A Homegrown Subscription Tracking System
Open source software is allowing publishers to develop Web design and content management systems in-house, rather than out-source to vendors. Publishers are also starting to bring other applications in-house. They're teaming up with freelance designers and leveraging their own internal resources to build applications according to their specifications, rather than force-fit more generic programs [for more examples, see our story on digital magazines].
Removing IT From the Equation
The Nation has developed a proprietary subscription monitoring software called SuMo, which offers some unique capabilities without being hampered by a technology that is difficult or frustrating for the staff to use. They've been tweaking and refining the program since. "We needed to be able to use the same discipline and methodology online that we used in the real world of direct marketing;creative tests, A/B splits, and so on," says Scott Klein, vice president of the Web site and technology. "We also needed a way to take IT out of the way of circulation putting up new promotions. So rather than each new campaign being a new development process, we created a system that already ï¾‘knows' how to talk to the fulfillment house, how to do a split, and how to count clicks and orders."
To develop the software, The Nation staff teamed with a freelancer they've used on a steady basis, and built wireframes of how the admin screens would look to help identity the requirements and specifications. "We first built a system that could do the basics (connect to the fulfillment house, measure response, do splits) then over the years developed new features as we needed them, such as digital-only subscriptions, renewals and reports specific to the vagaries of our fulfillment house rather than build everything speculatively, based on theoretical models and meetings about how we 'might' use it," says Klein.
SuMo allows The Nation to track all electronic activity in a fashion similar to direct response, and enables the publisher to gauge offline campaigns such as TV and radio through the use of tracking URLs. "Every single order that comes through our Web site, I can track back to the source and in many cases, that source represents a promotion expense like radio, TV, keywords, or e-mail promotions," says vice president of circulation Art Stupar.
SuMo in Application
The initial challenge was working with the fulfillment house so that orders received on thenation.com were transmitted to the bureau and that the reports worked properly. "We were able to design it in a way that was useful for circulation," says Stupar. "This is not the kind of thing where you want a generic tool, because we have very specific types of promotions that we do," he says. "What's nice about it is, since we set it up ourselves, we can administer it ourselves."
The Nation is currently conducting an e-mail promotion to its expire list. "We create the promotion and I just put the link in the promotion and create a landing page in this tool that puts in the price and the offer that I've made in the e-mail," says Stupar. "We mail it and tomorrow morning I can check the response."
The initial build took about one full summer and the financial investment was in the low five figures, according to Klein. "Given how much it's helped and the number of years we've gotten out of that investment, I'd call that cheap," he says. "At the time, we did a buy/build study and there was nothing we could buy that would do this for us with any kind of flexibility at all."
Suggestions for Building Your Own
Building an in-house software solution should be the answer to your problems, not another headache to bog down the process. Here are some things to keep in mind when starting to develop your own:
- Do for yourselves what's absolutely core to your business and to your expertise. "Know where you will need the most flexibility and be more open to outsourcing other stuff," says Scott Klein, vice president, Web site and technology, at The Nation. "For example, we outsource banner ad serving and analytics collection."
- 2. Set your budget and stick to it. Developing a program in-house can easily give way to undisciplined addition of features and spiraling costs. If you can't achieve your original vision on budget, maybe it's time to outsource.