As jitters over snail mail consume the media, email marketers have been keen to whisper what amounts to the new gospel in direct-to-consumer marketing: opting-in. Wary of their mailboxes, the theory goes, customers are much more likely to agree to receive promotional messages via email. Whether or not this is actually the case, sagging response rates to traditional mail and the prospect of cheap bulk emailings have made “permission-based sales opportunities” look better than ever.
One company working in the book realm is Zooba.com, a direct marketer that sends email newsletters on a variety of topics to its 2.8 million subscribers. Income is based primarily on advertising (mostly of books and videos that complement the newsletter topics) and branded sites. One of Zooba’s more liberating aspects is a chary attitude toward its own services: “We recommend you select no more than three topics,” the site warns, apparently warding off email overload. The user is also told how many emails will arrive on a particular topic, so that the fear of an unending avalanche of newsletters — like an electronic Time-Life continuity series — can be put to rest.
As of the beginning of 2001, Zooba also has some staying power amid failing dot-coms, namely the advantage of being owned by Bertelsmann (50% by the DirectGroup, and the other 50% by Bookspan). Forty-five is the magic number in this respect: Zooba has 45 employees, sends out newsletters in 45 content areas, and now has access to Bookspan’s 45 book clubs, which it makes no bones about plugging in pop-up ads (“Get 3 great cookbooks for only $3!”). But it has also provided publishers, including Cambridge U. Press, Henry Holt, St. Martin’s and Simon & Schuster, with access to lists on focused topics — everything from “Great Minds” to “Golf” — as well as advertising opportunities tied to the topic (in some cases a bit loosely: a sample newsletter advertises Dreamcatcher to readers interested in Pilates exercises). When they’re roused by the ads in their emails, readers can click on over to B&N.com and other e-tailers to purchase books posthaste.
More than 20 book publishers have availed themselves of the site’s “microcast transactive content technology,” and some of them, like Harvard Business School Press, have their own branded channel offering subscribers branded content (Harvard’s is mostly taken from Harvard Business Review articles). “We tap into an electronic universe that they’ve aggregated,” says George Pratt, Director of Web Marketing for Harvard Business School Publishing. Still, while Pratt reports “some success” throughout the company using outside email lists, they aren’t a silver bullet, at least not yet, for driving sales. “It’s fair to say that we’ve been successful in terms of getting additional reach,” he says. “The question is whether that has translated into enough actual business to continue doing it. That remains to be seen.”
According to Gwen Seznec, Zooba Director of Client Services, advertising fees range from $25 to $40 per thousand, depending on the use of original content, logos, and other customized items. To date, however, the major drawback for many e-marketers may simply be the paucity of known targets: only about 20 million email names are said to be traded in direct-email lists, compared to hundreds of millions of names available the old fashioned way.