How Pay-Per-Article Option Tripled Revenue for Subscription Site

Posted on November 7, 2011


Over 11 years, Alacra has built online technology and services to help hundreds of banks, management-consulting and law firms and other corporations worldwide find, package and use business information from commercial databases and websites on a subscription basis.

Barry Graubart, VP Product Management, saw the content on the company’s databases and in the archive of business information-only websites as very valuable to thousands of other potential customers who were not subscribers.

“We were looking at business users who need a specific document at any moment. It could be a home office/small office operator or a VP at Pfizer working on a slide presentation that’s due tomorrow who needed a specific piece of data,” says Graubart. “Only a fraction of that audience has subscriptions to our content, but we know there’s demand for those things.”

Graubart and his team wanted a new channel for paid content to businesses that didn’t want or need a full-fledged subscription. They saw this non-subscriber channel as a source of new revenue for Alacra and their content partners, like D&B, Thomson, Moody’s and Fitch Ratings.

Graubart and his team created an ecommerce platform two years ago that allows customers to search the Alacra database and websites and buy content by the piece. Called the AlacraStore, Graubart describes it as “a sandbox project” — an experiment for which his team developed an infrastructure, created a marketing strategy and tested it to gauge the response.

Here are five steps they took to build and market the store:

-> Step #1. Negotiate pricing & sales policies

Alacra’s longstanding relationships with their content partners opened the door for Graubart to negotiate new arrangements for selling individual reports and articles. The majority of the partners agreed to license their content for the store.
So, Graubart’s team created a revenue-sharing agreement with their partners that established pricing and licensing rules that made sense with their own business models.

Some of the variables the team helped their partners determine:

– Pricing
All publishers set their own prices for individual documents, ranging from $5 or $10 for short articles and news reports to several thousands of dollars for larger research reports. In some cases, the team gave partners guidance by showing them price ranges for comparable pieces of content in the database.

– Free content
Some partner offerings included general business information, such as lists of top company executives, that businesses could likely find for free elsewhere on the Web. In these cases, the team recommended that partners not attempt to sell those items.

“If it’s not unique information it doesn’t matter how cheap it is. It won’t really sell.”

– Other content to exclude
In a few cases, partners had specific reasons to exclude certain reports or articles from the ecommerce platform. For example, providers chose to withhold certain financial data so as not to appear to be advertising to a retail audience — a violation of financial regulations.

– Content embargos
A handful of providers worried that selling individual documents might hurt their relationships with direct subscribers. In these cases, the team worked with partners to establish embargoes for the store, such as holding back new documents for 2 to 4 weeks after they were released to subscribers.

– Test and trial periods
The team also offered new partners the chance to test ecommerce sales by starting with a limited number of documents. Partners could judge the impact of those sales and add more content over time.

-> Step #2. Create search-driven store interface

With more than 16 million documents in the store, Graubart and his team decided against using a typical ecommerce interface that offers browsing and other guided navigation tools.

“A lot of these [ecommerce] sites you can navigate through if you know where you’re going,” says Graubart. “But our visitors don’t know the brands and, in many cases, don’t know exactly what they’re looking for.”

Instead of a typical interface, they created a search interface for the store’s front page:
– Search box in the center of the store page allows visitors to jump into content immediately by entering search terms.
– Tabs above the search box help narrow search parameters, allowing visitors to organize searches by:
o Keyword
o Company
o Publisher
o Country
o Industry

-> Step #3. Group results and offer filtering tools

The team added a series of grouping and filtering tools to the search results page to help users navigate matching documents:

– The main body of the search results page displayed documents according to several categories, such as:
o Company snapshots
o Company profiles and financials
o Credit and investment research
o Market research
o Economic and data analysis
o Deal information
o Share ownership
o News

With the filters, users could quickly eliminate the kind of reports they were not interested in.

– Left-hand navigation bar offers several filtering tools to let users refine their results:
o Additional keyword box
o Date ranges
o AJAX-powered sliding bar that let users focus results on documents within a certain price range
o Checkboxes to select particular categories or publishers
o Ability to highlight keywords in the context of the document

“We make it easy to navigate without a lot of jumping around and used AJAX so you can change things dynamically.”

