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Leaders Offer Best Practices and Fresh Ideas for B2B Subscription Marketing

The great B2B media subscription push continues. It has been years since the subscription economy emerged, and subscription-based services like Netflix, video games, enterprise software and cloud storage became as common as cellphones and streaming. But in media, subscriptions can be a more difficult lift.

The New York Times has more than six million digital subscribers, and the Washington Post has more than three million. And yes, one bright spot in an otherwise exceedingly difficult last 15 months for B2B media has been subscriptions.

But the subscription business is expensive. It’s time and labor intensive. It requires a high level of marketing skill and multiple channels to break through the blizzard of free information. Most of all, a successful subscription business needs a highly defined market, usually a vertical market, and a product that an audience perceives is mission critical enough to pay for.

We spoke to five media executives about how to succeed with a B2B subscriptions business now. Log in to read more.


Create Curiosity, Hyperlink Carefully, Use Active Verbs and ‘Tee it Up’ to Help Get Your Content Read

In two articles that won 2021 EXCEL Awards, the American Geophysical Union science news product EOS delivers well-written previews and different ways to engage.

“At a critical moment in the effort to end one of the world’s worst oil spills, one scientist holed up in his office and pulled an all-nighter to calculate the well’s aquifer support,” subheads Modeling Under Pressure, a silver EXCEL winner for Featured Article.

“Of course our building is accessible—there is only one small step to get inside.” That quote leads one of the sections for the article Creating Spaces for Geoscientists with Disabilities to Thrive, gold EXCEL winner for D&I Initiative Feature Article (placed next to the wonderful photo you see here – credit: Anita Marshall). Another section begins: “Sorry, but you can’t come on the research trip—you’d be a liability in the field.”

These are all powerful and engaging uses of words—and a picture. The latter article is part 1 of a series produced in collaboration with AGU’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee. We all work very hard to produce top-notch content, but the work cannot end there. In these contend-with-so-many-distractions times, we also need to focus on ways to get our content read—whether that’s catchy promo blurbs, sensible hyperlinks, complementary photos and other curiosity-building methods.

But we can’t give too much away!

Earlier in her career, for a story recommending the most beautiful places to travel in the UK, Sarah Ebner, head of newsletters for the Financial Times, said that “we didn’t say where this place was, but teed it up with a description and then ‘find out where.’” The clicks were huge. The lesson is good, but I also love the phrase, “teed it up.” Word choices matter.

Arriving at the Financial Times just a few months ago, Ebner “was surprised to see that the breaking news alerts consisted of a few paragraphs with a ‘read more’ CTA at the end. Putting so much detail in these emails meant that there was no huge impetus to click through,” she wrote this week in an article on the INMA site.

“We had given too much of the story away already. We made some simple changes, changing these alerts to only one paragraph, and altering ‘read more’ to ‘read the full story.’ The click-through rate went up by 41% in a month.”

In a blog post on ASBPE, Scott Costa, publisher at tED Magazine, also talked about the importance of curiosity in your teaser copy. When the online daily newsletter is finished, he said, “[we] go through [to] make sure all the links work, the headlines have some punch, the subheads don’t give the whole story away and it looks really pretty. Our goal is to have the e-newsletter to our subscribers by noon Central Time, because our analytics show if it goes out any earlier or later, we will not get the maximum potential number of opens.”

Here are other ideas to make your content more noticed.

Never “more”? As she wrote, Ebner is “not a huge fan of ‘read more,’” but she does like “read the full/entire story” and “do you agree?” which she calls “so very clickable! All these small tweaks in language can be effective.” Being someone who spends time looking up words like “maintain vs. sustain” and other linguistic decisions, I agree that small word choices do matter. I use “read more” but will try what she suggests.

Make your CTA clear. What action are you asking the audience member to take? “Phrases like ‘click here,’ ‘learn more,’ ‘sign up’ and ‘download here’ are quick, simple and clear on how you are asking your audience to engage with the email,” publishing partner Omeda writes. “Also, consider having the CTA in the subject line as well.” A recent email study reported that using ALL CAPS in the “From” address gets a 19% higher open rate. And first-word capitalization in the subject line raises open rates 14% (Example: FINAL DAY: Free Registration to Tomorrow’s Webcast). While different rules apply in the marketing world, we editorial folks can still learn from them.

Use your preheader. The preheader is the first snippet of text in your email that appears next to your subject line. People see it before they even open the email. While only 11% use them, emails with a preheader get much higher average open rates—27.82% vs 21.46%. They also have much more impact than personalized subject lines. A preheader should complement your subject line.

Hyperlink the best choice of words. “I’ve seen newsletters that have a good story you’d like to read more of, but which hyperlink oddly, making you less likely to click,” Ebner writes. “I also regularly spot single words hyperlinked, sometimes seemingly at random! If there’s something we really want readers to click on, then I’m a proponent of making this as easy as possible.”

