113 CERTAINTIES FOR CIRCULATION SUCCESS
Reality in subscription marketing and audience development
1. Success is a combination of:
List = 50% to 60%
Offer = 30% to 40%
Creative = 10% to 20%
2. What readers think when going through their mail:
“Where did this letter come from?”
“What do they want from me?”
“What do they know about me?”
“Where did they get my name?”
“Why should I go along?”
“What’s my obligation?”
“What do I have to agree to?”
“What will my friends think?”
“Can I safely ignore this?”
“Have I received this before?”
“Will they put me on another list?”
“Will they expect me to buy again?”
“What makes this special?”
“How much time does this require?”
“Can I trust these people?”
“How do I know they’re honest?”
“What difference does it make?”
“Can I buy this later?”
“Why me, why this, why now?”
3. Your house list of former subscribers, recent expires, and bad pays will likely be your best-performing prospects list.
4. Few enough “response" (mail order) lists work well. Fewer still compiled lists well work at all.
5. Enhancing a response list by bouncing it off a compiled list to identify prime prospects using geographics, demographics, and behaviors is both expensive and effective. Weigh the cost versus the added response needed to make the technique pay.
6. Cost is an excellent indicator of list quality and performance.
7. Remember list brokers represent the seller.
8. Create your subscription promotions as if everyone on the list will respond, if not now then eventually. Use your package to make sales for today—and friends for tomorrow—and you’ll find your best lists don’t fatigue so quickly.
9. Soft offers (free sample issues with a “cancel or continue” arrangement) are extremely effective offers.
10. A hard offer (regular price and payment with order) will almost always fail. Subscribers have come to expect better terms.
11. Premiums used to generate an initial order or as an incentive for payment usually work, and pay for themselves in new business.
12. Test an “editorial” premium versus unrelated “merchandise” premium. If you can only test one or the other, choose an editorial premium. It should generate more qualified prospects, however fewer.
13. The more generous your guarantee, the greater the response, and the lower the cancellation rate. Counter-intuitive, but true. So offer full refunds.
14. Make your guarantee meaningful by tying it to your editorial mission and you can dramatically increase response. For example: “We guarantee to increase your returns by 10%”—Money. Or “We guarantee to slice six strokes off your handicap”—Golf Digest. Or “We guarantee you’ll discover 9 new restaurants, 21 money-saving bargains, and 15 fabulous films, or your money back”—New York.
15. The cost of printing your direct mail package is one of the biggest factors contributing to profit or loss. Choose cheap, standard formats.
16. Budget your subscription promotions and circulation direct marketing campaigns as if you intend to beat your control every time out. Work toward that outcome and you will more often than not. Most failures suffer from a lack of funds, not imagination.
17. Self mailers almost never work. Too easy to ignore all at once.
18. Double postcards are the marketing equivalent of a drive-by shooting. They induce quick sampling but depress future pay up. They work best for well-known publications.
19. Triple postcards, mailed at third class rates, almost never work.
20. Big custom production formats are highly overrated.
21. Big creative ideas are extremely underrated.
22. Personalized direct mail is often a waste of money.
23. If your direct mail package is a voucher, don’t use a separate insert to promote a premium or editorial benefits. It not only adds cost, testing has shown it usually depresses response. Instead, use a bangtail reply envelope to carry your color promotions like credit card statements do. We pioneered this idea in subscription direct mail and it works well.
24. We also pioneered use of the back of a voucher. The secret is to do it in the style of a financial disclosure statement (smaller text, gray type, etc.) Of course what you disclose should be features and benefits that increase response, not terms and conditions that limit it.
25. Use a name in vain and you’ll fail to make the sale. Clean your lists for title, address and spelling errors before mailing. It tends to pays off.
26. Best formats to test: Classic 6” x 9" package; No. 10 business size; Monarch (3-7/8" x 7-½"); Double postcard (4-¼" x 6"); For impact use a standard flat (9" x 12").
27. The job of the envelope is to get itself opened, not to make the whole sale.
28. The letter is usually the most important piece of a direct mail package. The brochure is usually the least important. The order card is usually the most scrutinized and the hardest to get right.
29. Letters that look and feel like letters pull better than letters that do not.
30. Dear Friend… Dear Colleague… Dear Subscriber… are your salutations accurate? Are you sure they’re friends, colleagues, subscribers? Dear Reader is often the most you can hope for.
31. Readers do not move through a package logically. They scan and skip. Plan and design accordingly.
32. Make sure each element in your direct mail package can stand on its own—i.e., able to make a full sale and generate an immediate response.
33. Order cards are among the first items read. Brochures are often kept for weeks. Make your package a “trap” that catches readers on every page.
34. Stuck for a letter opening? Start with your offer instead of your creative idea.
35. Have the editor sign your sales letter. Avoid using obviously self-interested sales people such as the circulation director or marketing manager.
36. On newsletters, promoting the personality behind the masthead and her story is often as important as promoting the publication’s benefits.
37. P.S. – A postscript generates high readership. Don’t mail without one. Use it to summarize the entire offer. Or to so intrigue it causes readers to move into the body of the letter.
38. Increase the number of payment options on your order card at your peril. Extra choices usually reduce total response.
39. Test carefully before adding an internet address for ordering. Our results have consistently shown URLs depress net response and revenue.
40. If you have a website, promote it carefully as a subscription benefit—if at all. While it’s seems counter-intuitive, controlled testing has shown websites tend to distract, delay, and detract from subscription sales. Here’s why: Some readers, upon learning they can access your title online, default to this “best of both worlds” response. You not only lose the immediate sale, they rarely visit later As well, many prospects are so attracted to the idea of a free website they set the direct mail aside and go online to have a look. Even if what’s available free on your site is only modestly generous, it will be enough to satisfy a surprising number of readers who would have otherwise become paid subscribers.
