Customer Acquisition In Online Media: The Newsletter

Over the past year or so I have switched to consuming a lot of content on email. Well, to be precise, email newsletters. The poor little newsletter has, for long, been consigned as a necessary relic, especially in news organizations and content publications. This started during pre-post-PC era (I know it sounds funny and it is intentional) when mobiles were still primarily voice (than data) devices, RSS aggregators were for niche audience and much of content consumption started at the primary gateway of a publication’s homepage.

Newsletters, at that point in time, added little value to homepage-centric consumption pattern. Moreover, they were seen first as places to sell advertising inventory if you had huge subscription numbers, as an add-on to the primary ad slots on the website. Something like a buy-two-get-one-free kind of deal, a sweetener that cost the publisher nothing much and made the advertiser feel good. Since email-on-mobile was still not a widespread phenomenon, majority of consumers used to access their email on their laptops or desktops, limiting the visibility and utility of the newsletters.

Enter Data On The Move

The switch-over of handheld devices to becoming primarily data devices (that could also handle telephony) has been a game changer for every industry. I prefer to look at this change in the nature of the devices as a better distinction regarding the various eras in computing, than as a pre/post PC thing. The mobile phone, for a large chunk of its life, was a device that handled telephony and telephony-related functions. The switch-over turned them into generic computing devices that could handle wireless data natively and efficiently, while delegating functions related to telephony as one of the many applications that the device could run.

Death Of Branding And Context

This development dovetailed nicely with the emergence of social networks, whereby content was suddenly stripped of the context and branding at the point of origin. In the pre-social/mobile world, a consumer’s path to a particular piece of content was clearly defined. For example, this would mean (more often than not) I would know that I am reading an opinion piece on a particular publication because I went seeking out something specific to read on that publication’s website.

The main contexts for me in that example are 1) a publication that I like to read 2) a section/topic that is of interest to me and 3) a visual representation (design etc.) that is familiar to me. Part of the reason why some content properties can command a premium in advertising rates is because of this degree of certainty that is provided about the context for their audience. The emergence of social and omnipresent data has decimated this certainty.

The growth curve of Facebook and Twitter (and other niche social properties) is captured best in the referral section of the audience numbers for content websites. Save the gated and private networks, the top sources of traffic for almost every site now is social at top with organic search and direct traffic below it. Contrast this with the pre-social era where direct was the primary driver of traffic, followed by organic search.

Even within social there is no predictable path that is possible. The publication’s own pages on the platforms may drive the the traffic. The traffic may come from a much-followed curator’s page. It may lead from a link going viral, which means tens and thousands of pages may be generating that traffic.

Why Email Newsletters?

The greatest downside for content websites of these developments in social and mobile is that they no longer have a constant engagement with their audience, as represented by direct traffic. And it is only going to drop further as the volume and ability to publish more content ramps up, driving more people into the hands of social and content aggregators. The resulting loss or alteration of context (ranging from appreciation, to ridicule and a variety of other not-so-nice things) also impacts advertising options, which in-turn negatively impacts viability of the business itself in the long run.

This is where the humble newsletter becomes a key factor. One application that has weathered all this data and social onslaught is the old school thing called email. Strangely, email has wound up being an off-app notification aggregator of sorts; emerging as a high-engagement app of its own. And unlike the earlier times when email was accessed a lot over browsers in laptops and PCs, it is heavily used in mobile devices. Some of the key numbers regarding use of email on mobiles read like this.

  • Daily we spend 9 minutes on email via a mobile device, that is 7,6% of the total 119 minutes we use our phone per day. O2 – “Mobile life report” UK (2013)
  • Mobile email opens have grown with 21% in 2013, from 43% in Jan to 51% in December. Litmus –”Email Analytics” (Jan 2014)
  • More email is read Mobile than on a desktop email client. Stats say 51% of email is now opened on a mobile device Litmus –”Email Analytics” (Jan 2014)

You can read more of those stats in this excellent post on EmailMonday. And these are numbers that should make every content producer sit up and take notice.

It is not that nobody is taking email seriously. As pointed out by Nikhil in a recent offline conversation, it is a good source of revenue for some of the trade publications. Similarly, e-commerce sites make extensive use of email as a sales funnel. The former is more a fire hose approach, while the latter — e-commerce — has many years of evolution in both methodology and technology that enables them to segment and target customers effectively for acquisition and retention. There is no such thing that is present with the content domain.

What Should Publications Do?