– Separate search box allows users to search for keywords within a selected document from the results page. The results of that search shows the number of times keywords appear within the document, along with the sentence in which those words appear, to help users determine if the document meets their needs.

-> Step #4. Use search marketing to attract visitors

Because the ecommerce store was designed to reach a fragmented market, Graubart and his team couldn’t perform widespread, outbound marketing campaigns. Instead, they focused on search marketing techniques to attract potential customers searching the Web for an acute data or research need.

Some of their most important search marketing tactics:

– Create sitemaps
Sitemaps are a Google program that allows websites to submit a comprehensive list of the URLs and pages within their sites. That program also lets webmasters rank the relative importance of certain pages within their sites and provide a schedule for how frequently they are updated.

Sitemaps are particularly useful for large sites like the AlacraStore, because they help Google’s Web crawlers know which pages to index and how often to re-index the site.

– Expose as much keyword-rich content as possible
Millions of documents available in the AlacraStore had to be placed behind the ecommerce barrier. So, the team made sure individual document landing pages within the database provide a host of keyword and category information that establishes search rankings.

Each document landing page contains a report overview that includes:
o Report title
o Publisher’s name
o Report type
o Ticker symbols of companies mentioned
o Excerpts, abstracts or summaries

– Using URLs and metatags that are descriptive of the document’s content and author. For example:

That URL indicates the report is from Thomson M&A and that it covers AOL’s acquisition of Bebo.

-> Step #5. Create blog to highlight new research

To further drive traffic, the team created a blog called ResearchRecap. It covers new and noteworthy research from investment banks, market research firms, credit reporting agencies, government agencies and other sources.

The blog has its own URL — The team hired writers and editors to monitor and comment on the most interesting developments in the research world, even if those reports are not products they sell.

It was important to create a blog with an independent voice that would provide real editorial value for readers, says Graubart, and not just be a promotional vehicle.

– The editorial team publishes 3 to 5 posts a day. Each highlights new research or supplements important news stories, such as former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s resignation and his role in helping create some of the financial regulations that prompted the investigation that forced him out of office.

– Roughly two-thirds of the posts are related to free content available online. The remaining third point to paid content.

– For paid content, the team includes a hotlink to that report’s overview page in the AlacraStore.

– They also created a tab on the blog’s top navigation bar highlighting new titles available in the AlacraStore.

The first year was spent adding new content and tweaking the model. It has come into its own during the past year. The AlacraStore is “absolutely out of the sandbox at this point,” Graubart says.

o Traffic to the store has doubled in the past 6 months.
o Ecommerce revenues have tripled in the past year.

“Revenue is growing at a faster pace than the visitors,” he says. “The people who are showing up are able to find what they want and are able to buy it.”

Search traffic delivers the majority of visitors, but the blog is becoming an important tool. The blog’s contribution to overall traffic is still only in the single digits, but creating a stand-alone editorial voice covering the research community has attracted a strong following. “The initial response has been really positive.”

As Graubart anticipated, the store is reaching customers who aren’t the typical targets for the company’s subscriptions. For example, ecommerce customers have come from more than 75 countries, compared to roughly 12 countries that represent the majority of subscribers.

Some subscription clients have also purchased reports from the store, but Graubart is not concerned about cannibalizing those revenues. Those sales might be related to a specific project, or come from a different division within a company that’s a customer of an Alacra subscription service.

So far, they also haven’t tested any campaigns to drive ecommerce customers into a subscription product. “If they’re happy and satisfied and coming back, we’re not trying to push them into another product,” says Graubart. “We want to be channel-neutral.”

The team has or is adding new services that Graubart believes will further boost interest in the AlacraStore:

– In November, the team created the Alacra Content Marketplace, an interface that allows smaller publishers to add their content to the Alacra database and sell it through the store or the company’s subscription product.

– In January, they created the Alacra Premium Content Ad Network, a place for contextual ads for relevant content on major publishers’ websites. It’s a strategy intended to supplement search traffic by reaching Web users browsing industry news and analysis. The ads link to reports or articles available for purchase.