Deploy active verbs in subject lines. “Using words like ‘acquires,’ ‘accuses,’ ‘dies,’ ‘splits,’ or ‘expands’ grabs the attention inside email inboxes that are usually pretty cluttered,” said Costa. “We have to accept that many times negative news leads to a lot of open e-newsletters. Popular people or businesses could lead to many more. We pick out those selling points very carefully when we create our headlines for stories and subject lines for e-newsletters.”

“Think like your readers every day,” said Costa. “It is so easy to think about yourself and strategize about what you would like to read. Your readers might be completely different… [They] only have minutes to consume all of the day’s news from all sources in the world. Then they have other tasks, and their news consumption time is gone. You spend your day gathering news and deciding what to send out. Your day is completely different from your readers’ days.”


‘Keeping the Benefits of Virtual’; Fail Fast Still Applies as We Move to Hybrid Events

There’s an old saw in baseball that incredible success for a batter still means failing seven out of 10 times. Now, of course, we can’t do that in business, but it does say something about becoming accustomed to failure and learning from it for the next time. Getting hybrid events right will require experimentation from some of the leading media companies.

So the question becomes, amidst all that data we’re getting, is there still a place for failure and intuition? Absolutely. I often come back to this quote from Rajeev Kapur, CEO of 1105 Media, from a couple years ago.

“I tell everybody that works for me that I’d rather have them try and fail than not try,” Kapur said. “And that I want them to make a decision. We can fix a bad decision; we can’t fix a no-decision. No one will ever get fired for trying something new or for failing at something they tried to do. I reward people who try, people who think outside the box. I am doing everything I can to empower my team all the way down the chain to say, ‘Look, this is what we need to do for the customer.'”

One of those people, Troy Schneider (pictured), is 1105 Media’s editor-in-chief of both FCW and GCN (originally known as Federal Computer Week and Government Computer News, respectively), two of the oldest and most influential publications in public-sector IT.

A former managing director for electronic publishing at Atlantic Media, Schneider will speak THIS THURSDAY on an AM&P Network webinar and discussion titled, Mining Success from Adversity: 1105 Media Shares Its 2022 Game Plan for Hybrid Engagement. (Register here.) 1105 Media was one of the first to pivot to virtual events back in March 2020, and I suspect that they will be similarly ahead of the game in planning hybrid events.

“We’re going to talk about how we made the pivot from live events to virtual almost on a dime when COVID hit,” Schneider tells Performedia president Peter Hackes in a video promo for their Thursday talk. “What we’ve learned over the last year-plus in doing that and how we’re taking those lessons and moving forward as things open up, and we start bringing live events back in the mix. But certainly keeping the benefits of virtual and hybrid events going forward.”

Given the culture that Kapur has created at 1105 Media, it will be most helpful to hear how they are approaching hybrid events. Kate Lucey, a former digital editor for Cosmopolitan UK, agrees with Kapur, that there are advantages to both success and failure. “If something [messes] up, you can look at your stats and figure out what went wrong,” she said. “Try new ideas—if they work, how can you expand them? If they fail, why did they fail and what have you learnt about your audience that you can apply to future work? It’s constant learning, constant adapting—and a constant headache… but it’s FUN.”

On a Sterling Woods Group CEO Campfire Chat a few weeks ago, Sam Yagan, vice chairman of and co-founder of OkCupid, Tinder and SparkNotes, was asked by Rob Ristagno, “What was one of the first things you did when you became CEO?”

“When I took over Match, I realized that they use data, but the expectation—which was always data-driven—was that tests will all succeed,” Yagan said. “It wasn’t built in a culture of failure. For me, that failure was a requirement of learning, a corollary of ambition. ‘What is this? That’s the failed SpaceX launch.’ Is [something great] realistic without failing along the way?

“I compare never failing with not having ambition,” Yagan continued. “[So the question became,] how do we let ourselves test out our intuition? The intuition has to inform what data you get.”

He said that one of the keys to OKCupid’s success was the level of trust that they built with their audience. That reminded me of something Tim Hartman, CEO of GovExec, once told us. “Create a culture to build trust and collaboration, and breaking down silos. Think ambitious experiments and trust each other. If you look around and don’t see that, you have a problem.”

Learning about 1105 Media’s culture from Schneider should be eye-opening. And while publishers and media companies are looking forward to getting back to in-person events as soon as possible, it also will be good to hear from Hackes on keys to the virtual segments of events. With travel restrictions still in place for so many countries—including Canadians coming to the U.S.—it will be important to keep the international audience that we’ve all worked hard to get.