Firstly, they should consider the audience as customers of a product they are selling. The product here is content, which has a tiny ticket size compared to other (especially transaction-oriented) businesses. The desired outcomes here are a) acquisition b) retention and longer term engagement c) transaction. For content plays, the juicy bit are in (b) as (a) is too volatile a number to reliably build anything on. (c) is also a hard one for most as the options are limited to subscriptions, affiliate models or events.

Secondly, they need to have clear-cut retention strategies for the difference audience segments. Presenting the same recommended articles or email sign up forms for all first time users is not the smartest way to go about retaining a horde of new visitors from a link that has gone viral. I can bet my bottom dollar on the assertion that only a tiny percentage of content publishers anywhere will have a handle on conversion percentages from the last viral spike they experienced. This is unacceptable situation if survival is key for you.

This is also the place where email finds a lot value in building an engaged audience where the publisher has at least some modicum of control over the context. But, to get started on that path, publishers have to both market and put together their mailers better. While the automated solutions like Feedblitz are easy to integrate, they also generate incredibly big blind spots. While email can work as a high-engagement platform, it can also quickly wind up in the death folder (spam) or remain unread if you don’t make the best of the tiny window of opportunity a consumer gives you.

It is vital to recognize that the email context is different from anything else. As a result, you have to re-purpose content for it. In the email app, you are not looking for a quick fix. Other than spam, every email in that item already has an established relationship with the reader. It is the publisher’s responsibility to leverage that relationship and trust to meet the aforementioned objectives.

Lastly, it is important to understand the numbers. What are the open rates and referrals from your email campaigns? What is the bounce rate from the email like? Which form factor represents the largest consumption percentage? Is your email layout responsive?

All the points only touch the surface of a good email strategy for publications. While I hope that most publishers already have in place a strategy that covers all this and more, the reality is that most would struggle to answer even basic questions regarding their email strategy. Even so, right now is a good time to start work on it and leverage a tool that allows for persistent engagement, in a world where prolonged engagement is nearly impossible to find.

Influencers, Initiatives And Their Impact In Digital India

This is a post that has been in the making for a while. Having failed at trying to frame it properly all this while I figured it was better to just write it the way it came out. Before I start off I should make it clear that I am not an entirely unbiased party in all of this. I have my skin in the game in the social* industry segment primarily through Shack Companis who have been a client of mine for about a year now. They are involved in various aspects of the industry built around the digital social system and the subject I am about to cover are equally applicable to them too.

As a sort of an insider (due to my aforementioned work) and as an outsider (thanks to sometimes being considered an influencer due to my 1600 followers as of August 13, 2012) I am fairly unenthused by how brands and agencies are using the social platforms to promote themselves through various events. The concept of using special initiatives as entry points to having a substantial presence in earned media is nothing new. The practice itself is almost as old as Twitter’s breakthrough into the internet’s public consciousness; but with time agencies have figured out how to game this system and give an exaggerated view of the impact and effectiveness of the initiatives.

To be honest, this form of misrepresentation is only a small chunk of the larger problem of determining key metrics for anything digital. Even as the domain slowly creeps up on its 20th birthday, the tooling to measure various aspects of the digital business is still notoriously absent, be it on the product side or, more crucially, the investors’ side. We have seen the industry progress from the ‘eyeballs’ of bubble 1.0 to the ‘likes’ of the current times, both driving often misinformed decisions at the product, process and business levels of any digital operation.

Anyhow, going back to the special events bit, I was fortunate to be invited to one such event. Now, I need to make it clear that I don’t consider myself as in influencer. Yes, I have about 1.5K followers on Twitter, but most of that is thanks to being one of the early adopter crowd (started in mid-2007) and organically getting to that figure. If you have been around for that long on Twitter and have been an active user, you’d also probably have a similar or greater number of followers. I am not on Facebook or on Google+ and I love Twitter for the small, but carefully curated, list of people I follow there (and dislike it with a vengeance for odd periods when I see lynch mobs form).

Thus, the invite did not make me feel the full weight of my influencer status, rather, it made me feel quite grateful that as a near-nobody I was getting an opportunity to do something that I’d otherwise probably be unable to do. The invite was to drive a few laps in a newly-launched car at the Buddh International Circuit and being a fanatic motorsports fan I jumped at the opportunity. The event was well-organized and it came with no conditions that I generate any given number of tweets about it. The organizers were even kind enough to accommodate a dear friend of mine to be a part of the event. So, what exactly went wrong?

