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Renewed Focus

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E-mail newsletters are the oldest trick in the b-to-b online media book. Because they looked just like the good ol' editorial-plus-display-advertising model, print salespeople were comfortable selling them and advertisers venturing online for the first time were comfortable buying into them. Plus, they drove eyeballs to b-to-b media Web sites with great reliability and minimal cost. "It's the gift that keeps on giving," as online media people say.

"E-mail newsletters are as important to our business today as they ever were," said Peter Spande, director of CNet Networks Business. "E-mail newsletters are responsible for a huge amount of our session starts, and they are an even bigger source of page views. People who start with us from e-mail go deeper into our site and come back more regularly."

"Our data tell us that the users who click through from our newsletters are some of our most valuable users," said Jeff DeBalko, chief Internet officer of Reed Business Information.

In fact, e-mail newsletters were almost a no-brainer for so long that some b-to-b media people may not have noticed that times have changed.

"In 2005, we made it part of our strategy to reduce our dependency on e-mail newsletters," said Prescott Shibles, VP-online development/new media at Prism Business Media. "With so much competition, we knew it was inevitable that open rates would start to decline, so we decided to offset that risk by focusing on who was using our newsletters rather than the numbers."

Rather than building out its lists, Prism started to cull them, while simultaneously drilling down to find out more about the overall value of regular readers.

"We've developed some new reports that tell us which users are active clickers and which are deadwood," Shibles said. After the system shows no activity between a given e-mail address and an e-newsletter for a certain amount of time, the user will receive an automated e-mail that says, in essence, "We're going to stop sending you this newsletter unless you click here." The last-chance e-mail covers for the fact that current e-mail measurements are far from perfect and the person actually may be reading but not clicking or downloading images-actions that must be taken for clicks and opens to be tracked.

Shibles said he is glad now he took the actions that he did when he did. Over the past year or so, depending on vertical industry segment, open rates and click rates have gone down, according to every e-media executive contacted by BtoB Media Business . At the same time, more advertisers and agencies have become sophisticated enough to ask for metrics just as they're declining.

Readers, meanwhile, have little time to spend managing their ever-bulging e-mail accounts. While the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 and the large e-mail service providers have largely beaten back porn and other unsolicited spam, people have gotten used to thinking, "If I don't want it, it's spam." B-to-b publishers, which might have once felt exempt from being labeled spammers because of their reputations and trusted relationships with readers, now have a lot more competition from other legitimate senders--from CNN and The Wall Street Journal to Amazon.com.

"People don't use the unsubscribe feature anymore," said Stephen Howard-Sarin, VP at CNet Networks Business. "We have thresholds set up so that we automatically stop sending e-mails to people who have stopped voting for our content by clicking. If they aren't getting value, neither are we and neither are our advertisers. Besides, we make sure our click-through rates are based on a group of people who really want us."

Stephen Wellman, who joined CMP Technology last October as editorial director of newsletters, summed it up by saying, "Irrelevancy has become the new spam."

"You have to be monitoring what you're doing all the time to make sure the e-mails you are sending out are relevant and useful," said Eric Shanfelt, senior VP-eMedia strategy and development at Penton Media. He advocates using a third party that specializes in e-mail delivery to handle the technical aspects of getting through corporate firewalls and the spam nets of large e-mail service providers such as Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo!, Earthlink and AOL. "If your goal is high deliverability, you better have good content," he added. "That's also the best way to grow your opt-ins."

Opt-in, the new standard

At Reed Business Information, DeBalko heads a new centralized online division called Reed Business Interactive that he started putting together in July. "What we will be doing with our e-newsletters speaks directly to the reason we created this division," he said. "We've been doing e-newsletters for a long time. Although revenue has been growing, click-through rates are declining." In the past, Reed went with the then-popular "batch and blast" strategy of constantly trying to build bigger e-mail address lists and sending unsolicited e-mails that required recipients to opt out.

"But it's not a pure numbers game anymore," DeBalko said. "We really need to target our audiences more effectively. The new model is opt-in [e-newsletters] with high quality and strong performance." As the new interactive division implements a huge new emphasis on metrics and analytics across all of Reed Business, the roughly 200 e-newsletters published by the various titles will be evaluated thoroughly.

At Putman Media, Mark Harling, VP-business development, started the company's first centralized e-media division two and a half years ago. When he arrived, Putman published half a dozen e-newsletters; today, it puts out more than 40. "We did a lot of research to find out what was state-of-the-art thinking in e-newsletters," he said. Then he created a new e-mail template "to make sure all our newsletters will pass through spam filters. That included stripping out excess HTML code; adding more personalization into the subject line, so it seems to be coming from an editor by name, for instance; and increasing the content-to-code ratio." Harling also changed the strategy from opt-out to opt-in.

