May 11, 2006
Event Wrap-up

Subscription Summit Wrap-Up Notes: 13 Paid Content Case Studies Presented in NYC

SUMMARY: We just got off the train from New York, where MarketingSherpa reporters were the only Press allowed to attend this week's Subscription Site Summit.

Here are our top notes from the show, including test results from 'Time Magazine,', Hoover's and the Entrepreneur of the Year, Brian Livingston's 'Windows Secrets Newsletter.'
In 2005, two online industries were both roughly $6 billion dollars. The first was paid search marketing, which as we all know, got an awful lot of press.

The second? Paid online content, ranging from newspaper Web site subscriptions to video downloads, which didn't get much press at all except for iTunes. The good news is that paid content is growing at about 15% per year in the consumer content space. (No one's tracking the b-to-b space carefully enough to estimate there.) In comparison, paid search is growing only 12%.

Why is paid search advertising far sexier to journalists (and Wall Street) than paid content marketing?

We can't tell you. But, it's probably good news for publishers because it gives you more breathing room to improve your marketing practices (see below) before the rest of the online world cottons onto the content business.

This week, 200 of the world's top subscription content sites met in a closed-door MarketingSherpa Summit in New York City to discuss how to improve their marketing and overall revenues.

Here are our overall quick notes from two days of intense sessions, including 13 Case Study presentations (a link to a complete transcript is also below).

Subscription marketing online is all about speed and convenience

Many people shop online because they hate waiting in line.

So to improve subscription sales, make it super-easy and convenient to buy. Can your shopping cart be shortened to a fewer number of pages? Can the order form start on the subscription info page rather than just being a click link?

Even copy stressing ease and convenience can help results. Example, Time Magazine's marketers revealed at the Summit that the online headline “It takes less than 30 seconds to join” worked much better than the vague “Time Archive” headline.

The same is true in the mobile space, where people want their cell phones to do everything instantly. In six months with almost no direct-to-consumer promotions, Consumer Reports has signed up more than 10,000 subscribers for a $3.99 monthly mobile phone subscription. “We really wanted to get in now before the market gets crowded,” Business Development Director Carol Lappin explained.

As's Michael McCurdy said, "You have to view all your email creative through the eyes of speed, too."

As he demonstrated by flashing actual email creatives on the screen, when you look at creative like a marketer (carefully, lovingly) it's a lot different than when you look at email creative as a recipient (2.9 seconds max).

Email that worked better for speed reading nearly always won his marketing offer tests. (Note: the same was not always true for newsletters.)

Most surprising subscription marketing test results

Just like other online marketers, folks selling online subscriptions are investing in loads of A/B and multivariete testing, not to mention watching their regular site, search and email analytics like hawks.

Here are some of the interesting test results revealed at the Summit:

- "If you're offering several price points, put the highest one first. This makes the rest feel lower in comparison," said Brian Livingston, Editor, 'Windows Secrets Newsletter,' who used pricing tests to increase revenues 77%.

- "Mentioning your price in search advertising can help conversions -- up to a point," asserted Sanjay Singhal, CMO, Simply Audiobooks. Prospects clicked like crazy on an ad with a $9.95 price, but at $19.95, clicks disappeared. (That's not to say he can't convert at that price, just that he can't get search clicks with that number in the ad.)

- "Button tests can make significant results for landing pages," noted moderator Mark Wachen, CEO, Optimost. But, once the prospect is another page or more into the conversion funnel, submit button tweaks don't affect responses as much. More educated prospects won't be swayed by button alone.

- "If you're selling ads plus subscriptions, you'll do best with only 5% of your content behind the barrier," said Eliot Pierce of 'The New York Times.' On the other hand, Bradley Koltz of Eagle-Tribune Publishing reported that his team found 85% of content should be behind the barrier for optimum results. Final result? Test it yourself.

- Hoover's discovered common wisdom about shorter-registration forms working best held true -- up to a point. When they tested a one-page form vs a two-pager, the two-pager won decisively.

- Most heartening test results of the year: ConsumerLab tested removing the expiration date from expired credit cards it had on file for annual auto-renew-account subscribers. Result: 35-point increase in his renewal rate. (Note: Don't try this outside the US. Accepted card processing activities differ considerably globally.)

Is the word “Subscribe” anathema?

Many marketers presenting case studies said they had tested the word "subscribe" in everything from submit buttons to headlines. The common result? Take it off.

Subscribe seems to have a negative connotation online these days. It means "pay" and it also means "Your credit card will be charged automatically until the cows come home." So consumers are understandably wary. We may love subscription marketing but they don't necessarily love subscription buying.

