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Nov 21, 2000

How a Baptist Pastor Became an Online Publishing Pioneer: The Story of Dr. Ralph Wilson

SUMMARY: Dr Ralph Wilson just received the Tenagra Award for Greatest 'Individual Contribution to Internet Marketing.' In this exclusive interview, he told us how he grew his site from a small list of 100 contacts to more than 200,000 subscribers. He also detailed his varying business models - including ad sales and subscription sales. If you are an online publisher on any subject, or if you are considering launching a newsletter, you'll find this interview inspirational.
We admit it, Dr. Ralph Wilson is a hero of ours. For the past five years his online publishing company Wilson Internet Services has brought small businesses understandable, useful information on how to use the Internet to grow their companies. This content has proven so popular, that more than 250,000 small business leaders subscribe to his newsletters and/or visit his site on a regular basis.

Wilson has pioneered in more ways than one. He has launched popular opt-in free newsletters, a profitable paid email newsletter and a syndicated column.

How did a professional pastor found such a successful online publishing business in his spare time, when traditional publishing companies were still casting about for Web strategies? And what can we learn from his example? We called him to find out.

Q: Dr. Wilson, how did you get started as an online publisher?

Wilson: I had been online since 1988 with CompuServe and then in January 1995 I decided I wanted to learn about this new Internet thing.

I have two degrees in theology and I trained as a pastor, so I had done quite a bit of writing in the religious field. In April '95 I decided to put it all on the Web. That first Web site I built was 120 pages! It was great experience. I did an awful lot of things wrong. Today it would look very crude.

But I had people approaching me wanting to put their local businesses on the Internet as a result. The church I was serving wasn't able to pay regularly, so I needed to find employment. That's how Wilson Internet Services was born.

Q: How and why did you come to launch your Web site about marketing and your first marketing newsletter?

Wilson: It was after knocking on doors for work at a lot of industrial parks. As a pastor you knock on a lot of doors so I'm not afraid of that! But, I wanted to take advantage of the Web's huge potential so business would come to me rather than me going to it. My best clients were small business people. I decided to set up a Web site they could come to for Web marketing advice and then I'd sell them Web design. So, in July '95 I launched what became the Web Marketing Information Center. The strategy was that I would collect everything that was published on the Internet about Web marketing. At first there wasn't much -- links to about 20 articles on a single page!

By November '95 I'd noticed it took four to six weeks for people to make up their minds whether or not they needed a Web site. I needed some way to build trust during that gestation period and nurture potential customers through it. So I started my first email newsletter, Web Marketing Today. The idea was to give people great quality information about Web marketing and then have a gentle pitch for my business. It worked wonderfully.

We launched with a couple of hundred email addresses and we were off and running. I published one every two weeks -- and the more I wrote, the more I learned and was launched.

Q: How did you get from 200 subscribers to more than 100,000 without a big marketing budget, or lots of staff?

Wilson: It was basically pass-along -- and I put a place to sign up on my Web site. I started out with a subscription box on my home page. Then I decided I'll put a box on every page and things did better. They did even better when I put two on every page, one at the top and one strategically placed at the end of every article so when visitors were finished reading they could subscribe.

We've grown around 2,000 subscriptions a month for the last few years. It's very steady growth.

Q: Web Marketing Today is a free newsletter, like many others in the field. How did you happen to decide to make your second newsletter, Web Commerce Today, a for-fee subscription based newsletter? It's still an unusual business model online.

Wilson: By June of '97 I'm slaving away writing Web Marketing Today -- it's a great deal of work -- and I'm thinking, is there any way I could switch to doing this for pay? I saw the other free email newsletters online and decided no I couldn't have any success doing so.

I went on vacation with the family and took along one of those stupid books -- something like 100 Ways to Be a Millionaire. One thing stood out as I read it. The guy mentioned doing two newsletters. A light went off in my head.

I had been building online stores for clients since December 1995. Part of my role wasn't just building but helping small businesses onto the Internet, so I did a lot of free consulting. It was more than a Web design business -- but I didn't know what a Web design business was supposed to be! I started to realize that the ecommerce end of building sites was the hands-on part of it and people were willing to pay for that kind of information.

So, I launched Web Commerce Today in August '97. I tried to price it so small businesses could afford it if they were serious but not so low it wouldn't be taken seriously. It's $49.95 annually and people get two issues a month plus online access to all the back issues, plus password protected access to hotlinked summaries of ecommerce articles from other sites. A person could do research in a few hours on our site that would take days and days if you were just searching on the Web.