The net result is a new design that is more text-heavy, "so you feel like you're getting some meat," but at the same time, "more clean." Plus, open and click-through rates have gone up, Harling said. "We're getting 30% to 35% click-to-open rates" (the percentage of click-throughs based on the number of opened e-mails).

"I'm a big advocate of permission marketing," said Jennifer Collins, managing director of Law.com, which will soon be launching its 13th e-newsletter. "We work very hard to develop messages people want to hear from us. And when we want to launch a new newsletter, we start slow--maybe once a month. If people want it and the metrics show it, we may go to twice a month, then, finally, once a week."

Readers at Law.com and throughout its parent company, ALM, are also customers, which is different from the typical b-to-b controlled-circulation model. ALM publishes paid-subscription periodicals including The American Lawyer, Corporate Counsel, The National Law Journal , and several state and regional legal newspapers. Law firms that advertise are also audience members, and that same audience may also purchase books, continuing legal education lessons, reference materials and other items. "We have to be very careful about the number of times we e-mail each person over the course of a year," Collins said.

Content concepts

Wellman joined CMP Technology from FierceWireless, a publisher of "concise, quality information" in e-newsletter form for business leaders. At CMP, he is now implementing an e-letter strategy that's based on two trends: "a trend toward more narrowband topics that serve smaller, more segmented niches and [e-newsletters with] content readers can't find anywhere else," he said.

One example of both, Wellman added, is the "Tech Careers" e-newsletter that was launched June 15. "We decided to leverage two experts, Judy Mottl, who as editor of TechCareers.com has the career focus, and Johanna Ambrosio, who is a writer for InformationWeek.com, so she brings that broader technology perspective," he explained. "We opted for the frequency of every two weeks," he added. "We're finding that longer seems to be better. When you give people more rich content, click-through rates go up."

Dave Iannone, VP-publishing at Cygnus Business Media's interactive division, also is exploring "more exclusive content in e-mail newsletters. There's a huge appetite for good content, whatever the medium is," he said. On the business side of the equation, Iannone is considering pairing the exclusive e-mail content with a paid subscription, which could be paid by the end user or, perhaps, a sponsor.

As part of their individual brand teams, editors are beginning to drive e-newsletter growth at PennWell Corp., according to Tom Cintorino, senior VP-digital media. After PennWell improved its content management system to make the e-letter publishing process easier--and as they have become more accustomed to writing for multiple platforms-editors have stepped up with their own ideas for new newsletters, particularly when a subsegment suddenly gets hot. "We're going in the direction of smaller, more nimble and quicker launches," he said.

Alec Dann, newly appointed general manager of Hanley Wood e-media's Magazine/Information Group, said that most of the b-to-b media has been "challenged in making the most that they could out of e-mail newsletters." In recent years, as many b-to-b editorial staffs have been stretched to produce content for the Internet as well as print, the e-newsletter business suffered, he said.

"In the early days of the Internet, e-mail newsletters had a lot more personality, it seems," Dann said. "The really good ideas require incremental work [on behalf of the editorial staff] and it's difficult to build a business case for that. I think a lot of us turned to production-oriented solutions, like content management systems, to handle the workload, but I also think we left some opportunities on the table."

As Dann budgets for 2007, he plans to put more resources into the e-newsletter business at Hanley Wood in order to turn the tide on that trend.

Wellman agreed that personality is one way to differentiate an e-newsletter within a crowded field. "People come to the b-to-b media for leadership. The editor's note has been a perennial highlight for a lot of publications, for example," he added.

At the opposite end of the pole-very frequent, very short-Wellman sees a parallel trend toward fully automated news alerts that drive traffic to Web sites. He predicted that the brief-and-quick and longer-and-richer styles will probably supplant the "older-school"e-newsletters filled with repurposed content. "There's still room for lots of formats," Wellman said. "I do think the ability to automate and customize news alerts is coming along, and we're building products like that."

At Putman, Harling recently launched his first automated e-news alert. "We're letting readers chose from among 13 topics and three levels of frequency--weekly, biweekly and monthly," he said. "These have a much higher open rate than our typical e-newsletter." The alert provided some surprising data on what the audience wants as opposed to what people say they want. "From a frequency standpoint, we were surprised to find that 70% selected the most frequent, weekly," Harling said. Out of the 13 topics, though, users chose to receive a newsletter on an average of three.

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