In October 2009, Luke Skurman, CEO of College Prowler, a publisher of college guides, realized his company was headed for trouble. Its website was populated with reviews of colleges written by students from 280 U.S. universities, but College Prowler wasn't having much success getting high school seniors to shell out the $39.95 annual fee for unlimited access to the content. Last summer, Skurman made a radical shift: The site would begin offering students free access to online content. Rather than earn revenue from subscriptions, the company would now try to make money by selling sales leads -- data about readers who had agreed to share their information -- to companies and universities. Three months after adopting the new strategy, results were mixed. College Prowler had landed deals with a few companies, including Wachovia, and had struck a deal with the Army ROTC, but no schools had signed up.
Laurel Touby of Mediabistro.com thought that Skurman shouldn't stop selling to students but should instead conduct focus groups to figure out what would make them bite. Kylie Sachs, a partner at the Ascend Venture Group, warned that for lead sales to work, College Prowler needed to solicit more detailed information from its student visitors. And George Cigale, CEO of Tutor.com, wondered whether the College Prowler site provided enough value, given the rise of social media.
Skurman and his staff have added extensive new content to the site -- including 55,000 user-generated reviews, nearly 6,000 college profiles, and 30 new guides. Page views are up 500 percent over last year, and College Prowler's success with the Army ROTC prompted both the Navy and Marine ROTC to sign up as clients. College Prowler hasn't sold leads directly to a university, but it has struck financial partnerships with 10 companies that sell leads to colleges; that has provided 80 percent of the company's lead sales revenue. Overall, College Prowler's 2009 revenue was up 144 percent over 2008's.
Skurman is committed to sticking to the business-to-business model and expanding the company through lead sales. "Our footprint is getting progressively bigger, and revenue is growing," he says. "I'm positive that our switch was the best move."