Is Direct Marketing the Undiscovered Revenue Stream for Publishers?

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You don't sell advertisers space anymore. You sell your audience. It seems like such a tiny shift in sensibility, perhaps even a painfully obvious one, but this new mantra among online publishers can make all the difference when it comes to conceptualizing your business model, creating new products, and moving beyond the space-selling banner mentality that is now priced at, what, pennies a thousand?

From meta-mega-ultra media behemoth AOL Time Warner to the smallest B2B newsletter, publishers are reassessing how to leverage their relationship with an audience more effectively, how to sell not only the mindshare that content captures for the advertiser, but also the knowledge a publisher has (or should be able to get) about what that audience needs, wants, and craves. Online publishers have (or should have) what few offline content providers do, a direct and immediate connection to members of its audience—their email addresses. But because many of us consider our inbox somehow more intimate than our snail mailbox or even our phone, publishers are rightly concerned about selling their customers' addresses and profiles to advertisers. The potential for damaging your relationship with a visitor is real, especially as users get more frustrated with email spam and sensitive to invasions of privacy online.

Nevertheless, there are ways of leveraging your email list that are both lucrative for your company and respectful of your user base. For example, Larry Chase, editor/publisher of Web Digest for Marketers ( makes $9,000 to $10,000 every time he rents his full list of 40,000 email newsletter subscribers to clients, which he does two to three times a month. How many banners do you think Larry would have to sell to make that kind of cash? Chase began renting his subscriber list last year in response to dwindling ad spending in his sector and as an alternative to trying a fee-based subscription model. "It's been a good success," says Chase. "I have advertisers with continuations of seven times."

FYI: Try This
Fearful as online publishers seem to be about renting their lists, it is an almost universal practice in the offline world, where many magazines get a sizable revenue stream from renting their subscriber names, addresses, and even more precise personal information to designated advertisers. Where do you think all of our junk snail mail comes from, anyway? New magazines often build their initial readership off of other magazines' subscriber lists. Offline publishers actually hand over their subscriber lists to an advertiser on a one-time use basis, and the client then drops a direct mail campaign to the list. Because the direct mail business is mature and relatively trustworthy, there are few instances when advertisers abuse the system by reusing a list without paying for it.

Online direct marketing remains young and a bit wilder, however, so Chase recommends, "It is in [publishers'] enlightened self-interest to keep control of their list. For Chase, that means sending his subscribers several times a month "solo emails," a promotion sponsored by a single advertiser that is almost always targeted directly to his audience's main interest. "We will never hand your email to a third-party advertiser," he assures readers. This is not unique, of course. Last year, Jason Calacanis's Silicon Alley Daily eletter chose a similar path, sending single-sponsor promotions to its subscribers once a week in lieu of charging fees to readers.

One of the most interesting things about Chase's approach is that he made these solo emails into a new kind of content, what he now titles "FYI." They carry the WDFM brand as well as the advertiser's message, but the context is less like a sales pitch and more like a referral, a sort of personal introduction of Larry's client to his readership. The results have been very encouraging, between 2.8% and 5% response rates for his email renters and loads of return business. "Direct marketers love this stuff because they send it out right away and they get their response in three to four days," says Chase. And because FYI has the look and feel of published content, and because it is so well targeted to users' interests, it gets a lot of pass-alongs. Chase actually generates new subscribers to WDFM off of these sponsored solo emails.

The Virgin Stream?
Ruth P. Stevens' consulting company, eMarketing Strategy (, helps publishers make the most of their elists, and she is amazed that the online world hasn't made more of this traditional offline publishing revenue stream. "If a content site has captured contact information from its readers and has asked their permission to send them [sponsored] messages or to let third parties send them messages, then those names are gold," she says. Top-drawer magazines get upwards of a $1 or more a name for their lists. For email lists from many online publishers, a good price is more like $150 per thousand addresses, but the value of a user name goes up with every additional piece of profile information, such as gender, income, buying patterns, or affinities. The most prized "select," as these additional bits of added profiling are called, is whether a person makes purchases as a result of online solicitations. "Mailers want to know, 'Is this person mail-responsive?,'" says Stevens.

So long as publishers are up front with users about getting them to opt-in to an email list, and disclose clearly what it will be used for, Stevens feels they are on safe ethical ground. For instance, on registration forms, it is good practice not to pre-check options boxes for receiving third-party solicitations. Make sure your users are opting in voluntarily. Indeed, many users now recognize that promotions that are well-targeted to their own interests are more like welcome informational content than intrusive advertising. After all, when most of us go to our hobby magazines or even our professional trade pubs, aren't we as interested in the ads for new products and services as we are in the publication's own editorial?

Some publishers find that being totally candid with visitors is the best policy. In order to keep this content free, they say, we need to let sponsors contact you. Is it a deal? When Larry Chase went back to his 40,000 subscribers to ask their permission to send them sponsored emails, he expected up to 5,000 or more to opt-out. Remarkably, only 153 bailed on him.

Renting one's subscriber list does not mean compromising your relationship with visitors. Chase feels that his readers cooperated with the plan in part because he assured them that they would not be spammed, that WDFM would be the go-between, and that the offers would be relevant and infrequent. Users are also savvier than we may suppose. Not only are they aware of the economic problems of offering content free online, but many understand that their consumer profiles are a kind of currency in a new media culture of hyper-promotion and wall-to-wall merchandising. Slowly but surely, users are coming to understand that their attention is a commodity, something that is of great value to the right advertiser. In that case, publishers should be more willing to barter with their readership and trade content for slices of mindshare.