Dot-com content that works?- The success of

When was founded in 1995, the company
decided to use the subscription model. "If customers are not willing to pay," said CEO
Michael Schutzler, who joined in 2000, "it’s not a business."

By Tom Taulli CNET Networks

Other Internet operations, such as and, also used the
subscription model with success. But those sites were able to leverage existing brands.

By contrast, had the formidable task of creating a new brand that could
attract the masses. What’s more, the company did not have a huge war chest courtesy of an
IPO (the company instead raised $15 million in venture capital).

Despite all that, has enjoyed great success. The company last year
generated $35.6 million in revenue and is on track to generate $70 million for 2002. The
operation is currently EBIDTA positive.

So what are the lessons? Let’s take a look.

Magazine model
Schutzler considers the traditional magazine model as the best approach to selling content.

"I do not look at the Web as a broadcast medium that relies mostly on advertising," he said.
"Rather, I think the Web is a direct-marketing medium. This is what a magazine is. For a
magazine to survive, it needs multiple revenue streams, such as annual subscriptions and
advertising." relies heavily on subscriptions, with a $36 annual rate. Currently, the site has
more than 2 million paying subscribers.

Growth curve
When a site gives away content, the growth curve is immediately steep. Thus, it does not take
long to accumulate a substantial number of visitors. With a subscription-based company, it’s a
much different story.

America Online took quite a while to build up a respectable
subscriber list. Up until a year ago, Schutzler said, was still encountering difficulty getting
subscriber growth.

"It was about getting one customer at a time," he said. "But
once we hit critical mass of over 2 million users, the growth
started to accelerate."

Compelling content
Simply put, content must be unique and useful. It also greatly
helps if the content is nearly impossible to replicate in the
traditional print world. Kind of obvious, right? Well, there were
many companies during the dot-com boom that failed to
realize that.

As for, it is based on a simple idea: nostalgia. Are you curious about your
high school prom date? What about the person who was voted the most likely to succeed?
How about the bully who picked on you?

Basically, uses a hybrid model of free and premium content. The free content
entices customers to the subscription service yet avoids a drop-off in advertising income.

For example, people can register free at to learn whether people they knew in
high school are listed on the service. So far, has over 30 million registered
users. No doubt, this traffic is sold to advertisers and sponsors.

But if you want to make a connection with an old friend, you need to pay–and people are
certainly willing to pay.

Low costs
Ironically, the low amount of money raised by has been an advantage.

"We’ve had to be frugal," Schutzler said. Every initiative must be analyzed with strict
cost-benefit analysis.

However, cost-consciousness must not go overboard. Whenever a site takes subscriptions, the
visitor expects strong customer service.

Customer acquisition
Getting customers to pay can be prohibitively expensive, as
was shown with the blow-ups of eToys and, though, is not afraid of online advertising
and uses it aggressively. (Then again, advertising rates are
much lower and tend to be based on performance.)

"It helps that our advertising does not have to be targeted," Schutzler said. "Just about anyone
has been to high school."

Brand loyalty
Getting out of the gate with a strong focus was instrumental in helping build the brand, though Schutzler acknowledges that he would choose another name
had he started the business today.

"Our business is more than high school reunions," he said. "It is a personal network for
reconnecting people."

Still, he added, the name has not posed a big problem.

"We have built a trusted brand," he said. "Our customers are intensely loyal. In fact, we have
been able to expand into other areas successfully, such as colleges and even the military."

Lessons learned
A recent study by Jupiter Media Metrix estimates that subscription content will grow from $1.4
billion this year to about $5.8 billion in 2006. Already, there are many examples of companies
testing subscription services:

• charges $1 per month for greeting cards.

• The New York Times weekly crossword puzzle costs $19.95 per year, generating $800,000

• Yahoo is charging for e-mail services and online games.

• Sony plans to charge for old episodes of soap favorites like "Days of Our Lives" and "The
Young and the Restless."

• RealNetworks recently launched a new software service to allow companies to sell their
content to the public.

No doubt, consumers will resist paying, but that’s nothing new for any type of media. Learning
from success stories like may help companies ease through whatever
turbulence they encounter during that process.

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