One word summed up every single speaker's advice at the Email Publishers' Profit Workshop: Passion.
Readers and advertisers alike spend more money with newsletters that have strongly individual personalities (if possible written in the first person) that focus on a targeted niche so passionately that they engross and involve their readers.
That is not to say that very big publishers (or small publishers with big lists) can not be successful with email newsletters. In fact speakers and attendees included both. It is just that email newsletters are the most intimate of mass media, a one-to-one media in which being beloved (or even sometimes passionately hated) can make a profound difference to your bottom line.
Here are our quick notes from the day-long Workshop:
1. Creating editorial that readers feel passionately about
2. Gaining the "right" opt-ins
3. How to sell more ads and sponsorships
4. Switching to the paid subscription model
5. Six ancillary revenue streams that can keep you going
6. Watch out! Deliverability problems to continue
You can get the 200+ page transcript, including Q&As, samples and slides, at http://sherpastore.com/store/page.cfm/1979?a=cb
-> 1. Creating editorial that readers feel passionately about
"I'm beloved. I've had readers come up to me at conferences and literally kiss my feet," Rebecca Morgan of SpeakerNet News told us. That love has turned into a steady income stream from ads and ancillary products since 1995.
Morgan's experiences mirrored many of our speakers even though they were in completely different industries, and even different countries. Reader passion turns into profits.
One key everyone agreed on: Do not be a guru.
Yes, your editor should be an expert in his or her topic. Do not ladle out advice from on high, because for true intimacy readers want to feel like your equals. Or as Ron May of The May Report put it, "I don't believe in writing with the attitude most journalists have. They act like they know better than their readers." May's vociferous reader responses prove they adore this stance.
There seem to be three main methods that newsletters use to achieve this editorial intimacy:
a. Speaking in the first person as a "neighbor" -- Both Agora's Daily Reckoning (270,000 B2C circ) and Booklocker's WritersWeekly (70,000 B2B circ) include columns from their publishers written in the first person. These publishers are highly regarded experts in their field, and their newsletters are on serious topics.
However, their columns are written as though they were emailing a personal friend. They will mention their kids, their families, what is going on in their lives, Agora's Andrew Palmer explains, "Our publisher doesn't talk down or up. He talks like a neighbor."
Sometimes WritersWeekly gets a reader letter saying, "Gee I don't think it's appropriate to share family news here." The avalanche of positive feedback from other readers outweighs this objection. "First person, conversational style connects well with readers," explained Richard Hoy, "That's why we're successful."
b. Encouraging, and publishing, reader letters and feedback. "Our people love to see their name in print," said Rebecca Morgan whose editorial consists almost entirely of reader contributed tips.
The writers of subscription newsletter The Friday Thing which features strong satirical humor, have offered readers "an abuse form" and gotten back paid subscriptions from readers longing to express their hatred of the newsletter in its pages. (It must be noted the vast majority of their subscribers feel the opposite, but also relish writing in for publication.)
c. Serving a highly targeted niche. "No one ever says they're an IT professional at a cocktail party," explained TechTarget's Don Hawk. "They say I'm a Windows Systems Adminstrator, or I'm an IT enterprise security manager."
TechTarget already niches out its Web presence into 19 different Web sites for different types of IT professionals, however, that is not niche enough for email success. These sites offer a total of 125 much more tightly targeted newsletters.
This does not mean you can not grow a big newsletter company, TechTarget has about 25 million opt-ins. It just means you will be much more successful publishing multiple pin-point targeted products than one broad one.
One last fascinating fact we noticed about the speakers who were successful in terms of audience loyalty and readership: Almost all had longer-than-average newsletters (one daily averaged more than 10 pages) and most published in text-only.
It is not that they could not handle HTML (after all HTML's not rocket science) it is that text does just as good a job as HTML for most at opens, clicks, and sales, and it is slightly easier on the production front. Saved production time is money.
This is in direct opposition to data and opinions we have heard from many marketers in other industries who are using newsletters as a marketing play, versus as a business in and of itself. Interesting, very interesting.
-> 2. Gaining the "right" opt-ins
First of all, most everyone agreed your readers have to be opt-ins. Not opt-outs. Not names you discovered on a list somewhere and added to your file. Not even opt-in names from a dot-com that has gone under (Agora's Palmer shared a scary story on that front).
