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‘You Can Pay Us to Turn the Ads Off’; Duolingo’s Story Inspires Revenue Ideas

I was listening to an interview Sunday of Luis von Ahn, CEO and founder of Duolingo, the language-learning company. He said that when asked by his investors about charging people for the service, he would not waver. “We’re never going to charge people.”
But he knew that he would have to figure out ways to monetize it—the popular app is now valued at $1.5 billion—he told NPR’s Guy Raz on How I Built This.
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“We were very precious about this,” von Ahn, who is from Guatemala, said. “We cared a lot about the user experience for Duolingo. And first of all, we thought, ‘We’re never going to put ads in here.’ But we had a year of turmoil, and we needed to figure out how we were going to make this sustainable. At some point, enough [employees] got convinced, ‘Okay we’ll put an ad at the end of every lesson.’ Fortunately, that gave us quite a bit of money .

“Soon after that we got a lot of people who didn’t like ads and asked, ‘Hey can I pay you to turn off the ads?’ ‘Okay, how about we launch the subscription service where the main thing is you can pay us to turn off the ads.’ It turned out—and we just didn’t realize this—subscriptions made us a ton more money than the ads. [Subscriptions cost] $9.99 a month. Two years later, 3% of our [40 million] active users pay the subscription.”
I love a couple things about this. One, with human nature you never know. So try things, especially now! Earlier that day, I was talking with a friend about The Washington Post’s coverage of COVID-19 and the protests. In the midst of the conversation, he complained about the half-page vertical ad that often now covers the print front of the Post. I admit that I also grimace when ripping it off in the morning, but it’s now a fun ritual. I am positive that, like Duolingo, my friend would pay extra for his Post not to have that.
The second thing is that von Ahn stuck to his principles about a free product but then sought to monetize it. Similarly, COVID-19 resource pages have become an incredible place of information for readers on many SIPA member websites. And I would guess that all of these are free. But they are also leading to monetization. Stephanie Williford, CEO of EB Medicine, said at SIPA 2020 yesterday that they were initially going to keep their COVID-19 content behind a paywall. But after much negative feedback, they made it free and got a lot of positive responses.
One main article there has received 340,000 views, when a typical popular article might get 10,000. Although they made the mistake of not collecting emails early on, they have seen a bump of around 9% in subscriptions. “We usually see a slowdown in the summer, but the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive” and that has translated into subscriptions, she said.
In that same SIPA 2020 session, Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, said that “we don’t generally use much free content in our marketing. There are groups that we target, and if they register, they get a free trial. What we’ve done during the pandemic is send out more content to more people, so we’re getting more trial signups than normal.”
They’ve also extended the length of those trials, given our challenging times. “Plus, if there’s an opportunity for a corporate license sale, we might extend the trial even more to 3 months or longer. We’re hoping that companies want to stay informed and get vital news in this extraordinary time. So we’re building demand and habit that we can harness down the road. Hopefully, as they develop a habit for reading our news, it will be more difficult to turn us off.”
Von Ahn also believes that it’s about the customer. “Our first operating principle is ‘learners first,’ and you will hear that phrase guiding our decisions,” he wrote on the Duolingo blog in April. “[We] focus relentlessly on making our product better. The majority of our staff works on this. Everyone, from the interns to the executives, has the ability to contribute ideas that make an impact for millions of learners.”
Customer. Product. Ideas. Impact. Good words to do business by.
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‘Echoes for the Long Term’: Day Two of SIPA 2020 Offers Ideas to Last

“People don’t want to be marketed to; they want to be communicated with.” As I look over my notes for the again-excellent SIPA 2020 Day 2 sessions, that quote from Jeson Jackson, audience development manager, Education Week, stands out. Because even though so much of what we are doing now is in response to the pandemic, there will be a carry over of successful ideas and methods.
And that will be one of them. If a theater I like simply asks me to buy a 2021 subscription, I might hesitate. But if they communicate with me and engage me in a conversation between four or five of their diverse actors and directors for next year, I’m probably in.
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Day 2 keynote speaker, Krystle Kopacz, CEO of Revmade, talked about “echoes for the long term” that she is hearing now. “Overall what I’m seeing is we’re heading to some type of reordering. How can we be more important to buyers so we’re not cut off? In my mind we should think like this all the time. We talk about products but not outcomes… We shy away from the end result.”

