E-Mail Effort Looks to Light Fire in Test Prep Realm

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Better known for literature guides that compete with John Wiley & Sons' CliffNotes, SparkNotes LLC now wants students to buy its test preparation materials as well.


The Barnes & Noble Inc. subsidiary will carry out this mission through a one-off e-mail to 500,000 registered users on its database. Dropping in mid-September during the crucial back-to-school season, the effort targets high school students preparing for college entrance exams.


"We're trying to increase incremental sales," said Scott Matik, national sales director at SparkNotes, New York. "We're [also] trying to generate awareness among our users that we exist in this category as a credible and affordable choice."


While SparkNotes has 1,000 guides online -- half of them literature -- and 172 in print, it has only 17 test prep titles. Priced $14.95 for a book or $19.95 with online access, the titles focus on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test and SAT, SAT II and American College Test. The subjects include math, physics, history, writing and biology.


Created inhouse, the HTML e-mail will welcome the students back for the school year. Recipients will be asked to visit a Barnes & Noble store or go online to www.bn.com or www.sparknotes.com to buy the prep material.


All Barnes & Noble stores will publicize the SparkNotes test prep material, too.


"It's an acquisition thing for the test prep arena and it's a retention thing from the brand perspective," Matik said.


The SparkNotes test prep materials compete directly with more established rivals like Kaplan and The Princeton Review. The key difference is, the rivals use their test materials to draw students to their classes. SparkNotes has no classes, relying solely on its published educational material. Also, its materials are half to one-third the costs of its rivals.


The test prep materials are the latest of the products in SparkNotes' portfolio. Besides the literature guides that are free online and $4.95 in PDF or book form, the company also publishes No Fear Shakespeare, a line of 10 plays with a side-by-side modern English translation. Also, the company produces 76 SparkCharts, a laminated review and reference sheet on various subjects like Microsoft Excel for Windows and microeconomics.


Since SparkNotes was launched in 1999 by four Harvard seniors and bought by Barnes & Noble in March 2001, the company has attracted more than 6 million registered users. Half of them are over age 18, and 57 percent are female. It adds 300,000 registered users each month in the school year, so the back-to-school season is especially critical for SparkNotes.


Matik said traffic peaks in February and April, when SparkNotes.com typically attracts 3 million unique visitors each month. In the same token, the June-through-August months are dry. Traffic to the site drops nearly 60 percent since students are off for the summer. Similarly, visits slow down in December and January during the winter break.


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