Some reading…

I’ve been doing some work for the subscription bureau Dovetail recently, writing and editing content on their website. It’s building into a nice little collection of guides, tips and case studies about subscriptions marketing and ecommerce and (though I say so myself) is well worth a look. Recent pieces include:

Print and digital subscription bundles. Abi from The Week shares the title’s strategy on building its digital subs.

Checkout enhancements. We all lose too many customers in the final stage of the payment funnel. Here are some things you can do to reduce that.

Getting more revenue from subscribers. Carolyn Morgan looks at ways of using the 80/20 rule to your advantage.

Using reviews to boost search performance. In a competitive search landscape reviews can help raise your site in the rankings. Here’s what you need to know.

There’s also a blog and, if you want to know what content has been posted recently, you can sign up for the Dovetail newsletter.


Direct mail redux?

Back in those far-off, ancient days before the internet, there used to be something called ‘direct mail’. Think of it like a physical version of email; a “letter” and a “brochure” were put into an “envelope” and sent to the customer. If your data selections were good, your copy compelling and your offer attractive, the customer would respond and you’d make a sale. You’d then tweak the variables and set up another direct mail campaign, wait for the results, and so on. You could get a reasonable degree of personalisation and, if you spent a lot more money, the personalisation could be increased through things like digital printing (think of it like dynamic content – because that’s what it was).

With the advent of the web and email and online marketing the degree of personalisation has increased and the cost of doing it has fallen. We know more about our customers and their preferences and we can tailor their experience of our site or communications to match what they’re interested in (or what we believe they are – the two aren’t always the same). And because the cost of doing this stuff is fixed rather than incremental, we can set something up and leave it to run; the variable costs come in getting people to our site in the first place, or in generating leads.

This is all background to this piece that appeared in the Guardian today: “Royal Mail’s online shopping trial sparks fears of junk mail deluge“. There are two responses to this: 1) that’s interesting (the concept) and 2) FFS (the response). (more…)

Dovetail Subscription Conversion workshop

To the Dovetail Subscription Conversion workshop held at the conference centre of the British Library (an excuse for a plug for my review of the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty Legacy exhibition).

A short afternoon, but with several presentations on different aspects of ways in which we can maximise the return on subs efforts. For each I’ve got links to a blog post which has a copy of the presentation, as well as a link to a longer ‘Guide‘ which has a bit more background and context. Most of what was discussed was at a basic or intermediate level to match the differing knowledge levels of the audience, but it’s always helpful to be reminded of stuff we already know (or think that we do).

  • Ecommerce Top Tips (presentation here; more detail here): Ways to improve ecommerce performance through better understanding of the customer journey, improving the user experience and testing different approaches.
  • Using Customer Service better (presentation here; more detail here): Many of us don’t take full advantage of the knowledge and experience of our CS teams, but involving them early in the set up of new promotions can reduce the number of errors that occur later.
  • How reviews can boost SEO performance (presentation here; more detail here): Climbing up the search engine rankings is a tough old game, but adding reviews and ratings to your product pages can help. It also gives invaluable feedback on your products and services.

These are the first bits of a new project I’ve been asked to do by Dovetail to provide extra content for their site. I’ll post up more links as and when I do them.

But does it work?

IMG_0570Some objects and systems are so well designed that they’re beautiful; some work so perfectly they’re virtually invisible. Others are so badly put together that their flaws are obvious.

Then there’s the upgrade process from Windows 8.0 to 8.1.

This is a system so poorly thought through, so appalling executed, so brutally ugly and inefficient that it must have been designed by a vengeful Greek god. Sisyphus, Tantalus, Prometheus – all condemned to vicious and recurring punishments – would consider themselves fortunate never to have had to endure the torments that Microsoft have inflicted.

To begin at the beginning. (more…)

Mobile optimisation – a couple of useful links

A project for a client on the potential a mobile optimised site might give their ecommerce efforts. For desktop traffic their site is achieving vertigo-inducing conversion rates, but it isn’t either responsive or adaptive (difference here) so phones and tablets convert relatively poorly.

