FEATURE 

Econsultancy.com’s relaunch: what did we learn?

On 14th December 2008, on a Saturday, Econsultancy.com’s new site finally went live. This after around £350,000 of investment and almost a year and a half’s hard work. Chief executive Ashley Friedlein looks at some of the key learnings and results of the relaunch.

By Ashley Friedlein

Why did we relaunch? Essentially our old site, on old technology, would not support our future growth, so it was inevitable at some point that we needed to start again. And, at the same time, we wanted to refresh the brand and look and feel of the site. And while we were at it, we also wanted to change our membership proposition and pricing. So a big change. (Ashley discusses the reasons behind the relaunch in more detail at http://tinyurl.com/52xynw)

Change in Proposition

Almost all of our actual members and customers have said over the years “You’re too cheap”, “You should increase your prices”. However, we’ve also known that when selling a £195 annual membership ‘off the page’ and over the web to a first time visitor to the site, who has no idea who we are, then small changes tip the ‘shall I / shan’t I pay’ decision one way or the other.

Even with our modest 8,000 unique users a day to the site, a one-in-a-thousand (ie 0.1%) difference in conversion rate, at an average order value of £250, equates to almost £750,000 profit (or not) a year. So it matters A LOT which way that needle of decision swings.

The big difference we made with the relaunch was to change our proposition from an ‘all you can eat’ offering (ie pay an annual fee and get any or all of the reports and guides we publish), to a capped amount: the higher your level of membership the more reports were included.

Our view now, four months on, is that this was probably a mistake and it’s likely we’ll revert back to how it was. Interestingly, when we did more detailed analysis, even when members could have all the reports they wanted, very few downloaded more than three a year. But when they’re offered a cap of five a year (plenty for what they actually need) the perceived value is less. And perception is much more important than reality.

More even than this, it is about simplicity and clarity of proposition. It is easy to explain that, if you pay, you get everything. You don’t need to worry about what you might want, or when, because it’s all included. It helps get rid of any doubts. And doubts are the killer of sales. Even the smallest of doubts. As Steve Krug correctly said in his web usability book of the same name “Don’t make me think”.

Our membership sales are still up but not as much as we think they should be, or could be. So our learning here is to keep things really simple and easy to buy and the extra volume of sales that this drives will outweigh any putative extra value you get by trying to ‘milk’ the value of your customers.

Data – how much to collect?

On the old site, we had four levels of users. The anonymous user; the user for whom we had only an email address as he or she had registered for our newsletter; the fully registered user for those who wanted to post to our forum etc; the paying customer for whom we had even more information.

However, we found that the email-only users very rarely delivered any value and, more often than not, even risked destroying value. For example, they would sign up for the newsletter, probably just because it was free, and then mark us as spammers for sending them the newsletter rather than bother to unsubscribe. This caused us customer service headaches but, more significantly, damaged our email sender reputation which hurt our email deliverability rates. And email is vital as a driver of sales and customer retention – we couldn’t operate profitably without email.

For the new site, we decided to have only two levels of user. The anonymous users as before; or a ‘member’ which included a new, free, level of membership. And our membership sign up process isn’t that short. We ask for quite a lot of detail and enforce fields that some might feel uncomfortable with. Not only that, but to join at the free level of membership, you have to validate your email address. So without an email address that the user has validated by clicking on a link, the membership is not activated.

Our thinking was that, ultimately, given we’re largely paid-content and membership funded, not advertising funded, we’re about quality and value and not about volume. So the value exchange relationship we wanted to put in place said – yes, we’re asking for a lot, but there’s a reason for that. Firstly, we don’t want time-wasters, so if the form puts you off then probably you were never going to be a customer anyway (and you can still browse the site anonymously); secondly, if you do give us your data, then we’ll give you a lot in return in the form of free content, more relevant emails etc.

Best practice dictates that you should ask for as little information as possible. So we made a decision to fly in the face of this. And it seems to be working.

Our conversion rate from visit to (free or paid) membership doubled immediately after relaunch despite the longer sign up form and has stayed that way. And the quality, and accuracy, of the data we have is now so far superior to what we had before.

For example, previously, with email-only users, we didn’t know what country they were in. So we would email users in Australia, or the US, about a two hour roundtable in London. This was just annoying and irrelevant to them but we had no way of knowing. Now we don’t do this because we know which country our members are in. Equally we know which sector each member works in, and whether he or she is client-side or a supplier, so we can tailor our communications so much better.

So our learning here has been not to be afraid about asking for more details as long as you make it clear to the user why you’re asking for them and what they’re going to get in return. Strangely, our confidence in this regard seems to instil a degree of trust in our new users – anyone asking for all this must be serious / good!

It’s also allowing us now, with robust user data in place, to create much better interfaces and applications. For example, have a play with our Member Directory at http://econsultancy.com/directories/members and you’ll see we can find you an SEO specialist who is a freelancer and is based in New York and knows the publishing sector. That’s powerful. But easy to do if you have the right data.

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) – the big challenge

We had very good natural search rankings on our old domain. The relaunch involved a subtle name change (“E-consultancy” became “Econsultancy”), a new logo, a completely new look site with a new directory structure, a new URL, on servers in a different country. We had to migrate 10,000s of pages, delete a load of old ones, and create 10,000s of new ones.

This was always going to be challenging.

On the old site, around 70% of the new visitors to our site, around 5,000 unique users a day, came from natural search engines, and almost exclusively Google. We had spent years building our reputation and working on our SEO. Along with email, SEO is by far the most important form of marketing for us.

When we described what we were planning to do, all the SEO gurus we talked to (and we do know most of them) looked aghast and sucked their breath quickly through their teeth muttering - "I wouldn't do that if I were you..."

It turns out they were probably right.

The full grizzly story of our site migration and the SEO impact, complete with charts and graphs, is at http://tinyurl.com/dznrvk and there are over 60 comments to our case study from the great and good of search optimisation.

The short story is that it took 10 weeks for our search rankings to come back. Which is liveable-with in hindsight but when you’re 9.9 weeks post launch and have no visibility on the search engines, and no indication when, or if, that might change, it is indeed sweaty-palm territory.

Probably my main take away from this is that if you have a well-established domain, that ranks well, then only change it if you really must. And then you can expect around three months of lost rankings and traffic. Changing host servers, the design, or URL structure of a site is not so bad, but changing the domain, if you don’t really need to, is very risky. We should probably have kept the old domain.

(My other conclusion, although I’d concluded it years ago, is that Google is way too little regulated or controlled given the power it has to make, or destroy, businesses. But that’s a whole other debate and we mere mortals must learn to live with the monopoly that is Google online.)

Summary

I’m eternally glad that we underwent the pain and investment that we did to have the platform that we do now. We are now able to develop new content, features and applications much more quickly than before and the platform is more robust and scalable. The data underpinning the site is much more complete and accurate too.

I think we’ve made our proposition too confusing and I also think that the recession is causing people to think more short term, so we are looking at pricing options that are, say, three months or six months, rather than annual only.

As for Google, and SEO, well we’re having a renewed nightmare with that, so watch this space, or read about it at http://tinyurl.com/ddc4n8. My wife recommends saying nice things about Google in public as perhaps that will fix it. I sometimes think she knows as much about SEO as us supposed experts...