What I did not like was that at the registration counter for the event we were asked to register our Twitter/Facebook accounts at a kiosk and during the registration the application posted tweets/updates on our accounts without informing/asking us about it. This is where the mechanics of the exercise comes into play. If you have 50 people registered for an event and if you get all of them to tweet with the same content or hashtag, you can easily amplify it through a network of ten others re-tweeting it, thus easily creating a trend out of it for smaller demographies like India. And the sad fact was that the event was so good that if it was not for that forced tweet, at least I would have tweeted a lot more about it.

Since that time I have declined similar invitations. I did attend another event at BIC, but that was thanks to an invite to a relative of mine to a members-only event for owners of a particular make/model of automobile. For me, there is an inherent conflict involved in this – both as a consultant working in the space and as someone who likes other things outside work like travel and music. It is a conflict that I have seen before in my years in the media – of paid junkets for journalists – and I would really dislike to see the same thing happen in digital social ecosystem.

That said, it would be wrong to paint the entire practice as wrong with a broad brush. I do enjoy some of the content that is posted by the participants in events. But I am never sure if the participants would post as much or the make the same posts if they were not, in a manner of speaking, sponsored by a company. This is the key conflict where the ‘earned’ in all of this slowly crosses over into ‘paid’ even if that payment is indirect. What makes it worse is that brands are often sold the impact of an event on the volume than quality/sentiment. Even when sentiment is measured, it is often inaccurate as even the more accurate sentiment measuring tools don’t get it right enough for our market.

I do not, though, have any solutions to offer for this conundrum. For both brands and users it is crucial to understand that reputations are hard to earn and easy to squander. For me at least, Twitter is like a little social club of around 100-people I like to know and converse with. I have little desire to use it to excessively promote myself or my work. I love the ability to be able to speak my mind on it without having to think twice about professional conflicts and I intend to keep it that way.

The Great Promotional Mailer Overdrive

Contrary to what seems to be popular sentiment on the internet, I actually like advertising as long as it is not overly intrusive, has some form of relevance to things/services I am interested in and is not spammy. As a result I don’t at times unsubscribe from promotional mailers sent to me by various companies and in certain cases I do actually check out most of the offers. Of the many that I subject myself to, I like the efforts of both ICICI Bank and Ebay. So I figured it will be a good idea to track one of these companies for a month to check for volume for and quality. Below is the list of mailers ICICI Bank has sent me through November:
ICICI Bank:

Nov 30: Refer iMobile to 5 friends and get Rs. 500
Nov 30: Just activate iMobile and get a Free Voucher worth Rs. 500
Nov 28: Get 5x reward points for online recharge of Mobile, DTH and Data Card
Nov 27: Get 5x reward points for online recharge of Mobile, DTH and Data Card
Nov 25: Special Privilege: Rate of Interest now reduced on your ICICI Bank Credit Card
Nov 23: Refer iMobile to 5 friends and get Rs. 500
Nov 20: Get a Gift Voucher worth Rs. 500 just for activating iMobile
Nov 20: ICICI Bank presents Home Loans at fixed rate of interest for the first 2 years
Nov 18: Discovering Malaysia is now 5X more rewarding
Nov 16: Prepaid Mobile Recharge at your fingertips!
Nov 16: Count on us to cover your medical expenses, with the Family Protect Premier Insurance!
Nov 16: Money Manager
Nov 14: Rs 100 off on tickets
Nov 14: Presenting Culinary Treat - Minimum 15% savings on dining
Nov 12: Personal loans
Nov 9: Cashback travel vouchers
Nov 8: Redeem payback points
Nov 6: Activate imobile
Nov 2: Get Rs 500 Cashback Travel Voucher by spending on your ICICI Bank Debit Card
Nov 2: Get 3 exciting gifts absolutely FREE just for activating Internet Banking!
  • 20 mailers in a month are a few too many for my liking.
  • They don’t seem to do much of a finely tuned campaign. I am already using imobile, same is the case with internet banking.
  • Quite a few repeats.
  • The tracking is sub-par
  • Copy quality is average
The feedback for ICICI must have been good as this flooding has now been taken up also by their sister company ICICI Direct, but the latter’s campaigns have hardly any tracking enabled on them, keeping them at a much earlier stage of evolution.
Ebay India:
  • 23 mailers in all of November, 2011
  • A lot of effort is put into the creatives, they are really well done. Copy quality is also good.
  • They are pushing deals/offers really hard. Not surprising, since they seem to be flavour of the current boom (or bust).
  • The tracking is meticulous on the campaigns. Opens and clicks are tracked, I am assuming so would be transactions conversions.
  • Other than offers/deals, most of the mailers are content initiatives. They categorize existing items on the site.