Email marketing or directly marketing a commercial message to a group of people using email is still a dominant form of marketing in the social media world. Researchers estimate that United States firms alone spent US $1.51 billion on email marketing in 2011 and will grow to $2.468 billion by 2016. The vast business opportunity has excited startups globally to tap it. Some have gone the way to build marketing intelligence for effective delivery of emails and others have decided to move ahead in the newsletter curation business, where by customers receive curated newsletters based on their industry interests either daily or weekly.
Popular tech curation site Techmeme is an example and it is said that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is one of the dedicated reader for a quick dose of the tech world happenings. In India where the internet penetration is in a shabby state, a similar business has been thriving for close to seven years.
TradeBriefs founded in 2008 by Sreekumar Vijaykumar is a daily email newsletter service that curates top industry news of the day along with insights and jobs. Starting with retail the newsletter today has expanded to 10 industry segments such as telecom, finance, digital, e-commerce, among others. Over the years the service has shown value and today it is subscribed by more than 7.5 lakh netizens who are either CEOs, CMOs, VPs or Directors.
“We are doing email marketing right, in a social media age,” said Sreekumar, MD at TradeBriefs while talking to me over the phone from his Mumbai office.
A product of IIT Mumbai where he completed his BTech in mechanical engineering, he did his MS in operations management from Carnegie Mellon University in 1999. His professional career started in the US mostly consulting retailers while working in companies such as i2, Deloitte and IBM.
After working for six years, by the mid of 2007, Sreekumar went to Columbia Business School. However he dropped out after a year of the course to start his own venture with another partner. “We got very excited with the business idea which had won the business plan competition. The idea was to create a model like NIIT for retail that would produce industry ready trained professionals for the retail market,” Sreekumar recollected. He always wanted to start up but was waiting for the right time to start up.
Formation of All India Retail
In 2008 Sreekumar came back to India and All India Retail was formed in September 2008. The original idea was to bring the expertise of retail from the western market and later adapting it to the growing retail sector in India. However the idea was born right after the Lehman Brothers collapse so fund raising was next to impossible. The co-founders thought of starting up first in Mumbai and then later expand the chain in other cities while providing fresh graduates the basic training to work in the retail environment.
“To start with we built our own modules related to the retail industry and tied up with organizations for soft skills training. At the same time we reached out to the industry experts who recognized the skill gap, but they were more worried about the gap existing in the mid level managers. This insight changed our direction,” said Sreekumar. The company thereafter trained a thousand plus mid level managers from most of the renowned retail giants in India. “It was going on good but it became more of a lifestyle business and scaling it was becoming a challenge.”
Pivot to TradeBriefs
The classic pivot happened and Sreekumar started spending time on the website and the newsletter. Internet penetration was happening in the country and it was a choice that he made shifting gears from the training model. This also meant Sreekumar was left all by himself with his co-founder parting ways. “I was seeing how could we engage with senior professionals of retail via the newsletter. The idea was to send a daily digest which included news, analysis and jobs.”
“The value providing to businesses by delivering content in the inbox comes from my US days but the expansion to other sectors was the necessity to scale. As we started seeing traction in our belief, we started covering more industry verticals,” said Sreekumar while informing that going further he wants to go global while keeping the curation model intact.
Talking about the technology applied for the curation of content, Sreekumar shared that while there are algorithms that crawl the internet for industry specific news, human editors are at work to clear the noise from the data curated. The algorithm that has evolved over the years was initially finding everything that would be useful for professionals but this also meant a bigger effort from the human editors. Over time the algorithm has become smarter and is working quite effectively picking up the news content with very less human effort.
Besides the news content, the insightful content that works on a weekly schedule is curated by editors as it is not time sensitive and needs a more personal touch. The last bit of the content mix at TradeBriefs is the jobs section which is more or less crowdsourced from its subscriber base.
“In the last 3-4 years, the initial curation algorithm has improved with a lot of feedback from the community. So it is keyword driven, source driven and user feedback loop to find out what sort of content and headlines work. This kind of daily feedback loop informs the editor and that gets set back into the algorithm as well,” Sreekumar informed.
