This article was originally published on PaidContent.org on November 18, 2003.
David Eckoff recently caught up with Bobby Burton, Executive Vice President of Rivals.com, at the Sports Media & Technology Conference in New York City. Burton was ranked the 88th most powerful person in sports for 2000 by The Sporting News and has written on the topic of recruiting for ESPN.com, The Sporting News, FoxSports.com and The Dallas Morning News. In this exclusive one-on-one interview, Burton talks about his company’s online subscription service, lessons learned, advice for others in the subscription business and more.
Q: Bobby, can you give us a quick overview of the subscription products you’re selling at Rivals.com?
Our flagship product is called “Ultimate Ticket” and we sell that for $9.95 per month. With Ultimate Ticket, the sports fan gets content from the entire college and high school network. They get articles, the recruiting database, scouting video, and premium message boards. We supplement Ultimate Ticket with some tiered services.
Q: What are your results to-date?
Rivals.com has more than 80,000 paying subscribers as of July 2003. We’ll eclipse 100,000 in the early part of 2004.
Q: Talk about churn.
Our churn is much better than the industry. Our success is directly tied to our emphasis on community and the quality and depth of our content. Of course, presentation matters and speed to press reporting news matters.
Q: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way?
When we first rolled out premium content in late 2000, we priced too low. The price wouldn’t support the business. When we re-launched the company, we increased the price. There was virtually no effect on demand. We’ve also learned the importance of keeping the offer simple.
Q: What approach do you take with trying out new ideas?
Test! Don’t be afraid to test and try different things in a small way and expand that which works. Don’t test across the entire audience though, that risks alienating your entire audience.
Q: Rivals.com is known for its message boards. How important are they in selling online subscriptions?
The content is very important and the community aspect of the site is what makes Rivals.com so dynamic. It is a living, breathing community on the message boards. People sometimes overemphasize content and de-emphasize community when selling online subscriptions. I think that is a huge mistake. Community is so important because it allows you to tap into a user affinity group. The number one reason people buy a subscription is because of first-hand recommendations — on message boards, at tailgate parties, etc.
Q: The lack of control that goes with message boards can be a scary thing for companies who are concerned about protecting their brand. What has your experience been?
That’s the nature of the message board beast. People might disparage your brand that you’ve spent a lot of time and money building. But if you foster community the right way, then the overwhelming majority of readers react favorably and fairly. The upside eclipses the downside. There’s a reason eBay is the most successful internet company and part of that reason is their true commitment to community.
Q: Who do you work with in the industry?
We have partnerships with ESPN.com, Landmark Communications and TBS Sports. Recent ad clients include Pepsi, Volvo, Maxim and Bell South. Of course, our publishing partners — the more than 100 independent publishers — help contribute to the success of the network as a whole.
Q: What advice can you offer other companies interested in selling online content on a subscription basis?
Whether you’re NFL.com or Rivals.com there are a lot of commonalities in selling online subscriptions. There are so many aspects that are similar, between major media properties and niche media properties.
Q: Can you give some examples?
Exclusive content of a specific variety sells well, while commodity content does not. Around that, marketing has to clearly communicate the offer and the product.
Q: What other advice would you give to others seeking to start or grow their online subscription services?
Seek out and listen to people who have done it before. Too often, people try to reinvent the wheel and make the same mistakes others have made. Hire someone or bring someone on as a consultant who has previous experience. So you can learn from their previous successes and failures. So much has been learned from trial and error that you can leverage if you’re smart. You’ll quickly learn that this is a science.
Q: What do you see in the future?
More robust product offerings with broadband. Audio and video and interactive. Wireless applications will be major. Wireless is already major and will continue to grow in 2004-2005.