Again, register here for Thursday’s exciting event, which will leave plenty of time for discussion and Q&A.


Podcasts Can Engage Members, Support DEI Initiatives and Attract Sponsors (While Maintaining Integrity)

“So if you’re taking an election break with us or listening after the fact, there’s plenty to get from today’s episode, brought to you by our friends at TRIMEDX. Now let’s hear from Rich [Daly] and Chad [Mulvany – pictured here].”

That’s the start of the 2021 EXCEL Gold-winning, single-episode podcast from the Healthcare Financial Management Association’s Voices in Healthcare Finance. With the votes still being counted, the two HFMA staffers—Daly a senior editor and Mulvany a policy expert—went on to discuss what would be happening in the coming months in their industry.

When podcasts come up, a common refrain, even in the association world, is “can they produce revenue?” They can and they do—some tips are below—but there are other reasons to deploy a good podcast: attract new members and subscribers, promote other initiatives within your organization; add diverse voices to your content; give your organization a different feel; and amplify your own editorial voices—as HFMA does here.

Of course, many podcasts also weave ads seamlessly into their broadcasts. In an interview on the ASBPE site, John Heltman, editor-in-chief of American Banker Magazine and winner of the Grand Neal in 2019 for his narrative podcast series Nobody’s Home, was asked: What kind of sponsorship opportunities do you offer to clients? How do you seamlessly weave sponsorships and maintain editorial integrity?

Handling sponsorships. “Our sponsorships run through the sales department… but last year we started what is known as pre-roll and mid-roll ads in the podcast,” Heltman said. “That just means that we run an ad before the episode begins and in the middle. For the mid-roll ad, we just lead up to it by saying ‘And we’ll find out more about that after this quick break.’ And the ad rolls. Sometimes I read it, sometimes it’s read for us, but if I read it there’s music in the background so it’s easily distinguishable from the program. I’d say ours is a pretty typical approach for this kind of podcast.

Maintaining integrity. “As for maintaining editorial integrity, I don’t think it’s different from other advertising. And advertising has pretty clear rules: don’t give preferential treatment to sponsors or represent something as editorial when it’s advertising. Some podcasts have the hosts kind of ad-lib a pitch for the thing they’re selling, but that hasn’t come up for us.”

Addressing your DEI commitment. Arizent’s American Banker won the Neal Award (B2B’s version of the EXCELs) for Best Podcast for its amazing 5-part series, Access Denied: Systemic Racism in Financial Services. I listened to an episode on “The Financial Media” recently, and it is eye-opening. It was so engrossing that, of course, I then moved on to a second one and encountered a paywall. It flashed very tempting “special introductory pricing” for subscriptions where you can choose from $41 a week for a month, $29 a week if you subscribe annually—highlighted on the page—and $35 a week if you subscribe for 6 months.

(The publishing vendor Piano recently published its Subscription Performance Benchmark Report found that 74% of annual subscribers remain loyal to a brand after one year, vs. 46% of readers who pay monthly.)

Speaking of pre-roll and mid-roll, an article on the site Lower Street says that, before approaching a sponsor for your podcast, you should know these things:

What is your inventory? “Podcast ads are often broken up into pre-roll, mid-roll and post-roll ads. It’s a familiar format. The mid-roll is the most valuable, since people are already engaged in the podcast by that point… Pre-roll ads are often the shortest, in order to keep listeners on board. Post-roll is often less valuable.”

What’s your pitch? “Simply put: why should a brand advertise with you?” They recommend creating a media kit and a podcast trailer. (There’s a link below to the trailer that Overdrive did.)

What are the demographics of your audience? Who listens to your podcast? “Knowing this is very helpful in determining how to get sponsors for your podcast.”

What’s your advertising rate? “Even if the prospect of earning anything at all from your podcast is exciting, you don’t want to undervalue your show… Rates are typically calculated as a CPM (cost per mille). It’s not all that rare to see CPMs reaching as high as $40 or even $50. Somewhere in the $20-$25 range is fairly average per Midroll and AdvertiseCast.”

Another Neals finalist for Best Podcast, Crain Communications’ Automotive News Daily Drive, features sponsorships—during the podcast itself (the brief intro of the sponsor sounds warm and friendly)—and also ads on the website. And another finalist, Bobit’s Heavy Duty Trucking HDT Talks Trucking, has a sponsor, Fleet Management, and talks up their own events during the podcast.

The other Neals finalist was Randall-Reilly Overdrive’s Over the Road, an eight-part series that gave “voice to the trials and triumphs of America’s long haul truckers.” One thing they do that an expert once recommended to me is to have a separate website and url for your podcast. Here’s a link to the trailer that Overdrive did for Over the Road.

Let’s hope that your podcast gets nominated as an EXCEL finalist next year—and accomplishes some of these goals.