This means for most publishers (especially in these cash-strapped days) that growth has been "organic." As in people discovering your newsletter for themselves, opting-in and then telling a few friends. It is slow growth that can take years.
Three tactics to spur this growth: Consistently ask readers to forward copies to interested friends; optimize your site to get the best possible rankings for related keywords in search engines; and design (and redesign, and redesign again) your site to maximize the number of visitors who turn into subscribers.
Those who have marketed aggressively suggested these additional tactics:
a. Co-registrations -- adding your opt-in offer box onto the registration form of a similar niche publisher
b. Online syndication -- getting related sites to carry a no-cost syndicated version of your content complete with a subscribe box for your newsletter.
c. Guerilla presence at trade shows -- Morgan gets many of her readers to wear bright yellow buttons with her logo.
d. Viral campaigns -- online games, quizzes, or petitions that strike such a nerve with your target audience that they sign up and tell all their friends to as well.
However, the key thing is not to get too aggressive. Your goal is not a zillion subscribers. It is a significant number of actively passionate subscribers who match your predefined niche. "Significant" can be defined as enough to appeal to advertisers without making your rates go intimidatingly high; or, enough to support you readily with subscriptions and/or ancillary sales.
TechTarget's Hawk explained, "These things have price ceilings - for us it's in the range of $5000 [per ad] for a single newsletter. And you'd better be able to show real return on investment."
Unfortunately as most newsletter subscriber lists age, reader open rates can plummet. In general, a new reader will open, read and click far more eagerly than a reader who has been on your file for more than a few months. Which means over time your average click rate diminishes.
Several speakers and attendees on the ad sales side said this factor was leading them to consider trimming lists (dumping readers who had not clicked in a while).
-> 3. How to sell more ads and sponsorships
"No one wants to buy advertising," explained ad sales consultant and trainer Janet Ryan. "They want to solve lead gen problems, marketshare problems, new launch problems, they're looking for solutions."
No, that solution is not "hey look at how great my editorial is," nor is it "I reach a massive number of eyeballs." Instead, it is "I reach exactly the customer you're trying to sell to and here's how you can make sure they react to your ad in my newsletter in a way that best helps your company grow."
Ryan preaches "consultative selling," TechTarget goes one step further and offers the services of an in-house agency that can create campaigns for clients.
Smaller publishers who can not afford to handhold potential ad clients are going in the exact opposite direction: Automating the ad sales process to the nth degree, while never relying on it 100% for income. Pre-paid low-cost ads are one of the products you offer in your online store. SurfNetKids' Feldman said delightedly, "There's no RFP, no insertion order, no work. My email box goes 'Ding' and I get a credit card ad order."
In both cases, anyone who relies on just the bigger advertisers in their field to support them is going to be in trouble.
Feldman noted, "Classifieds are growing much faster than sponsors - those are stagnant." Hawk added, "The reason TechTarget is still here is we sold to companies you've never heard of, the smaller players. You must attract the small-mid-level advertisers as well as the blue chips."
Once you get the sale, you also have to make sure your advertiser gets the best response possible. Sometimes this means turning down inappropriate offers. Very often this means advising on offer and creative.
Three tips to making your advertisers ads more successful:
a. Forget banners, ask them for text. "Text ads are outpulling banners 10 to one. Most people click on text," said Hawk.
b. Is it visible in Outlook Preview? "Many readers read entire issues in their preview box these days," revealed MarketingSherpa publisher Anne Holland. "They are lazy, they are time crunched, they are not opening to full screen."
c. Does it contain forbidden words? It is not just the obvious "dirty" words anymore. Spam filters are banning more and more seemingly innocent words and phrases these days in a desperate attempt to control the deluge. (In fact we learned yesterday that the word "grow" is now being heavily filtered.)
David James of Bethesda List Center shared a quick story of one otherwise innocent text ad that his team requested rewording for. Turns out their request could not get through to the client because her own email system in turn bounced it for "suspicious language."
By the way: "What's the difference between an ad and a sponsorship?" One attendee asked. The answer: Not much anymore.
