly. It will help you to do this and that, etc.' They realize the wealth of information they get if they subscribe."

In addition to selling subscriptions, INT Media also sells ads on the free version of the newsletter. This became so successful that the Company hired an additional editor to turn out a free SearchEngineWatch daily newsletter with more ad slots, which launched in May 2001.

Plus, in November 1999 the company launched a SearchEngineWatch live conference in San Francisco. This did well enough that four regional events in San Francisco, London, New York and Dallas followed in 2000, and six events sold out in 2001 with Boston and Copenhagen being added to the locations list. Next year Australia, Germany and other locations may also be added. Tickets sell for $795-$895, and sponsorships and exhibits range from $500-$9000.

Alan Meckler, CEO INT Media gave us the following estimated figures on SearchEngineWatch:

Free monthly newsletter subscribers - 195,000
Free daily newsletter subscribers - 13,000
Daily site pageviews - 40,000
Paid annual or six-month subscribers - 5,000

Meckler says he expects the number of paid subscriptions to rise substantially now that his Company finally has the technical capability to offer automatic renewals. He says, "Now renewal rates are up, and the number of subscriptions increases on a weekly basis."

Sullivan notes that the free monthly newsletter at first picked up about 4,000-5,000 new subscribers per month, then tended toward 3,000-4,000, and now has been in the 2,000-3,000 range for some time as the marketplace has been more thoroughly penetrated. He says about 2/3 of paid-version subscribers go for the full-year option, and 25-40% of new subscribers say yes to the auto-renew option in return for the benefit of locking in the lowest rate for the lifetime of their subscription.

Sullivan's advice for other publishers considering selling subscriptions to online content is, "Your paid publication had better offer some value they can readily understand. We have testimonials, and we have a guarantee that if you don't like it tell us within 30 days and get your money back. (I think maybe 5 people a month do it -- it's a naught percent.) Also you have to have a credit card system. PayPal is ridiculous; it's a recipe for fewer sales if you don't you let people use something they have at hand. Overall, the main thing is if you're confident in your content, then you should be confident enough to charge for it."

Both Sullivan and Meckler agree that the conferences have been the killer app to make this property more profitable. Sullivan says, "It's amazing! In Boston in March 2001, when dot-coms were really doomed, we must have had 500 people packing the halls. Search engine marketing is coming into its own."

Meckler notes that these events are highly profitable because they are marketed through ads to current email subscribers, rather than by direct postal mail. He says, "Before when I was running MecklerMedia [former owner of Internet World shows], 35% of every dollar that came in went out on direct mail. Now less than 5% of every dollar goes out on promotions because we have such large email inventory to promote with."

The online advertising sales lull is affecting INT Media's other, mainly free-access sites, so Meckler is carefully studying the subscription and event model that's proven profitable for SearchEngineWatch and applying it across many other properties. Learn more in our exclusive interview with Meckler next week….

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