This partially explains why single-item sales, ranging from music downloads to pay-per-drink articles, are dramatically more popular year-over-year.

However, you still have to test it. Reuter's Joanne Casley is intensely grateful her team did.

When brainstorming name ideas for a new subscription service last year, her in-house team of experts all advised strongly against the word "subscription" appearing in the title. The experts' top pick for service name was "Investment Profile Library."

Shockingly, the marketplace had the exact opposite reaction. In extensive beta tests, hundreds of would-be customers said they'd much prefer to buy a "Investment Profile Subscription."

We suspect that's because the word "subscription" has come to have real value adhering to it. A subscription is premium content that's worth paying for. So if you are in the market, that's what you want.

If you're being targeted as a lead though, as you surf around the Internet intent on your own business, ads or email blaring the term "subscription" are a bit too much like "Buy Now." Folks just want to be romanced a bit first.

Which is indeed exactly what discovered. Email tests revealed that terms such as "Go" worked much better on click buttons than “Subscribe Today" or even "Free Trial” generally did.

Last but not least, test taking "subscribers only" content icons (you know the gold keys that used to bestrew many sub site home pages) OFF your site.

Both Hoover's and Editorial Projects in Education Inc. ( discovered that when you actively label lots of content as "paid" on the headline and navigation bar, all you're doing is telling visitors not to click.

If they don't click, they'll never see any of your lovely marketing copy on the barrier page explaining why they should subscribe. Neither nor Hoover's (nor we) suggest that you mislead or lie to visitors. Just don't slam the barrier so early in their visit that they are not tempted to look at at least another page before they leave.

Amateurish mistakes are lowering subscription marketing effectiveness

Just before the Summit, MarketingSherpa's research team visited all 200 registered attendees' home pages. The team expected fairly sophisticated marketing because most attendees came from name brand companies such as, Boardroom Reports, Classmates, The Weather Channel and Reed Business Information.

As Research Director Stefan Tornquist described, the results were surprisingly bad.

49% of the subscription sites visited did NOT offer an email opt-in anywhere above the fold on their home page. (In comparison, only 21% of other ecommerce sites don't offer email opt-in on the visible home page, and their core business is not content!)

Plus, when researchers signed up for email from attendee's sites, 22% of the sites didn't send a welcome message, despite the fact that the welcome is possibly your best subscription offer platform. Zilch. Nada.

Of those that did send a welcome, 68% sent something very weak. Generally this was a text-only note saying something like "You have been added to the list." It certainly wasn't a subscription offer.

And, here's scary data: 35% of the subscription order forms the research team visited had a "clear form" or "reset" button at the bottom. That's a button that deletes everything the customer has just entered into your order form. And, there's no purpose for it beyond causing you lost orders.

At long last, subscription sites are listening to their customers

This sixth annual Summit was the first one where we heard nearly every speaker mention talking to the customer.

Sometimes that talking took a form of surveys. Sometimes it was message boards. And some marketers walked over to customer service on a regular basis to ask what the front lines were hearing.

Why the change? Perhaps subscription marketers are waking up to the fact that while analytics reports and testing are wonderful, nothing replaces asking a customer directly what he or she really wants. Also, perhaps marketers are being affected by the surge in customer-driven content sites such as MySpace and Wikipedia.

It's kind of scary when potential subscribers make their own content instead of paying for yours because, perhaps, you don't have what they're really looking for.

At Jigsaw Data Corp., which offers a directory of more than three million business contacts all supplied by its members, President and Founder Jim Fowler learned so much by including his community in product decisions. He also learned to “treat the ones who become fanatics fantastically -- this has provided the most insight for us.”

Reuters gathered a group of users to beta test its research service and received invaluable feedback in return. Doing so helped the company fix several bugs and helped execs make the decision that the product was ready to roll out, Casley said.

The testimonials were fantastic, too: “Thanks for considering my opinion. That is rare these days.” “There are very few firms that actually pay attention to what users think about their online services.”

* Note on data: the $6 billion cited at the start of this article is drawn from MarketinugSherpa's Search Benchmark Guide 2006, plus OPA/comScore numbers and our own research. OPA data shows just $2 billion of content sales, but they don't include most b-to-b, inside-application sales (many game subscriptions) or adult content. We strongly suspect these make the lion's share of the online content marketplace.

Useful links related to this article:

Would you like the entire 231-page transcript of this Summit, including 13 Case Study presentations and all the PowerPoint slides? Sign up at this link and we'll ship you a copy the instant it is available.
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Also available:
Subscription Summit Transcript from 2005 featuring,, Highbeam,, and 8 more Case Studies:

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