E-mail is said to be entering a more mature phase in its lifecycle, heading for more widespread adoption of targeted contact strategy and more customized messaging. If that’s true, then Ron Stokes, director of marketing and advertising for nymag.com, New York magazine’s award-winning Web site, can be considered an early adopter. He and his team have taken a hard line on obtaining various levels of permission and then keeping the communication streams different to meet those preferences. The result is a responsive proprietary, editorial-driven e-mail housefile that remains robust year in, year out; pulls strong ad sponsorships; and helps support all of the publishers’ different divisions. Here, Stokes comments on how he balances subscriber communication with marketing opportunities.
Target Marketing: What different types of contacts make up your e-mail file?
Ron Stokes: The first group is the e-mail newsletter subscribers, and they come to us through a variety of sources. One is from the site itself; there is a master page where you can check off all the different newsletters. And then we’ve done site promotions that also make people aware [of the e-newsletters]—that’s most effective within the vertical. In other words, if it’s a dining newsletter—of which we have two—to promote that within the dining section on the site. Really and truly, I think all of the e-mail newsletter groups are important. I have a personal fondness for this group, however, because by choosing what newsletter they’re on, they’ve also indicated to me what vertical they’re interested in—which helps all of us here. It helps the editorial team to gauge what that universe is; it also helps us in terms of our marketing partners, in matching up sponsorship. So that newsletter list is extremely important to us.
There’s also an e-mail list of print subscribers. One group has only opted in to hear about their subscription. … There is another portion of that group that are also on e-mail newsletters. So those, I guess, are our biggest brand enthusiasts; they want the product in print and in e-mail. And when I say e-mail, that also then makes them a Web site user, because any of that content within that e-mail is going to link through to the site.
There also are members who are coming to us from the newsletter list or from the print subscriber list who have also given us permission to send out any third-party announcements or marketing offers. We will use this list ourselves for any internal marketing.
TM: In what other ways do you segment your e-mail audiences?
RS: In terms of the edit products … you can walk away and say the verticals, and I know that’s sort of saying people are one-dimensional—we know that they’re not, and many of our users may be on [our] Best Bets [e-letter] and also on the Fashion Alert [e-letter] or whatever. We know at least among all their interests that they have those particular interests. Now within how we use [this information], in terms of the ones who are additionally opted in for promotions and marketing, we can look at them—not the entire list, but a great portion—by gender … the entire list by ZIP code.
In the early days of our business, we did collect more information when people signed up for anything. So there is a portion of the group that we have further detail on, but it’s not 100 percent of the list because at some point we stepped back and said, as the business matured, those questions became a barrier to sign-up. In reality, it was more important for us to build up these e-mail newsletter lists than build up what would be called marketing offers lists. Subscribing to a newsletter is not applying for a credit card or making one feel that way.
TM: On what issues does nymag.com communicate by e-mail with its subscribers?
RS: We e-mail about our events, subscription offers for those who aren’t already print subscribers, new features, new content, new newsletters—any of those have an immediate response. And while we might have a new editorial feature every week, we don’t [e-mail subscribers every week]. Sometimes we have to say we have more invested into [one] particular launch. … We have to [prioritize e-mail contact].
TM: What measurements do you use to determine the best frequency and content mix for your e-mails?
RS: We definitely look at open rate on the different e-mails, and we look at clickthrough rate as well. It’s more trending than anything. We, after a period of time, know where different products hit on that continuum. … If something moves either way, then we want to examine it. Also, the list churn, meaning how many new users are coming in versus bounces and unsubs. Bounces, for us in New York, can be hugely a product of people moving around, in terms of jobs. And frequency … definitely in terms of marketing and any third-party offers, particularly in the last two quarters. In the first half of the year … you’re watching those numbers, but things don’t change as frequently. So, if the last couple of promotions [during a high-volume contact period] didn’t feel special or weren’t of interest, it could be the turning point for someone [in opting out or turning away from your brand].