John and I recently got a chance to do a brief interview with Linda Jorgensen of The Editorial Eye. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a newsletter that focuses on generating great content. The thing most special about it, however, is that the Eye went through a transition from being a print-only newsletter to an online-only newsletter.

Linda is going to be talking about some of her strategies at MarketingSherpa’s 8th Annual Selling Online Subscriptions Summit, on May 12-13th in New York. It’s undoubtedily going to be a great event…

Here’s the interview…

Q: Can you tell us a bit about The Editorial Eye? What sort of content is delivered?

For 30 years, the Eye has been a newsletter “focusing on publications standards and practices,” as the tagline used to read. It was begun by the founder of EEI Communications as a beacon for those committed to and seeking guidance for producing clear communications—and that’s still our core mission. Now the tagline is “helping you put your best content forward.”

The “you” is professional content creators in every imaginable niche, in print and online, plus a broad range of presentation and production specialists: editors, writers, designers, production coordinators,  people-manager, project-managers, trainers. We publish between 8 and 10 articles that recommend and describe practices that are beneficial for readers and cost-effective for publishers.

Our “Infernal English” column parses common writing problems and looks at evolving standards of English usage. We track the influence of the Web on reader expectations, the future of old-media formats, and common-sense, reader-centric approaches to information delivery. “The Watchful Eye” analyzes trends in working relationships and industry standards and reports on new resources and readability-related research. Our three most popular features are probably the “Test Yourself” skill-building exercises, “Black Eyes” (published bloopers), and “The Right Word.”

Q: From what we understand. The Editorial Eye began as a printed newsletter and was transitioned into an electronic newsletter. Can you briefly outline some of the marketing changes that took place as a result of this transition? And, why the change in the first place?

A: It was a business decision—but also a decision based on our new corporate focus on multimedia publishing. John O’Brien, EEI Communications’ VP of business development, will be speaking about the management side if the decision.

The Eye had been well-loved and widely read over the years by thousands, and it’s a brand that has brought the publisher, EEI Communications, publishing clients and training students over the years. But cost of printing and mailing the paper edition, and using direct mail to acquire new readers, was no longer an option as we invested in other operations, like our training division.

Because we wanted to leverage the loyalty and goodwill subscribers represented—we have a 70 percent renewal rate, on average—our CEO, Jim deGraffenreid, decided in October 2007 that we should reinvent the Eye as an online publication, in two stages. We would deliver issues as PDFs from January to March 2008, and in April launch a fully Web-based, magazine-style publication.

This meant we had two months to educate our customers, get e-mail addresses for all of them, and design and program a landing page for retrieving issues. Instead of just sending people to a login page, we wanted to give then a place to come—a sense of community—as well as a place to provide public content that would attract prospects. Up till now, we had had a sampler of free articles online that a lot of universities had permanent links to, but it was taken for granted as free—and did not lead to many new subs. (When it went dark in favor of a smaller, more marketing-pegged sampler, we heard some howling. People surely do love “their” free content!)

We marketed the transition to readers primarily in the newsletter itself about how to access content online, and explained additional benefits they’d be getting. The landing page would also house other subscriber-only content, like excerpts from EEI Press reference books. We planned to start a blog to attract new subscribers. We also programmed online account management tools (for renewals and address corrections, and for adding copies) as well as a public section for a selection of free articles that new and potential subscribers could access.  In effect, we created a subscribers-only and prospects–also sections. But we designed an interface that made it clear this was all about content—with marketing always in the background.

We created an e-mail-based password-protected system of access for the PDFs and wrote restrictive terms of use that made purchasing additional copies or a site license—both at deep discounts—the only way to distribute additional electronic copies—though people could still print out the “designed” edition.

We inserted a canary-yellow flier in December 2007 that reminded people they would not get the January issue if we didn’t have their current e-mail addresses. And we worked with subscription agencies to get that updated info. Still, we published the January issue without about 30 percent of the e-mail addresses we needed.

Each e-mail alert we sent with the new issue contained access instructions and spoke about the ongoing transition to the April edition.  Guess what? A lot of people—even “word people”’—don’t read e-mail alerts. We’ve done a lot of hand-holding, troubleshooting, complaint-fielding, and relationship marketing for six months. But the first piece of feedback we got on the April 2008 edition was “Wow!”

And our renewal rate has stabilized at 60 percent, and we’re getting new subs all the time from being picked up by the search engines.

Q: Marketing online, especially to obtain paid subscribers, is far different than marketing offline. So, how do you plan to find new subscribers online?

By teasing them in the Eye–sponsored “Content Forward” blog with organic references to articles in past issues and in tegh public sampler. By offering a complete recent issue online, embedded with a marketing message and offer of free issues for a subscription. That has already led to new subs coming through our online order form, which is the only place we’re offering a four-issue paid “trial subscription.” We’re working by e-mail and telephone follow-up to convert these to full subs with a premium.

Q: We’re also sure the transition to an electronic newsletter resulted in some unhappy customers. How much attrition resulted from the transition? What did you do to persuade active subscribers that digital content is superior?

A: We probably lost and still do not have current e-mail addresses for (and so cannot renew) about 25 percent of our base. I persuade my readers with an even broader range of topical coverage and new authors in every issue. I remind them in e-mail alerts that they’re getting more content for the same money (which they are) and getting it (1) more quickly than they did by paper  mail, (2) more economically if they’re non-US subscribers, who now don’t pay a postal surcharge, and (3) adding copies for individual electronic access costs less than adding paper copies ever did.  I’m also about to roll out premiums for early renewals.

Q: Thank you so much for your time Linda. We’re really looking forward to watching your presentation.

A: Thanks. I think this will be a wonderful event. Appreciate the interest.

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