While TradeBriefs is a curating company it also has a small portion of premium content. Talking about the mix of content, I was informed that 70% of the content is curated from the internet, 20% is premium content sourced from trade magazines which still remain in the print world and is shared in a pdf format exclusive to TradeBriefs subscribers on a paid model. The remaining 10% forms insightful content from industry experts where TradeBriefs approaches them to write on certain subjects. Besides, the company is also thinking on building some industry related reports and analysis to build a new revenue channel but it is still in its early days.
Over the time the strength of the company has grown. With multiple verticals, editors have been recruited and with the keen focus on technology TradeBriefs has built a solid tech team. SreeKumar, who juggles with various roles from being a coder to representing the company, informed that the company has a total strength of 16 which includes three hires in the tech team and eight part-time editors.
TradeBriefs social network
With 7.5 lakh industry pundits subscribed to the newsletter being sent by TradeBriefs for close to seven years now, he feels that while email keeps you informed, one of the drawback with it is that it is one way. “Once we started building our user base, the data we collected in this process motivated us to jump into this next logical step of building a networking platform to provide a richer experience by being able to connect to other like-minded people.”
With a strong user base already in its hand TradeBriefs has solved a bit of the chicken-egg problem. In fact most of the social networks that I have reviewed at LI have either struggled or closed down due to lack of user adoption. Even Twitter and LinkedIn, the leaders of the social networking world have been investing on email marketing.
The social network that is going to be launched later this year wouldn’t be another addition to the set of social networks already existing. The network would provide professionals from different industries to interact with like-minded people while posting content, messaging each other among other things. In summary, the network would be on the lines of ” Twitter + Quora for the LinkedIn audience.”
However, Sreekumar also informed that the social network is a side project which got nurtured with the support of 500Startups. “The intention is to go big but at the same time we are giving ourselves enough ramp up time, for the reason that we cannot take our eyes out from the core business of newsletter. We are taking it slowly and we hope that the experiment of creating a network becomes a success and the newsletter business provides the supporting role.”
Challenges and revenue sources
But how do you draw a line between spamming and effectively sending mailers to your user? Sreekumar said that it is a long battle that the company has been fighting everyday. ” To maintain the balance we do things at two levels. One we have priced ourself from the typical mass mailing type as we don’t want to spam our subscriber base. Secondly we have started educating our clients on how to use email properly with our version of native advertising. That is introducing a relevant piece of content within the newsletter that is sponsored by a certain client which is later used as a lead generation capture tool. Additionally we have been cautious with the direct email marketing by not bombarding our subscribers inbox.”
Along with direct and native advertising, TradeBriefs has now built a lead generation platform which has now turned into another source of revenue generation. With the idea to help B2B advertisers, the platform was started a year back under Mohsin Khan, the tech lead. The focus was on the designation or industry level for B2B clients such as Cisco reaching out to CIOs or IBM reaching out to SMEs. Initially it was about direct advertising but later on TradeBriefs thought of building a platform which gave the flexibility to advertisers to target well and reduced the trouble of filling in details by the users. To start with the company did a pilot with a BPO GA Software Technologies which was a success and later on it was implemented for others.
“Today we have a few paying clients but the key issue is trust from our clients. Fortunately we have got the trust of highly focused B2B clients who are looking for decision makers. In terms of ROI our clients are getting 15-20 times what they spent on the campaign including the time spend on the creative,” added Sreekumar.
There is also a partner model that TradeBriefs is working with and it has already signed up industry bodies like IAMAI, Etailing, Great Place To Work among others. “The idea is to do co-branded content and then prepare content which would be good for the partner audience. We make money by advertising in the newsletter while we also provide a percentage of revenue sharing with the partner too,” said Sreekumar. “It is a win-win situation for both.”
Moving forward the company focus is on expanding the advertising network, make it more targeted and build the social network. Being a part of 500Startups batch has helped TradeBriefs. It is being assisted by renowned platform expert Sangeet Paul Choudary on how to build an effective social network and there is a data scientist who is helping them on how to cut the noise, and curate better by making the algorithm better.
TradeBriefs is a great Indian example of a company doing the newsletter business right and with a social network poised to be launched soon, it could be the much awaited Indian social network for professionals.
Image credit: Whitsblog.com