September 18, 2001
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Yes, people will pay for subscriptions to email newsletters and Web sites. (Don't listen to the so-called "experts" who say it's impossible.)
ConsumerReports.org, WSJ.com and Ancestry.com are all in the half- million paid subscriber range. Entrepreneurs are also having luck in this arena. For example, Fred Langa, publisher LangaList, has more than 10,000 paid subscribers -- and he's a one-man shop.
After interviewing dozens of successful publishers of subscription sites and newsletters, the editors at MarketingSherpa have found five rules that seem to apply across the board:
1. Offer a Free Email Newsletter
Run a free email newsletter in conjunction with your subscription product. Your free newsletter will be the best way you have to market subscriptions.
Usually free newsletters include at least one useful article or item of information to make them worth getting. Then, after that, they feature tantalizing headlines and links back to articles that only paid subscribers can read. Sooner or later many of your free subscribers will end up buying a subscription from you. In fact, depending on your pricing, content-value and marketplace, you may get between 2 and 10 percent conversions from free to paid.
2. Don't Give Away Free Trials (Except in Two Circumstances)
Unless you have exceptionally unique and desirable content, or a strong, time-tested marketing conversion campaign in place already, do not allow non-subscribers visit the "paid-only" area of your site, or send them free samples of your paid newsletter.
In almost all cases except the two mentioned above, free trials can hurt rather than help your sales process. (In advertising terms, it's called "Selling the sizzle, not the steak.")
In fact, the Web sites that have the highest conversion rates have almost no freely visible content at all and never give free trials. Everybody who tries to click beyond their home page to read more of a summarized story or headline is turned back with a "sorry -- for paid subscribers only" barrier.
If you're transitioning from being 100 percent free, you have two choices -- either keep the free service going and also launch an obviously different service with a different name that's not free; or close the doors and and allow nobody in who isn't a paid subscriber.
You'll have a difficult time being partially paid and partially free. It doesn't work because people don't see enough barriers to must-have content to make it worth their while to ante up the money. Conversion rates for sites that have both free and paid content are much lower -- sometimes less that 0.1 percent.
3. Test offering a premium with subscription.
This trick from the traditional publishing world also works like a charm online. Tell potential subscribers that with their paid subscription they will also get a compelling free gift. Generally a gift related to your publication's topic (perhaps an e-book or topical white paper) works best. For example, a gardening newsletter could offer "101 Tips to Grow Disease Free Roses."
4. Set your pricing based on the competition.
If there is no one in the online world successfully selling subscriptions to your market, then look to the offline world. What are consumers willing to pay for annual subscriptions for your type of content there? Remember that offline publishers have done years of price testing -- so you might as well take advantage of it.
The cheapest price is not always your best bet. You may get more subscribers, but more marketing, fulfillment and customer service headaches too. Work out costs per subscriber on a spreadsheet before setting prices. It may be easier to market and fulfill 100 subscriptions at $1,000 each than 1,000 subscriptions at $1 each.
5. Survey your readers frequently.
This is one of the advantages of the Web -- you can dash off a survey and get it answered within minutes. We've subscribed to more than 100 e-mail newsletters and registered at more than 50 content Web sites in our time. Almost none of them have ever surveyed us about our content needs and desires. In fact, almost none of them ever surveyed us until they wanted to know if we would switch from free to paid.
Don't let that be the first survey your readers see. Instead, survey them before you switch, after you switch and all the time in between. Ask them what they really want to learn more about -- the answers will almost always surprise you -- and allow you to change your content into something they find so valuable they can't help but pay for it.
BTW: Our current favorite online survey program is SurveyMonkey.com -- if they're not right for you, just visit their about us site section to see links to all their competitors!