Harlequin Gives New Meaning to ‘Relationship Marketing’

Left at the Altar? Amnesiacs? Runaway Brides? Believe it or not, these are e-mail list segments.

Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., Toronto, began a personalized e-mail newsletter called My Romance News on its site, Romance.net (note the .net), in May that has to be one of the most tellingly segmented lists in marketing.

“We wanted to talk to customers in the way they think about books,” said Andrea Szego, manager of Romance.net. “Some are loyal to authors, some are loyal to series. Some are not loyal to authors or series; they just like a particular type of story.”

As a result, Harlequin’s readers can direct the service to deliver updates on any combination of 16 Harlequin and Silhouette book series, 22 authors and 40 themes. The service also invites readers to opt in to receive once-a-month novel excerpts, online event reminders, “lovecasts” or horoscopes and news on store specials.

The top five My Romance News themes mirror the top sellers offline: Marriage of Convenience, Opposites Attract, Love at First Site, Taming the Bad Boy and Stranded with a Stranger. “That, we found particularly interesting,” said Szego. “It means our customers are online and we’re talking to them in the language they want to hear.”

Other themes include Baby on the Doorstep, Left at the Altar, Doctor in the House, Paranormal Romance, Ticking Biological Clocks, Beauty and the Boss, Secret Agent Man, Celtic and Double Trouble (twins).

“What better way to illustrate relationship marketing than with Harlequin?” said Hans Peter Brondmo, chairman and founder, Post Communications Inc., the San Francisco e-mail marketing services provider tapped to run the project.

“It’s interesting from two perspectives,” said Brondmo. “It is enabling them to personalize the dialogue with their customers in a way that they’ve never been able to do off line. It’s also the first time they’ve exposed their customers to the underlying themes of these books where the customer is explicitly aware of what these themes are.”

Brondmo added that Harlequin’s response rates are some of the highest he’s seen on the Internet.

To kick start the program, Harlequin sent an e-mail to customers from whom it has been collecting addresses for a little over a year.

Though the Szego would not reveal the size of Harlequin’s e-mail list, she said My Romance News subscriptions have doubled in the last two months, the e-mails draw double-digit click-throughs and the volume of e-mail sent since May is approaching 500,000.

Books featured in My Romance News consistently place in Romance.net’s top 10 sellers. Currently, the Internet accounts for a minuscule percentage of Harlequin’s sales, said Szego. “The revenue at this point is insignificant,” she said. “But our readers really enjoy it.”

She added Harlequin is satisfied enough with its Internet investment that it plans to up the ante significantly during the next 12 months. “We are sinking big money into it in the year 2000,” she said.

Other features at Romance.net include discussion forums and a quiz to help readers find out what kind of books might interest them

Harlequin publishes 80 to 100 books per month for its voracious readers – a segment that consumes more than half of all paperbacks published.

Harlequin’s North American readers’ median age is 41 with a median household income of $35,600. Fifty-nine percent are college educated, and they apparently own decent computers as about 75 percent of My Romance News subscribers have opted to receive an HTML (graphical) version of the e-mail newsletter.

To drive traffic to Romance.net, Harlequin runs online contests and sweepstakes and publishes the URL on every book cover and in back-page ads. Harlequin sells 160 million books in 24 languages each year.

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