Again, just another day in (SIPA’s virtual) paradise produced a litany of strategies and ideas.And you can get them all on demand here. The 41st annual SIPAwards were also given out. See those winners here.
Kopacz gave five sales tips:
1. Executives should make it a priority to talk to 10 advertisers a month. It’s not about selling, it’s about listening
2. Start doing audience poll surveys at least two times a year. How hopeful are they, what are their pain points and budgets? It will keep you relevant.
3. Convene weekly sales and product team meetings. What are sales hearing? How should the product team respond? Do we need a new price point?
4. Continue realigning your product portfolio with the client input that you get. You’re not selling a webinar but a sales funnel.
5. Make sure your sales team has what they need to meet those pain points and make more sales. Get new products into sales team hands.
Education Week’s Jackson spoke more to the marketing bent. “The offer is the distillation of your message. Make sure you’re asking the customer to do what you want them to do,” he emphasized. How often have we read an email, agree with what it is saying and move on because it isn’t specific in what action we should take? Where’s the big red button?
Listen to your customers, Jackson urged. “By listening we can [act accordingly] rather than assume. You want to uncover what your customers want, which may be less intuitive than you think.” He said that attractiveness is amplified by relevance, importance and urgency.
“You want well informed customers making well informed decisions. Your company’s future is secured by innovation not persuasion. And clarity alone should be the only persuasion you need… Your unique benefit is how you transform your customers. What problems did you solve for them? Be specific. Value propositions need to establish your unique value.
“Take some time and make sure your value prop is still relevant to the moment,” Jackson said
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Later in the afternoon, Heather Farley, COO of Access Intelligence, amplified some of these themes, speaking about learning the pain points of your customers.
In the case of virtual events, she said to make sure that both your clients and your sales team are comfortable with the platform you use. “My biggest advice is to send the sales team to somebody else’s event on that platform where they can get comfortable [enough to sell it well]. Because if they’re not comfortable…”
Farley added that sales may also need to have conversations with one of your brand leaders or editors because as packages become more integrated and bundled—that was a common theme today—they may know best what a client needs.
“We’re also seeing a pushback on pricing,” she said. “There had been, at least back in March, a sense that virtual should be cheaper. But people are starting to appreciate the value of what we bring [virtually]. It still has the value of live, and [brings] the experience to connect buyers and sellers. The connections that you’re bringing aren’t all of a sudden cheaper. And the same amount of time that goes into [putting together] live events goes into virtual events. We have to make sure we don’t give deep discounts.”
Joining Farley, Tom Gale, CEO of Gale Media, spoke about a live Zoom call that they hosted where 500 people signed up. Remember how this article began? People want to be communicated with. “Engagement with community,” Gale said. “We’ve gotten intelligence for what our customers are looking for [from that].”
As I said yesterday, these are only snippets from two days of really sharp and exceptional content. I will report some more but even better, you can also get it all on demand here to review at any time.
Much thanks to BeaconLive and ePublishing for being sponsors for SIPA 2020!
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Virtually Amazing. SIPA 2020 Day 1 Talks up Data, Events and Value.

“If you ever wanted to do things differently—change your culture—now is a great time to start,” said Don Harkey, CEO of People Centric Consulting Group. “This is a big opportunity. We’re all disrupted. It’s a good time to put in new habits…. Focus on systems that impact your culture.”
And with that table-setting quote, the first-ever SIPA 2020 Virtual Annual Conference was off and advising Monday—on the new revenue paths to pursue like virtual events—and revising our 2020 and beyond outlooks.
“Start off by revisiting the value you provide for customers,” Harkey said. He gave an example of a group he works with that meets at a community center every week. “The center had to close down and everyone thought that was it. But is the value the building or the community that we build? It’s really about the community itself.
“So the question is, ‘Can we create community without a building, without getting people together physically? And the answer is yes. What are our customers needing now? The community center did exercise. So we started yoga online for that group, and 1000 people logged in. Are you providing something valuable that your customer might pay for?”
Here are more highlights from Day 1. You can still register here for Day 2 and the full on-demand privileges of both days.

Reach out and do everything but touch. Harkey strongly encouraged customer conversations now. “It’s not about, ‘will you buy this.’ It’s about, ‘can I help you recover?'” Speaking about virtual events, Matthew Cibellis, director of programming, live & virtual events, Education Week, said it’s important to “survey your readers and sponsors before to ensure buy-in ahead of the event. “We asked oddly simple questions: What time of day is best for you? What month would you come? Why? We thought we might get 25 or 50 responses but we received 2,200 responses with email addresses.” They learned a lot from them, including a call for deeper content.

What’s the big idea? “Build a sustainable, trusting, idea-sharing and internal product development approach process,” Cibellis said. Use a transparent, internal form for idea generation. Through this they came up with A Seat at the Table With Education Week, an interactive video series that’s been very popular. “It’s yielding more collaboration and less competition,” he said. “You want to encourage intra and cross department idea-sharing.”

Look at your data. “[Data] value is in the eye of the beholder,” said Michael Marrale, CEO, M Science, in an informative Alternative Data 101 session with Meg Hargreaves, COO, Industry Dive. “You’ll find value in surprising places. Typically, we’ve partnered with companies that don’t fully realize the value of their data. They can be surprised” when told their data has value and content licensing potential. “Don’t think that size of the company is the main factor. It’s really about the data. You can have relatively small revenue but big data capabilities.”

