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Subscriber Numbers: Why Tread on Shaky Ground?

By: Azriel Winnett

Azriel Winnett is senior staff writer at Sling Shot Media LLC, which offers a wide range of hosting solutions for email lists of all types and sizes, as well as many other services for email marketers and list owners. Visit our site at: or e-mail us at:

Among the wide variety of list-related services that we at Sling Shot Media perform for our clients, is the handling of ad bookings. 

If a customer, for example, is embarking on an ezine ad campaign and is looking for the best spread at the best possible prices, we'll track down and book the right selection of publications that will reward the client with the very best value for the money.   

Our experience in this field has yielded some illuminating insights that will prove useful to publishers who sell advertising, or plan to, as well as to those who buy advertising space in other publications.

Since we're responsible for ensuring that our client's budget is used in the most effective way, we need to do our homework very carefully before finalizing our strategy and making our bookings. One of the things we have to be continually on guard against is publishers who inflate the size of their lists.

It's always frustrating to have to deal with such cases, but there are a few ways we can detect when list owners are exaggerating their subscriber figures.

The first of these is through assessing the response rates to a given advertising campaign. Untypical rates are usually the first signal that something is amiss.

We track the response of every single ad we place. We don't just track clickthroughs, but also the uniqueness of responses based on IP addresses or email addresses (depending on whether the call to action requires clicking through to a URL or accessing an autoresponder address).

With most campaigns, we book ads in anything from 25 to 100 and more publications. By looking at the results for each one of them, we can arrive at a pretty accurate idea of what the rate of response for a particular publication SHOULD have been. Notwithstanding that the individual peculiarities of publications could result in some skewing of the data, it should still be possible to anticipate results within reasonable limits.

Take for instance a recent campaign we managed that resulted in an overall response rate of 8.5%.

Three different publications claimed subscription numbers in excess of 10,000. They fell into the same categories as other publications and were comparable with regard to content. Be that as it may, these three publications yielded response rates of 0.01%, 0.02% and 0.022% respectively.

A fourth publication claimed a subscriber base of over 20,000. The only joy we had from this one was one response by email and one through the Web! It's worth noting that the ads in all these four cases were "sponsorships" placed right at the top of the issues. 

A second indicator that may point to incorrect subscriber figures is the price charged for advertising space in a given publication.    

Sometimes, publishers may deliberately peg their advertising prices below the going market rate, perhaps in order to quickly dispose of their inventory. However, a below-market CPM without selling out inventory is often a signal that something's wrong, particularly when the response rate is below average. (We're not referring to extreme cases like those we mentioned above, but to instances where there is about a 50% or so deviation from the average.)

We've noticed an odd trend in case like this: contrary to what you might predict, for the majority of publications that under-perform (as measured by the response rate), the cost per response still works out to be around the same - UNLESS we can assume gross inflation of subscriber numbers.

Ads that can only command CPMs falling below accepted market figures (see our next section) - taking into account any targeting factors - typically end up with the same cost per response, if not lower, than ads with higher CPMs.

What we can learn from all this is clear.

If you're placing ads in other publications, do your homework carefully, and above all, follow the dictates of common sense. Check out what other advertisers are consistently using the pub you're considering. Be especially wary of ezines that are only a few months old, yet claim unusually large subscriber numbers. If you're not yet convinced of a certain publication's pull, don't pay for multiple insertions in advance!

And if you're a publisher, do go all out to expand your baby both in size and in reputation. But in the midst of all the excitement, never get carried away by temptation!

If you're not yet ready for the big league, it's surely no disgrace; concentrate on grooming yourself for the day when you will be. Don't, however, claim to be what you're not, or promise to deliver what you can't.  

It could be that the only one you're cheating is yourself.

© Copyright 2000, Azriel Winnett, Sling Shot Media, LLC

Other Articles by Azriel Winnett

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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