Going Commercial, Very Carefully


By Erin Chambers In a city obsessed with trendiness, more than 11,000 New Yorkers check their e-mail each morning for the daily tip from the Manhattan User's Guide (MUG) -- be it the new dry cleaners on the Upper West Side, the latest crepe being served in SoHo, or the hush-hush tag sale at the newest "it" boutique. The popular online guide is the brainchild of self-proclaimed New York know-it-all Charlie Suisman, and for the first time, he's actually making money.

Suisman is the founder of manhattanusersguide.com, a Web site he started in 2002 after a decade-long run of a similar printed version, which went under in 2000. Although the former Broadway musical producer and author of three Big Apple-related guidebooks couldn't turn a profit amid rising printing and postage costs, he built a cult following of Manhattanites who shared his penchant for the insider, only-in-New-York tidbits.

"I thought we had a nice run, but that was it," says Suisman, who refused to place ads in the printed newsletter. To help pay the bills, he worked on freelance projects and, for a short time, at Zagat Survey, the ubiquitous restaurant reviewer. But "I missed working for myself," he says. So when the Internet boomed and the cost of entry dropped, an online version of MUG seemed like the perfect opportunity to write about the city that never sleeps -- on the cheap.

BUILDING A BASE. Suisman needed to figure out how to build a profitable brand without opening his mouth -- or his wallet. His strategy was simple: Less is more. Rather than assault potential readers with expensive marketing campaigns and ads, he wanted to build readers' trust by providing quality content, one dose at a time. Then, let readers spread the word. "The goal was to take a year or so and build up the subscriber base so it would be attractive enough to potential advertisers," he says.

Last week, the strategy finally paid off when New York magazine signed on as the first advertiser. The ad ran as a "sponsored e-mail" sent to subscribers, seperate from MUG's daily tip, which advertised the magazine's semi-annual Tastes of New York event. "We're fans of MUG's newsletter and are eager to bring their broad, smart readership to our Taste of New York," says Betsy Burton, a New York spokesperson.

The initial ad rate was based on nearly 11,000 subscribers, plus 7,500 unique daily visitors to MUG's Web site. So far, Suisman says, his decision to go commercial has been well-received by subscribers. A few have e-mailed to congratulate him, saying they're glad he's getting money so he "can stick around," he says.

NEW PRESSURES. Stepping onto the commercial stage, however, brings a whole new set of challenges. "Quite frankly, he's now entering a period where that model is going to come under a lot of pressure," says Jim Nail, a marketing and advertising analyst at Forrester Research. Nail says advertisers are banking on the fact that MUG subscribers are a word-of-mouth crowd and will tell as many people about their products as they do about the MUG newsletter. "You can build some pretty decent business by word of mouth, but when advertisers come on board, they'll want more."

Nail also says MUG'S content and small, but loyal, subscriber base will catch an advertiser's eye. But if growth is the goal, no amount of dog-walking tips or artisanal-cheese classes will increase the newsletter's rate base. The number of subscribers has to go up.

That's not to say the model can't work. Dany Levy's fashionable, multicity e-mail newsletter DailyCandy has brisk ad sales. Earlier this year, she sold a $3 million stake to Pilot Group, an investment fund run by former America Online (AOL) Chief Operating Officer Robert Pittman.

Then there's Levy's recent six-figure book deal with Hyperion. But for all of DailyCandy's success, Levy has had to work hard not to blur the line between paid and unpaid content. It's a delicate balance, she says, and clarity is the key issue -- no different than in traditional media. "It has got to have integrity," Levy adds.

"ENTERTAINING AND USEFUL." Levy, who started DailyCandy in 2000 at age 28, now sends out a biannual "411 On Your Candy" e-mail that explains to subscribers what content is paid for and what's purely editorial. The difference is usually small subheadings in the ads that say "sponsored e-mail." Suisman ran a similar heading in the New York magazine ad, and his solution to keep subscribers happy -- and keeping their in-boxes free of clutter -- is to send out only three sponsored e-mails per month, at least for now.

His following appears to be staying loyal -- and growing steadily. "I enjoy MUG and often forward it on to a colleague," says Scott Isebrand, COO of Metropolitan Events, a Manhattan-based event-planning firm. "It has pointed us to a particular contact, fed a discussion, or just generated an idea."

Terry Dickerson, an office-services manager at Oxford University Press, has been reading MUG since it's hardcopy inception more than a decade ago. "Charlie Suisman is an original thinker," she says, "and has been producing an entertaining and extremely useful newsletter that caters, but never panders, to New Yorkers." And she's not sad to see Suisman break with his ad-free tradition: "Anything Charlie can do to keep MUG afloat is acceptable."

UNDERGROUND REP. For now, Suisman is content as a staff of one, writing about the "bite-size" eclectic gems of New York for New Yorkers. And though 11,000 subscribers isn't exactly a huge number, Suisman sees growth, and advertisers do, too, through banner ads on the MUG homepage -- something he's not yet equipped to handle but plans on adding. Since announcing his willingness to take on more sponsored e-mails, he has received a "nice response," including one query from a major credit-card company.

"I don't want to overdo it," says Suisman, who adds that MUG's underground reputation is the part of his he's proudest of. Tarnishing that, he says, "isn't good for advertisers or for my readers." Here's to building a brand the slow and steady way, one subscriber at a time. Chambers is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York


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