Keep lines of communication open and be transparent. With over 500 employees, you might not think that Chris Ferrell, CEO of Endeavor Business Media, would have time for one-on-one staff calls. But he does “try to call a handful of people each week that I don’t normally talk to and ask where the company could be supporting them more and what they might need. My direct reports I talk to every week, of course. But we’re doing that throughout the organization, making sure people are not falling through the cracks [during this challenging time] and people are getting the support they need.”

This virtual may be more than a fad. In a fascinating panel discussion about creating long-lasting value, Stephanie Eidelman, CEO of iA Institute, said that she is excited to see how their now-virtual events perform. “Each industry is different, but it would be awesome if it worked for us. Expenses and margin are much more favorable. And the calendar is so crowded—finding a place that doesn’t conflict with this or that event. Trying to shoehorn a live event in a place in the calendar [can be tough]. Virtual gives you [more options], and I like the risk elimination about committing to the hotel contracts.”

Install processes to up value. “We’re always looking at companies through the lens of valuation,” John McGovern, CEO and owner of Grimes, McGovern & Associates, said in that same panel. There’s a misconception about “smaller companies that have a high amount of owner involvement. One of the smartest things owners can do is manage their org chart. If an owner is extremely involved in their business, you’d think that buyers want to hear that. Actually the opposite of that is true. They want to see the owner moved off and the successor being groomed—doing reviews, looking at salaries.” Organic development has staying power, he said.

Think scrappy but scalable. In a session about Mastering Memberships, Elizabeth Petersen, product director, Simplify Compliance, and Delaney Rebernik, membership and content strategy consultant, spoke about keeping long-term sustainability top of mind. “It’s really important to dazzle end users, not just buyers,” Petersen said. Included in their targeted engagement strategies is a strong welcome series. “You win stakeholder support through collaboration, education and process development. And you want to recruit internal staff who are energized and not drained by the process.” As for the increased customer service, Rebernik said that “because we put our editors into customer service roles, it was important for us to come together as a community… and develop processes and workflows.

Again, you can still register for today and the opportunity to watch ALL the sessions any time you want! I really just was able to give you a taste of the great content we have. There’s so much more!
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Is Your Audience ‘Aware of the Breadth’ of Your Coverage? Engagement Lessons From The Washington Post.

When you can get someone to tell you a personal story about a meeting with Jeff Bezos and how to maintain and monetize the engagement from the COVID-19 coverage you’ve been putting out, then you have quite an interview.
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And so we did last week when Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives for The Washington Post, spoke to my colleague Matt Kinsman of SIIA’s Connectiv division (who did a great job moderating). Members can watch this session along with the others from CES Deconstructed at this link. Here are some highlights:

The Jeff Bezos? Asked how to present stories that need to be told but are not sexy enough to reach the upper left quadrant, Gilbert gave us a “personal experience.”
“…It’s your job to make the important news interesting.” Three or four years ago, “our publisher had two teenage daughters and… was very keen on us being a part of Snapchat Discover…,” Gilbert began. “And when we were looking to join Discover, we were invited right before Snap was going public as a company. We had a call with Jeff Bezos [owner of The Washington Post and Amazon], a strategy call, and he said, ‘Do you have any concerns about going forward with this?’ And I said, ‘Yes I have this concern, I think Snap wants us to be the serious news and not necessarily the compelling news. And the audience will look at us as vegetables and not dessert.’
“And Jeff paused for a second”—and Gilbert paused in telling it—”and then he said to me, ‘Don’t you think it’s your job to make the important news interesting?’ I was stunned, and I said nothing because what do you to say to that. So what I would say is, ‘I don’t think it is a fair or reasonable thing to say we have stories that are important but are not interesting. If a story is important enough, it is our job to find a way to tell it in a way that’s sexy.’… Almost always you can find a way through animation, interactivity, audio or video or graphics to make important stories compelling and if we’re not doing that, it really is more the fault of the newsroom than it is a fault of the story.”
Most publishers have seen a jump in engagement since the pandemic began. How do they maintain that engagement post-COVID. “I think there are two important things about this,” Gilbert said. “One is when you have those moments, when people are intensely interested in your content for a very specific reason, everything feels changed. We need to think how we can make our news and information [continue to be] relevant, but especially how we can make people aware… about the width and breadth of coverage we can do. Not that I think all of you are general news publishers, but I have to think that even after COVID-19 that there are lots of reasons that your information will be relevant. So some of that is how do you attract people to products that can continue? Newsletters are a great example. People tune in now because maybe they have more time or because they’re in front of the computer more or feel more isolated, But if you can get them to subscribe to a newsletter, you have a way to reach them even when they go back to in-person offices and in-person meetings.
“The second thing is, you need to think, what it is about the relationship that felt important,” Gilbert continued. Why did the audience turn to you now so you could continue to make that valuable? Many of the people taking our subscription offers today are taking them on annual plan. So by April of next year, we would have had to make the case to them that their subscription is still valuable, even if we are in a happier, healthier position by then. So how do we transition people? If you are one of the almost a million people who subscribed to our COVID-19 email newsletter, what are the other newsletters that may be valuable to you? What kinds of coverage did you click through from the email newsletter and how can we use those interactions with our site or native apps to get you to stay?”

