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Getting the web to work for publishers

More and more companies are discovering that the web can have a significant impact on the way they and their competitors do business. Simon Elgar, group marketing director of Reed Business Information, examines what this means for magazine publishers.

By Simon Elgar

There is a range of opportunities available to promote magazines online, which can be particularly effective in generating copy sales and new subscriptions. They need to be part of an overall online strategy, which can be grouped into six main areas:

* Bringing visitors to your website
* Encouraging visitors to return to your website
* Building relationships with users
* Using email to sell subscriptions
* Website as a shop window
* Easy ordering and payment

Bringing visitors to your website

Whatever your online objectives are, it is vital to bring visitors to your website, as these people are your prospective customers. And to be successful you need to attract relevant visitors to your site, where there is a balance to be made between quality and quantity. You also need to analyse the profile of these individuals (such as through a pop-up survey), as publishers often discover that they are different to their magazine readers.

These people need to be able to find your site on the web, so you must ensure that you understand the role of search engines, that your website is registered with them and you achieve good visibility on them. While this is really a subject for a separate article, in summary this will include identifying the keywords that you can use to attract relevant visitors to the site, as well as structuring the contents to be effectively optimised for indexing by search engines. If you can’t achieve the traffic levels you need through optimisation alone, then you will need to use paid listings. These allow sites to buy specific keywords and phrases for which they would like to appear in the top results of search engine listings. They are undertaken via suppliers (brokers) such as Espotting and Overture, or direct with Google AdWords.

Good visitor experience

What constitutes an effective website will depend upon your publication and its target audience, but in general terms it should have an attractive design, be easy to use and have compelling, as well as relevant, content. Visitors need to be able to quickly understand the focus of the website (and the magazine it represents), as well as the subject areas covered.

There should also be free access to at least some content. As in a newsagent, people like to browse before buying; so let them take a look at what you have to offer. For example, the New Scientist website ( is clearly a magazine site – with a front cover photo. There are top news stories, links to other articles and subject areas, an easy to use navigation bar and some free-to-access news articles.

Encouraging repeat visits

As well as providing a positive experience, so visitors want to return to the site, it is important to give them specific reasons to visit again. These can include regularly updated news stories, new feature articles, a searchable archive of previous issues, daily polls or questionnaires, the latest jobs, classifieds, competitions and forthcoming events. But don’t rely on them to remember you and to come back to your site automatically, as there are many other sites competing for their time and attention.

You need to build relationships with your users by offering opportunities to register for services, such as e-newsletters. These are one of the most effective services in terms of generating repeat visits. As publishers, we all have content we can put in to these which would be of value to our audience. They are free to register for, deliver a sample of your magazine’s content, put your brand in front of users on a regular basis and bring them back to your website.

And by putting a prominent sign-up link on your website, visitors can register themselves to receive them, forming an opt-in email distribution list, compliant with data protection legislation (as long as you explain clearly what they are signing up for and how you will use their contact details).

Another way to build user relationships – and capture prospects – is to offer free access to your content, but ask visitors to register first. So if visitors click on a news story, they are asked to register before viewing it. Or you could allow only paying subscribers to have access - but offer an initial free trial. Again, if visitors click on a story, they are asked to register. Or you could offer visitors the opportunity to request a sample issue of the magazine or to purchase a back issue. The key aim should be to give potential customers the opportunity to interact with your product offerings.

Using email to build subscriptions and copy sales

Once you have built a database, you can start using emails to sell subscriptions or to drive individual sales through the newstrade. This can be done by including promotions on an email that is sent out for another purpose, such as a newsletter. Alternatively, an issue specific copy sales email can be used to highlight that week’s (or month’s) contents or a dedicated subscription acquisition email can be used to target new customers.

When using emails to generate sales, stick to the same principles you would when preparing a traditional direct mail shot. You should test the format, such as whether to use text only or html - in some cases a simple text email works best. Also consider the subject line, the wording and the offer – price, discount, number of issues or gift. The lists you use are crucial, as effective targeting will not only affect response, but will help to ensure that you are complying with recent data protection legislation.

You also need to be aware of spam filters, which companies and ISPs (internet service providers) use to screen out emails even before they reach the intended recipient. They analyse the subject heading, as well as the email copy in many cases, and will focus on wording commonly used by spam email senders. The sort of words and phrases to avoid include free, discount, special offer, opportunity, fantastic savings, guarantee, incredible, order today, this once in a lifetime and so on. These do change, so you need to test and check these regularly.

Website as a shop window

The web is now the first place many people go to for information on a specific subject, whether for work or leisure. As a result, it presents a great opportunity to use your website as a shop window for your magazine.

On your web page itself, there is a wide range of promotional alternatives you can use to bring in new subscriptions and to highlight the key features in the current or forthcoming issue. These include banner advertisements, which present a number of creative options, which can be regularly changed, as well as being able to be displayed horizontally or as vertical "sky scrapers". Fixed position boxes can contain a specific promotional offer or an image of the front cover of your magazine. A "button" can link through to an order form, as can "subscription" links from the navigation bar or the footer bar.

Other opportunities include having a text link at the top of an article, midway through it or at the bottom of the page. In addition, it is also possible to have a promotional space designed so that the user can type in their details without clicking through to an order form.

Pop-ups are very effective in bringing in new subscriptions and can either be placed on entry to the site or on exit. However, as pop-up blocker software becomes more common, their effectiveness may decrease. Which of these techniques are most effective will depend upon your site design and your audience, so you will need to test them.

Digital editions

These are online versions of a magazine, with the same look and feel as the print version, including the ability to turn the pages, but available on screen. A link from the website can quickly give people a feel for your magazine, which can be especially valuable for people who haven’t seen it before. In essence it can act as a replacement for a sample copy. On the other hand, some customers may prefer to receive a digital edition on a regular basis rather than a traditional printed one. Plus they offer publishers the potential for greater interactivity and rich media advertising.

Make it easy to purchase

Whatever it is you are offering, when site visitors do click on any of these links, it’s important to ensure that it is easy for them to interact with the site and particularly to subscribe. People are more and more accustomed to purchasing all sorts of items online from clothes to groceries, by using their credit card, so it is important to offer them a similar experience.

Technology now available allows you to vary the offer you make to subscribers, so you can tailor this depending upon where they have come from – such as from a search engine, an affiliate partner or a "refer a friend" promotion. These can all be taken to separate landing pages, where you can have a customised message and a specific offer. For example, those coming from search engines can be offered a discount; whereas those from "refer a friend" campaigns can be offered a preferential rate plus a free gift.

In addition, existing subscribers can be allowed to renew online or to make address changes. This not only provides customers with some control over their own subscription, but also forms part of your customer service offering.

These are just some of the wealth of opportunities the web can provide for publishers. If you are not already looking at ways of taking advantage of them, I strongly suggest you start soon.