Making the business case for mobile is something most of us have to grapple with – we know it’s a no-brainer, but finding hard figures that support the investment is more problematic. So that meant a lot of googling and a lot of online reading (isn’t the interweb just marvellous) and some sources you might find useful.

Econsultancy (as always) has tons of good stuff, including this piece that compares (anonymous) retailer data across three sectors and shows that not only do conversion rates go up on optimised sites, but the average order value increases too; customers seem to browse more and therefore buy more. These findings are backed up by this blog post from a company called Storm who, slightly disappointingly, only sell packaging supplies. (I mean, come on, calling yourselves Storm implies sound and fury, not cardboard boxes.)

Then in this useful post from Smart Insights about conversion rates, I found this excellent link to the Monetate Ecommerce Quarterly (you can download it here). These guys have benchmarked conversion rates, segmented by devices for large US ecommerce brands. There is a great deal of relevant stuff in there, including figures on the growth of mobile/tablet traffic (“One out of every three visits to leading ecommerce websites now comes from either a tablet or smartphone—up from one out of five just last year“) as well as lots of rather useful data and charts. By going back through the past Monetate reports one can see how the conversion rates have changed over the past three to four years. Basically, traffic through mobile converts at around 30% of desktop, and tablet traffic at around 80%. Both these figures have drifted down slightly from three years ago.

So, have a look in analytics and see how your traffic is converting. If it’s more than these benchmarks pat yourself on the back; if it’s less, then that’s your opportunity.

The absolutely cast-iron secret for guaranteed digital marketing success

An interview last week, that I hadn’t realised was going to be an interview (“pop over for a chat” they said), so I went a bit underprepared and was too hesitant in my answers.

It was for a newspaper who wanted someone to come in for a short contract and shake up their digital marketing. It should have been right up my street, but I didn’t get the gig and, talking to the friend who was in on the meeting, the main reason was that I didn’t offer the circulation director a “magic bullet” that would immediately transform their activity and rocket power their sales. (more…)

Online subscription agencies

Image taken from

Image taken from

Over the past few years third party agents have produced growing numbers of print subscriptions from online “subscription stores” with a corresponding growth in their share of publishers’ acquisition budgets. There are north of 350,000 orders a year generated via the sites listed below, which is estimated to be  more than 10% of all new subscriptions. It’s clear that publishers need to manage their agents to get the most from the opportunities – and to ensure that ROI is sustainable and that the orders being produced are both genuinely new subscribers and ones which renew profitably. All the stores operate on a CPA model, but with publishers paying either a flat rate per order or a percentage of the sales value, there is a substantial amount of money going from publishers to the agents.

Most of the stores are fishing in the same pool to a certain extent, with orders being generated through PPC, SEO, affiliate networks and emails to the agents’ own and third party data. This can mean that the agent is also competing with the publisher’s own efforts, so we have seen (in particular) restrictions on the PPC terms that publishers permit the agents to use, or on the amount of the bid, and making sure that the agent doesn’t use Google’s product listing ads to feature titles.

This has meant that agents have had to be more creative in finding new sources of orders that publishers cannot, so for example iSubscribe and ThreePM have developed a number of partner relationships, and Unique and iSubscribe supply libraries and schools. Newsstand and Unique also supply single copy sales and fulfil some subscriptions themselves rather than having a direct relationship with the publisher (as these subs are fulfilled from the retail supply, they don’t feature in publishers’ subscription figures).

I’ve listed the agents and their stores below, in order of the number of direct-to-publisher subscriptions (as opposed to those fulfilled by the agents themselves) that come through the stores or white-label versions of the stores. It doesn’t include orders from single-title sites such as those offered by Jellyfish and iSubscribe (e.g. National Geographic or BBC History).


Shard Experience

riig33xvdvgvgui3v5myTo The Shard! (I think it should always have an exclamation mark) on a crisp March morning for a presentation and a breakfast by Readly.

