Tapping New Business

A Houston microbrewery has converted web site visitors into loyal customers with invites to free beer bashes

Beer lovers are a loyal bunch. That may sound obvious, but to Brock Wagner, founder of Houston's Saint Arnold Brewing Company, it's the key to signing up regulars for the oldest microbrewery in Texas -- his. "Companies have a personality," says Wagner. "The newsletter is an incredible mechanism for conveying that personality to people. It makes them much more loyal."

For nearly a decade, about 200 Saint Arnold Brewing Company regulars had been receiving news about the brewery via Wagner's e-mail newsletter. Wagner kept all their e-mail addresses in an Excel spreadsheet, then pasted them into his e-mail program.

Three years ago, Wagner realized he could be reaching a much bigger audience: the thousands of people who visit the brewery's Web site, either looking for information about the beer or about events the company sponsors.

Now, about 19,000 people get Wagner's twice-monthly newsletter, addressed to "Saint Arnold's Army." Wagner credits the newsletter with bringing in at least $150,000 in sales last year, mostly through increased attendance at the brewery's special events. Revenues at the 15-employee brewery were $1.8 million in 2004, up from $1.5 million the previous year.

The newsletter works, Wagner says, because it does more than hawk beer. Wagner uses it to promote special events such as the Batch Brew Bash in June, a home brew competition, and to offer discounts on tickets see the Aeros, Houston's American Hockey League team, including a pre-match party with free beer. He also uses it as a grassroots political tool, urging beer lovers to write their legislators about issues related to alcohol laws, such as a proposed state tax on beer.

Upgrading Saint Arnold's Web site to accept newsletter "subscriptions" was relatively simple, especially because Wagner had the help of a regular customer -- and Web developer -- who asked only the occasional free pint as payment. The two added a sign-up box to Saint Arnold's site and installed Dada Mail, a free download, to automate the mailings. The only ongoing expense is the $90 monthly fee, up from about $20, that Wagner pays a Web hosting company to maintain the site and handle e-mail. With any luck, Wagner will soon be paying the hosting company in free beer, too.

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