Consumer Reports Brings Quality Online

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NEW YORK -- The fifth most searched keyword Consumer Reports has bought on Google is not "cars." It's a bit less mobile and spacious and much colder, but has room for a soda can: "refrigerator."

Attendees at the publishing-focused Folio:Show last week in New York learned that nugget in a presentation by Jamie Darnow, senior director of direct marketing at Consumer Reports' publishing division.

They also found out that "air conditioners," "washing machines" and "TV" were the second, third and fourth most searched terms that linked to pages on the site at

The No. 1 search term? "Vacuum cleaners."

Ho-hum as that sounds, search marketing has paid off for the Yonkers, NY-based nonprofit that tests everything from cars to appliances, food and electronics. The organization relies on search engines like Google, Yahoo and MSN to test, optimize and expand campaigns across all categories it covers. It buys competitive keywords, creates unique landing pages and runs standard hard offers for subscriptions, even testing a 30-day free online trial.

Thanks to search engine marketing and optimization efforts, Consumer Reports expects 270,000 acquisition orders this year over the Internet. Those orders for subscriptions, books or reports will flow through the 10,000 landing pages created to respond to consumer searches.

It's safe to say that Consumer Reports has one of the most successful online brands worldwide. It claims 2 million paid online subscribers, a 30.8 percent year-over-year growth. It averages 26,000 net new subscribers online monthly. And the average longevity of the online subscriber is 3.5 years, while it's seven months for its monthly customers. averages 4.6 million unique users and 40 million page views monthly.

But the site would be nowhere without the magazine, Darnow said.

"Consumer Reports magazine is generating the branding that's driving the interest for CR online," Darnow told a room of circulators facing channel optimization issues.

The magazine has 4.2 million paid subscribers, up 5.65 percent in year-over-year growth. Its renewal rate for first-year subscribers is 36.4 percent, jumping to more than 65 percent for repeat renewals.

Cross channeling is common at Consumer Reports. The brand has 500,000 subscribers who buy both print and online versions. A popular upsell to prospects -- buy online, get an annual print subscription - generated a 4.7 percent response.

Mail's response, on the other hand, is 2.2 percent. Using all marketing channels, including e-mail, lifts response by 1.75 percent, Darnow said.

Consumer Reports takes customer retention seriously.

"If we can move retention 1 percent to the flagship, it's $1 million to the company bottom line," Darnow said.

Testing is as central to Consumer Reports' marketing as it is to its core business. A 16-page magalog of dos and don'ts showing shots of cars, electronics and a person in a lab coat performed 17 percent higher than one featuring car personality David Champion on the cover.

"The Consumer Reports audience likes to see testing labs," Darnow said.

Consumer Reports drops 100 million mail pieces a year. But there are several challenges. First, increase the pay-up from new subscribers. Next, improve the speed of getting its product to subscribers. Finally, greet new subscribers with the brand's best work.

One of the more recent solutions to those issues was a 64-page premium sent free to reinforce the Consumer Reports message. The cover lines on this mail piece relied on tried-and-true copy that worked in the past: "Exclusive Guide for New Subscribers," followed by the main title, "The Best of Consumer Reports." The line below said, "Special Welcome Issue."

Also used on the cover were words like "Best Ways" and "Big Decisions Made Simple." The art was "Hollywood Squares"-style. The images covered topics like saving on pet care, cameras, identity theft, big-screen televisions, food and DVDs.

"Here we hedge our bets," Darnow said. "What we're trying to do is strike a nerve."

The organization also stripped the premium of ads, except for a house ad on page 2 on ways to pay for Consumer Reports subscriptions. The goal was to get the branding message -- using the themes of trust and experts -- across in the same breadth as the nudge toward getting a subscription.

The strategy worked. In its first test, the piece increased customer pay-up from 65 percent to 72 percent across 30,000 mailings. The average number of paper bills decreased 20 percent -- from 2.02 bills to 1.8 -- and revenue and net profits rose 10 percent and 9 percent, respectively.

Consumer Reports soon will merge its direct marketing group with the online to launch a consumer marketing unit. That is proof of its complementary multichannel approach, both to marketing and to publishing.

"We've seen no cannibalization between both products," Darnow said.

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