CHALLENGE: Danny Sullivan, now arguably the most famous search
engine marketing journalist on this planet, started out as an
ordinary consultant. Back in 1996, he added a section to his
consulting Web site called, "A Webmaster's Guide to Search
By mid-1997 the section was getting serious traffic. Sullivan
says, "People kept referring to this site and the information. I
realized I really wanted it to stand alone." He also wanted to
credibility a separate site would bring when approaching sources.
Executives who wouldn't give the time of day to an ordinary
consultant, would happily agree to be interviewed by a trade
So, Sullivan moved his site section onto its own domain --
searchenginewatch.com -- which quickly grew so popular, in part
due to a promotion on Eric Ward's URLWire, that Internet.com (now
INT Media) purchased the site along with Sullivan's services as
editor, just a few months later.
However, Sullivan's site was different from the rest of
Internet.com's fast-growing collection of sites in one key way --
from the start Sullivan decided to charge for subscriptions.
CAMPAIGN: As Internet.com's network of sites grew,
SearchEngineWatch gained traffic from intra-site links. Sullivan
also proactively sought out links on other sites relating to the
subject. He says, "I continually did online networking. I'd go
to search engines to look for terms I thought were important
(ideally I'd find a million relevant search terms), see what
sites were coming up under them and email the sites, 'I've got a
great search engine site, I see you have a page on the topic.
Would you add a link to me? I've already added a link to you.'"
Sullivan adds, "The guilt thing works. You give a link before
you request one. It's fair, it's nice."
He also began to get a lot of mentions in the press. Often
reporters would first learn of him from the search engines
themselves. "That's very common in PR. Obviously reporters
don't want to just talk to companies, you want third party
perspective, and I would get referred by some of the search
engines." Plus, whenever he saw a search engine-related article,
he dropped a note to the author, offering his services as a
source for future articles. Pretty soon Sullivan was one of the
most frequently cited sources in his field, which in turn led to
more coverage because reporters are an incestuous lot and tend to
borrow each other's sources.
While this sounds like an easy way to build site traffic and
credibility, Sullivan cautions that it can be a time-suck. He
says, "Be prepared to spend two-four hours a week talking to
reporters. Often you're dealing with people with no background,
so you have to do a whole lot of education, bring them up to
speed." He also notes that it's important not to pitch your own
site too much during the conversation -- reporters strongly
prefer to talk to sources who are not overtly using them as a
platform to sell something.
Sullivan had two goals for his site traffic. The first was to
get new visitors to sign up for a free subscription to his
monthly newsletter. The second was to convert monthly readers
into paid subscribers to his biweekly news service.
Unusually, instead of plastering the site with free subscription
forms, Sullivan simply added a sign-up box at the very bottom of
each free content page. He explains, "I feel that when people
come to a page they're there for a specific activity -- to read
the article -- then when they get to the bottom of the page,
there's the form telling them to sign up for the free
When Sullivan first started offering paid subscriptions in 1997,
he simply asked readers to make a voluntary donation of $5. He
says, "By the end of half a year maybe four people donated." At
the same time as he was surfing the Net, he was upset to find
sites that had lifted his articles wholesale. "I was working so
hard to update information!" To stop the thievery, he
immediately slammed up a password-protected barrier around his
archives and best in-depth articles, which only paid subscribers
Although the barrier, "was to protect content a bit more rather
than to explicitly boost subscription sales", suddenly
subscriptions went rocketing upwards. Sullivan had discovered a
key secret to selling online subscriptions, "People only want to
buy things when they have the buy things. People won't do it
until they absolutely have to do it."
At first he set his price "really low" at less than $15 per year,
and then raised it every couple of months in four dollar
increments. "I watched it really closely to see what happened as
I took it up." During these tests, Sullivan discovered another
key secret to selling online content -- sometimes higher prices
can work far better than ultra-low ones.
He explains, "We found the higher price put more value into it.
Something at $34 was more valued and sold better than something
Currently the price is at $89 per year. Sullivan also added a
half-year price, now $59, because he recognized some of his
readers were currently researching the topic but not involved in
search engine marketing as a full-time job. He likens that part
of his business to wedding magazines, which only keep subscribers
for a sure time period.
Paid subscribers get access to all back-issue archives, as well
as a biweekly newsletter with many more in-depth articles than
the free monthly has. Sullivan uses the free monthly and free
articles posted on his site to push paid subscriptions.
He says, "There are significant differences in paid versus free
articles. The paid is twice as long. For example last month I
posted a series on how to submit to Yahoo. At the bottom of the
free version it says, 'That's the basic stuff, but it would
really behoove you to read the three-part gigantic guide [in the
paid version] to do this correctly. It will help you to do this
and that, etc.' They realize the wealth of information they get
if they subscribe."
In addition to selling subscriptions, INT Media also sells ads on
the free version of the newsletter. This became so successful
that the Company hired an additional editor to turn out a free
SearchEngineWatch daily newsletter with more ad slots, which
launched in May 2001.
Plus, in November 1999 the company launched a SearchEngineWatch
live conference in San Francisco. This did well enough that four
regional events in San Francisco, London, New York and Dallas
followed in 2000, and six events sold out in 2001 with Boston and
Copenhagen being added to the locations list. Next year
Australia, Germany and other locations may also be added.
Tickets sell for $795-$895, and sponsorships and exhibits range
RESULTS: Alan Meckler, CEO INT Media gave us the following
estimated figures on SearchEngineWatch:
Free monthly newsletter subscribers - 195,000
Free daily newsletter subscribers - 13,000
Daily site pageviews - 40,000
Paid annual or six-month subscribers - 5,000
Meckler says he expects the number of paid subscriptions to rise
substantially now that his Company finally has the technical
capability to offer automatic renewals. He says, "Now renewal
rates are up, and the number of subscriptions increases on a
Sullivan notes that the free monthly newsletter at first picked
up about 4,000-5,000 new subscribers per month, then tended
toward 3,000-4,000, and now has been in the 2,000-3,000 range for
some time as the marketplace has been more thoroughly penetrated.
He says about 2/3 of paid-version subscribers go for the full-
year option, and 25-40% of new subscribers say yes to the auto-
renew option in return for the benefit of locking in the lowest
rate for the lifetime of their subscription.
Sullivan's advice for other publishers considering selling
subscriptions to online content is, "You're paid publication had
better offer some value they can readily understand. We have
testimonials, and we have a guarantee that if you don't like it
tell us within 30 days and get your money back. (I think maybe 5
people a month do it -- it's a naught percent.) Also you have to
have a credit card system. PayPal is ridiculous; it's a recipe
for fewer sales if you don't you let people use something they
have at hand. Overall, the main thing is if you're confident in
your content, then you should be confident enough to charge for
Both Sullivan and Meckler agree that the conferences have been
the killer app to make this property more profitable. Sullivan
says, "It's amazing! In Boston in March 2001, when dot-coms were
really doomed, we must have had 500 people packing the halls.
Search engine marketing is coming into its own."
Meckler notes that these events are highly profitable because
they are marketed through ads to current email subscribers,
rather than by direct postal mail. He says, "Before when I was
running MecklerMedia [former owner of Internet World shows], 35%
of every dollar that came in went out on direct mail. Now less
than 5% of every dollar goes out on promotions because we have
such large email inventory to promote with."
The online advertising sales lull is affecting INT Media's other,
mainly free-access sites, so Meckler is carefully studying the
subscription and event model that's proven profitable for
SearchEngineWatch and applying it across many other properties.
Learn more in our exclusive interview with Meckler next week