Sponsors generally 'own' their spot for a longer period of time, and only include their company or brand name. In this economy, most sponsors want to run more copy than that (the benefits of long-term subtlety are out of fashion) and many can not commit budgets for more than a fiscal quarter.
4. Switching to the paid subscription model
"How do you sell advertising? You don't! Britain's in the middle of one of the worst advertising slumps in history."
This was the advice The Friday Thing's founders got from a friend at a major London ad agency after the newsletter launched initially with 75,000 eager readers and highly praised editorial.
They, like so many other free content providers in the past two years, found themselves faced with two options: Either sell your readers something directly or fold up shop.
Most of the Workshop speakers were offering some form of paid subscriptions, often in addition to other products, to their readers. Their top five bits of advice on this front:
a. Asking for purely voluntary contributions will never provide enough funds to support you. However, two publishers, The Friday Thing and The May Report, were able to use a call for contributions as a sort of market research effort to determine how popular a required-pay- model would be. If almost no one dips in their pocket voluntarily, do not bother going any further.
b. Cut the non-payers off. Be ruthless. Gone, gone, goodbye! People only respond when you force them to. That means setting and loudly proclaiming a strict conversion deadline, and then sticking to it.
c. Do not dump non-payers altogether. Create a free version of your newsletter that is really just teaser copy for the paid version.
This does not mean it should be a somewhat edited-down version of your regular newsletter.
Most readers can and will learn to live with less in order to avoid paying. Instead do either an absolutely anemic version of your newsletter, or better yet highly compelling marketing copy for your newsletter that changes with each issue.
Example, Agora's free Daily Reckoning is an entirely different newsletter than its paid (mainly print) sister publications. Columns and articles present valuable information in their own right, but also upsell readers to click through links for a higher level of expertise from various gurus on the paid side. (Note: Yes, being a Guru can help subscription sales, it just does not work as well for a free newsletter.)
d. Consider selling subscriptions to ancillary products. If your business model dictates keeping your main publication free, you can still test the subscription model on offshoot products.
SurfNetKids offers a subscription to it's "printables" line of PDF documents. SpeakerNet News offers a subscription to its ongoing teleseminar series.
In this case, you will get the best results if the price is noticeably cheaper for 'buying in bulk' via subscription versus making a one-off purchase.
e. No one has completely solved DRM (digital rights management) issues with newsletters. Requiring a security software download is a big enough pain for many subscribers in B2B and B2C that you will have to invest in significant customer support to manage it. Requiring that readers click through to your protected site to read their issues will annoy the daylights out of many and cost you accounts and renewals.
Your best solution is to accept reality: Your subscribers will forward their issues. However, if you are clever you can find ways to improve your sales because of it. (The Friday Thing did.)
-> 5. Six ancillary revenue streams that can keep you going
"It's much easier to sell people more and more products than it is to start accruing advertisers," pronounced Richard Hoy of WritersWeekly.
Plus he added, being able to use your ad space to sell your own products meant paying advertisers could not wheedle down your price in 'unsold inventory' because there never is any.
That said, everyone agreed that selling products to your readers requires a delicate touch. The more intimate and personal your newsletter is, the harder it is to suddenly break tone with a blaring sales pitch. You will not get clicks, and you may lose readers.
The need for subtlety and thoughtfulness bears repeating, because unlike third party advertisers who may move on to other newsletters, you are continually fishing in the same pond.
Rebecca Morgan who has been profitably marketing ebooks, books, classifieds, and teleseminars to a limited niche audience of just over 4,000 professional speakers since 1995 said, "We're not real hard marketers. There is a balance. Publishers who do obnoxious things are not as well regarded in our marketplace."
The six ancillary products most regularly sold by newsletter publishers are:
a. Archives to back issues. Note: Do not make the most common mistake and organize or market your archives by publication date. Nobody cares. Readers want to find back articles by topic.
b. eBooks. Do not call them 'eBooks.' Either people do not know what the term means, or they fret about having to deal with related technology. Tell people they can read the product instantly on their computers or print it out. That is what they want to hear.
c. Books. Richard Hoy was just one of several publishers to mention that printed books are back in fashion again. People like holding something in their hands, and they like getting something tangible in exchange for their money. Do you not know how much inventory to print up? Consider print-on-demand.
d. Live in-person events such as conferences. If you can also sell sponsorships or establish yourself as the annual must-attend event, in-person events might be worth looking into. Survey your readership first to make sure they will actually attend, and that they have enough in common to want to meet each other (peer networking is the biggest advantage in-person events have over virtual ones).