Readly are the new “all you can eat” subscription service for magazines. You pay a tenner a month and get to access to all the magazines – current issues and back issues – on their service. That’s currently 400 different magazines from across Sweden (where Readly launched), the US (now live) and the UK (which is launching in the next few days). There seem to be around 120 UK titles on the site at present, with IPC and Haymarket being the two larger publishers present. More publishers and titles will presumably be added over the next few weeks.

The editions are ‘just’ flat PDF versions rather than anything more sophisticated. I’ve always had reservations about this way of going digital (and I go back over ten years here, when the Telegraph were looking at producing page-turner editions using Olive software), but Per Hellberg, Readly’s CEO, made a strong case for this type of product as the best option for a “magazine buffet” service.

Primary among the reasons is to give the customers a standard experience – any title they read or browse on the service will have the same navigation and the same features; there’s no need to have to come to terms with different publishers’ preferred UX. Second is consumer conservatism – despite what us publishers might want, many readers like (or don’t actively dislike) the consistency of experience between print and digital.

A third reason is ease for publishers. A standard format from the press-ready print files means no extra work to get titles live and allows for back issues to be uploaded without any format conversion. The whole subject of back issues is important, and I’ll come back to this in a second.

Per’s overarching philosophy is this – there’s nothing wrong with the content that’s being produced, so why would Readly want to change that (“Netflix don’t re-edit movies they show”) – the challenge for the market is in distribution, accessibility and marketing. And on customer acquisition over the next three years Readly are planning to spend £100 million across the UK, US, Germany and other territories. (Bloody hell, that’s a marketing budget.) (more…)

More about delivery

imgresSat ploughing my way through HMRC’s online self-assessment form (31 January deadline everyone), thoughts naturally turn to the subject of tax. However much I try to lard my expenses, or burnish my charitable donations, I’m still forking out a considerable percentage of my income to George and Dave.

That’s why I always grind a tooth whenever I buy something from Amazon; if I’m handing over a large wedge of my hard-earned, I begrudge their ‘tax mitigation‘ activities that allow them to sell billions of pounds-worth of product in this country and (perfectly legally, of course) avoid paying what a reasonable person might think of as a reasonable amount of corporation tax.

But I buy a lot of books and I’m a cheapskate, so up until now I’ve put up with the teeth-grinding in order to save a few quid.

Up until now. I’ve just discovered the Waterstone’s ‘reserve and collect‘ service which combines my need for cheapness with my love of efficiently implemented delivery and customer service. (more…)

Transferable Skills

Like policemen, the winners of the Customer Direct awards seem to get younger every year. Most of the people collecting their gongs this time round were almost certainly in short trousers the first time I picked up one of these trophies.

That’s good, as it means that the industry has a number of bright, young, dynamic individuals coming into it and setting new standards. This is the generation who have grown up with the interweb and haven’t had to shoehorn analogue attitudes into a digital present. Again, that’s good, but it contains the danger that as skills become more transferable between industries, so publishing will have to work harder to keep its best performers.

Publishing always used to score highly with graduates because it was interesting, you were in a cool business (“I’m in publishing” always had more cachet than “I’m in accountancy”), you got given more responsibility earlier, and you got invites to some great parties. Yes, the money was terrible, but that didn’t seem to matter too much; if you wanted to earn more there were plenty of other publishing companies that you could move to.

It’s a bit different now. Yes, we still take in lots of bright young things and give them lots of work and responsibility and pay them bugger all, but the horizons for all of us in the industry have narrowed. There are fewer companies, fewer jobs and fewer perks (and fewer parties). I rarely meet people in publishing firms who are actually having fun.

Looking through my LinkedIn contacts, a lot of the twenty-somethings that I knew have left publishing. Their marketing skills and their digital knowledge means that they can find work in all sorts of ecommerce businesses – retail, finance, travel, property, technology. They get more money, more holidays and perks, and have a more defined career path.

In some ways this might be the hidden threat to the future of magazines. Transferable skills mean that people do transfer, and if they’re paid more, get better conditions and are in a growth industry, who isn’t going to move?