Q: How successful was offering paid subscriptions; and, how did you market them?

Wilson: It met my financial objectives the first year and then doubled the second. Since Web Marketing Today had a large subscription base I used that extensively in marketing the other newsletter. On my Web site I also have both free info and paid info on ecommerce. The search system is set up so it will tell you what's there and suggest a paid topic. It's a teaser. I haven't figured out conversion from that because I have so many repeat visitors it's hard to get a good handle on it.

My feeling is I provide a lot of information for free, so it's not wrong to provide some value for pay.

Q: How do you get people to renew their subscriptions?

Wilson: I notify people they are expiring by including it in the subject line of their newsletter and then have a little paragraph at the top. I give them two months notice, so that's four notices in a row. I don't send separate notices although I've thought about it. It's part of the publication they are reading.

Q: How did your third email newsletter on marketing, Doctor Ebiz, come about?

Wilson: For years every day I've gotten questions from people. How do I do this? How about that? It says to me a lot of people are still learning this thing. This February I decided I'd launch this new weekly column featuring 2-3 questions and answers. It would be 750 words maximum so if I wanted to, I could syndicate it to newspapers.

A few weeks before it launched I started advertising it to my Web Marketing Today readers and got about 1,000 opt-ins to start. In May I started a syndication program offering it to Web sites seeking free content. They get a free ebook from me as a gift for placing my content on their site. They place just 2 lines of java script on their site and my current weekly issues will appear. I have a subscription form in between each of the questions, so there's two or three on each. Any links create a new window.

So far about 300 sites have syndicated Docter Ebiz. I hope 10-15% of visitors who see it will sign up. I haven't tracked it exactly but that's the goal. Probably 95% of those Web sites get no traffic, but there are some that do. It's a win/win/win, for the site owners, for their visitors and for me.

I just crossed 40,000 opt-in subscribers in seven months.

Q: Whose syndication software do you use?

Wilson: MasterSyndicator.

Q: How are you handling the text vs. HTML issue?

Wilson: We've been offering an HTML option for a year at least. I wanted to learn how to do it and thought there might be some advertising potential. About 60% of subscribers who sign up now request it. Interestingly enough it's higher overseas than it is in the US!

I've tried to convert my old subscribers to HTML, but I haven't worked very hard at it. Web Marketing Today has 115,000 subscribers now, and of that about 28,000 get the HTML version.

I've also been collecting the first and last names of people for a year or so now. When you subscribe, a second screen comes up saying "Thank you, we just need one more thing. Please give us your name. It will help us be a little more personal. Also would you like HTML or text? And by the way, get Doctor Ebiz by signing up here for free!" It's programmed so that if in 10 seconds nothing happens, it will subscribe the person to text without their name automatically. But most people -- about 85%-- give their name.

I purposely don't put it on the first screen. I might discourage some small percentage of people and I don't want to discourage anyone.

Also, every place where we have a subscription box, I say we never rent or sell lists! It's clear and I mean it. I want to take away any barriers that might cause people not to sign up.

Q: Do people ever ask to rent the list anyway?

Wilson: Yes, I get people who call me up and ask would you rent your list? I feel I have a covenant with the people who signed up. I need to respect the permission they've given me and not take advantage of that in any way. They've done me a great privilege of allowing me to send them things. It's a mutual respect kind of thing.

I also say at the site, "Please do not subscribe your friends, let them decide for themselves." But then I'm very aggressive in every issue -- thanking people for telling their friends even though they may not have. Word of mouth is very powerful.

Q: Are you considering doing an HTML newsletter version with snippets of stories that links back to your site the way some other publishers do?

Wilson: No. A lot of people have said they like getting the whole thing. A lot of people store copies on their hard disks! There's something to be said for both, but my readers have encouraged me to keep doing it this way.

Q: It sounds like you've built this whole business almost single-handedly.

Wilson: Pretty much. My son in Chicago helped build some of the ecommerce sites before we got out of that business. My daughter at Stanford is a virtual subcontractor. And we have two links editors, one in Chicago and one in Canada, and that's it. I sell all the ads myself.

I'm a big believer in starting small and growing -- rather than starting huge and borrowing -- because then you have a business you can sustain. My interest is in growing rather than overextending. It's so easy to use other people's money to do things, but eventually it will catch up with you.

As a pastor, you're always writing newsletters. From 1988-'92 I wrote the American Baptist Church's newsletter, a hands-on how-to on starting new churches. It's amazing how God takes things in our background and puts them all together to create in a new way!
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