Many of the attendees at the Workshop noted that "It takes a lot to get me on a plane these days" or "This is the first time I've put on a suit all year."
The Friday Thing, who tested offering paid subscribers a drinks party in London, admitted, "It was a terrible, horrible party." Why? Their niche (office workers who are bored on Friday afternoons) was too broad to be very interested in meeting each other.
Bill Rogers of Biometric Digest added that in-person events are a risky investment because so much cash is required up front for location rental, speaking fees, food and incidentals. "I've found you need 40+ people to break even at a $400-$600 ticket price."
e. Teleseminars - Definitely hot right now. Teleseminars are audioconferences that only require a phone to attend. (Some Webinars require downloads or attendees run up against firewall problems.) You can also sell the tapes (or CDs) of your events afterwards.
f. Mailing lists - If you are very careful about reader privacy and how your list is sold, list rentals can be a great source of income. David James of Bethesda List Center suggested that publishers consider starting with a postal mailing list. Addresses can be gathered by running contests and surveys.
You will need 5,000 names minumum to start renting a B2B list, and 20,000-50,000 to start renting a B2C list. Prices range from $100-$250 CPM. Non-Canadian international names can go higher.
-> 6. Watch out! Deliverability problems to continue
All of these revenue streams depend on one single thing: Your issues reaching the recipient.
Unfortunately, according to MarketingSherpa's Tech Editor Alexis Gutzman, deliverability is getting harder every day due to the spam situation.
Innocent opt-in, double opt-in, and even paid subscription email newsletter publishers are getting caught in the cross fire between spammers and the people and systems trying to stop s*pam. Gutzman says it will not get better soon. It may even get worse as companies supporting huge chunks of the Internet backbone insert their own additional filters and blacklists.
In her own words, "There's no standard now. There's no easy way to pre-test your issue to make sure it will get through filters.
It's chaos out there."
Her four key recommendations:
a. Unless you can afford to hire a highly experienced and well connected email support staff in-house, use a professional list hosting firm. Increasingly this field requires professionals, not just a mailserver and some software.
b. Chose a list hosting firm whose other clients are purer than the driven snow when it comes to opt-ins. No opt-out mailers, no list rental fulfillment (even if it's opt-in), and obviously no spammers. If another client gets blacklisted for any reason, it often affects your mail send as well.
c. Demand a detailed bounce report for every issue you send out; not just what percent of your mail bounced, but exactly which names and for what stated reasons. Then look at it religiously. You will often catch potential problems before your host does.
d. Even when your bounce report says email got through, that does not mean it actually did. Many filters stop email after the 'not-bounced' signal has already gone through. You simply can not tell which did not get through, but you can watch your open and click rate reports for unusual troughs.
Also, make sure you see all reader email. Often you will learn about a problem when someone emails in, "I tried subscribing but it didn't work."
That is your signal to see if a reader can exert any influence on your behalf on their own end, perhaps by asking their IT department to place you on a whitelist.
Gutzman added, "Train your readers to scream loudly when they don't get issues."
Which of course brings this Special Report circling back to our first topic: Creating editorial content that inspires such reader passion that they will scream when they do not get it.
As mentioned above, yes we will be holding this Workshop again in October 2003. In the meantime, our Event Manager Jon Lowder is working like crazy prepping the transcript so we can get it to you.
He is including speeches, Q&As, hand-outs, sample newsletters, and of course print outs of PowerPoint slides. He says it looks like it will be more than 200 pages long, possibly even 300.
Unfortunately, due to the sheer size of the document (especially those slides) we can not offer it electronically. Just like our 'Selling Subscriptions to Internet Content Summit' event, the newsletter Workshop Transcript is in hard copy only.
Thanks very much for your support!
Anne Holland, Publisher
Alexis Gutzman, Tech Editor
Jon Lowder, Event Manager