There will be other coverage that people will need. “So what we’re trying to do [is show that] our arts writers and critics, our sports writers and critics, our food writers and critics can feel relevant now but also signal to our audience that after the COVID crisis, we’ll have different kinds of coverage that they will still need,” Gilbert said. “So that’s really what we’re trying to do to combat that challenge. But I absolutely feel that imperative every bit as much as your members do, and we’re thinking very deeply about what are the things, the products, the tools that we can offer our audience and how can we bridge [new subscribers] from caring about the news in the time of the virus to caring about the news when things are going better.”

It’s all about audience needs. “And so if we can keep the needs of our audience at the forefront and not just think of our audience as consumers who buy our products but also people who need our news, we’re going to have a better experience,” Gilbert said.

Again there was much more to the interview that you can watch here.

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Relationships With Colleagues, Not Just Customers, Must Be Tended to Now

So like everyone else, I’ve been Zooming and Google Meeting and Go-to-Webinaring, and staring at myself in those various boxes. And there has been a lot of good stuff. SIPA 2020 next Monday and Tuesday should be incredible. All of the sessions will have live Q&As, so any specific questions you have will be answered. In fact, that’s probably one advantage a virtual conference has over an in-person one—you can get more specific questions answered, if not right then than later on.
When we’re talking about our day-to-day jobs, however, the pendulum—perhaps out of necessity—has certainly swung more to the benefits of working remotely now. I think it’s true that many of us office workers probably did underestimate the work-from-homers. I’m definitely working more hours now and being very productive, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
But…
While the loss of networking at in-person events has been talked about plenty, there has been less talk about the advantages of the office that we’ve lost. And at least for now, how to replace them.
All collaborative work does not get done in structured meetings. Many times, I would amble over to Amanda’s office and we would talk something out. (We’re both early-birds.) There’s more ease in person. When you’re writing communication, you really have to examine every word so there’s no misinterpretation, And even then, tone is lost. We have talked by Slack phone a few times, and that’s better, so I would at least encourage that. You can hear if someone is frustrated. You can laugh together without the smiley faces.
Schedule one-on-one time with colleagues. We have so many group meetings now that you don’t get to discuss things individually with someone as much. And we all know you’re not going to get the same candor in a group meeting that you would get in a one-on-one meeting. There are more people to possibly offend, less time to talk because of the numbers, and more opportunity to multi-task. It’s easy to lose touch with what is really going on without one-on-one meetings, especially boss to employees.
The proverbial water cooler conversation. Do we ever really say water cooler other than for “water cooler” conversation? At our office, we had a water fountain that people avoided like the… forget it. Anyway, it’s true that I would see Dan our incomparable IT guy or James our registration guru, and we would resolve a potential problem in the hallway. Can this be replaced? An article last year said that a recent MIT research project actually proved that the ‘water cooler effect’ increases employee productivity by 10-15%. So…
Encourage more “coffee breaks” with a colleague. That MIT research team suggested that encouraging shorter and more frequent breaks in the workday could be the key to allowing deeper, more authentic relationships between employees to be built. Now this was pre-pandemic, but it may have more validity now. Yes, everyone has a different schedule, but still designating 11 am and 3 pm 10-15 minute one-on-one chats could be good. I would say especially the afternoon—I sense an energy drain then, where a coffee break conversation would be a good pick-me-up. Call it speed colleaguing.
Continue to reward innovation. A real risk with remote workers is that team members feel isolated and alone—especially if they live alone these days—and worse yet, that their good work goes unrecognized. Set up a formalized company program that shows appreciation and rewards workers for collaboration, engagement with the company’s mission, and interaction with fellow team members—again, even in one-on-one situations—who are working toward the same goals.
Encourage everyone to use their camera; supply them with one if they don’t have. In a SIPA webinar on managing remote work last fall, Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, said that “frequency of cameras being disabled has become an [engagement] issue that we’ve tried to address. We are encouraging people to use the video component. Audio is one element, but video another; it really enhances it… It really does make a significant difference.” In the two one-on-one interviews I did with the SIPA 2020 keynotes, Don Harkey and Krystle Kopacz, being able to see them did make it a different experience. I’ve done interviews by phone all my life and those are fine. But as far as making a connection, the video, as Fink said, enhanced that.