41. I hasten to add—the moment a prospect becomes a new subscriber your website can take on tremendous importance. Withhold access to it until the you receive payment of the subscription bill. And use it later as a reason to renew promptly. The ability to withdraw a subscriber’s password is a powerful marketing weapon.
42. Consider adding an online freebie to your offer for those who provide their e-mail address. For example: “Write your e-mail address below and get a FREE online bonus!” Our experience has shown that while this is sometimes response positive (it is more often net neutral), that the advantage of obtaining a subscriber’s e-mail address more than pays for itself in savings when it comes to billing and renewals.
43. Consider a discount rate or added issues for subscribers who enclose payment. Use copy like this to make the offer credible: “To thank you for saving us the cost of billing you later, we’ll give you two extra issues free!”
44. Sweepstakes are expensive and troublesome, but they tend to work well. Weight strong gross response (high quantity)against weak sell-through (low quality) and the fact the several state’s attorneys general have found it politically smart to hate them (highly scrutinized and closely regulated).
45. Best sweepstakes strategy: Increase quality and prune quantity by tying prizes to editorial mission. For instance, Automobile: Win a new sports car … InStyle: Win a Hollywood makeover … Sports Illustrated: Win a trip to the Super Bowl…
46. Testimonials from readers and leaders are a bit over-rated. Testimonials from competitors work better. Example (for The Economist): The New York Times calls us “the world’s most influential news magazine.” Testimonials from avowed skeptics work best of all: “I doubted it would be worth my time and money, but it paid for itself in the first 30 days!”
47. The most valuable thing a direct mail package can offer is an exclusive reason for subscribing. A promise that no other publication can make. A benefit no other title can deliver.
48. There are no partial direct sales. Sell completely. That means anticipating and countering all objections. Long, lean copy works best.
49. If a picture is worth a thousand words, choose a thousand words. Few pictures have out-pulled a thousand well-chosen words.
50. Photos pull better than illustrations.
51. If you can afford the initial cost of stickers, tokens, scratch-offs, and other involvement devices, they almost always pay off in extra response.
52. If you can find a way to make subscribers members, do it. Members of groups like the National Audubon Society buy and renew, pay and stay at higher rates than subscribers of magazines like Audubon.
53. The most powerful promise in advertising is “FREE”—with a reason that lends credibility to the giveaway.
54. The most important topic for your reader is “ME"—no reason needed.
55. Turn your features into benefits. Features: A cooking column, international news, a business section, a crossword puzzle. Benefits: Gourmet family meals, worldly understanding, career-building advice, brain-teasing fun.
56. Emotional motivations drive response. Facts and figures drive pre- and post-sale rationalizations. So create compelling reasons to act and back them with sensible things to say that justify the feelings you evoke.
57. Credibility is the soul of persuasion.
58. Clarity is often the greatest virtue a direct mail package can possess.
59. Skepticism, cynicism, laziness and miserliness are your prime competitors —not other publications. Concentrate on addressing these symptoms first.
60. Research is not copy. More art.
61. Whether qualitative as in a focus group, or quantitative as in a subscriber survey, the whole point of research is to find out what readers want. When you do—find a way to give it them and preferably free. If you’re smart and disciplined, you may find you don’t need research to tell you what to do. In fact, you may find your magazine isn’t even necessarily the answer to any of your prospect’s desires. Don’t be discouraged. Focus on finding ways and things that connect what your publication is to your prospect’s wants. And then make your subscription the fastest, most effective way to get from one to the other.
62. Complete and send in a subscription card and order your own publication. Don’t pay the bill until you have no other choice. Later, don’t renew until, again, you have no choice. What do these real-life experiences teach you that you can put to work in your next promotion?
63. Subscribers don’t publicly tell the truth about their wants, needs, desires, or behaviors. Keep this in mind when evaluating consumer research, focus groups, and surveys.
64. Subscribers are, however, extremely perceptive about identifying your flaws. And show little reticence when asked. Ask.
65. Before you create a new promotion, call recent expires to find out where you went wrong the last time.
66. Do the same thing with your competitors.
67. Try this: Discreetly lurk around the lobby of a post office and watch box holders open their mail. It’s an eye-opening education. It’s also a good idea to leave before someone notices, or thinks you are strange enough to go postal. Why risk having your picture on the post office wall?!
68. Poor fulfillment sabotages brilliant marketing. If you can’t deliver, and promptly, it’s wise to delay your promotion until you can.
69. Do the math before you mail. If you have not modeled your campaign in advance—with realistic assumptions—please go slow and do not pass go until you do. Buried offers work like canaries in the coal mine. Want proof? If you’ve read this far, email me, and say so—I’ll send you a free gift.
70. General advertising agencies create lousy direct mail. They don’t respect it, much less understand it. They assign it to juniors and “promote” their most creative talent away from it. Because they don’t make much money from it, they tend to pawn it off on freelancers who are typically priced according to their ability (and cheaper when hired directly).
71. Good: Hire direct mail specialists. Better: Hire direct mail specialists who specialize in subscription advertising and circulation marketing. (Best: Hire me.)
72. The difference between winning copy and losing copy always covers the cost of commissioning two separate creative efforts and testing.
73. Deadly mistake: Your circulation promotion doesn’t match your title’s editorial product. While both may be excellent, if they do not reflect each other, the result will be an avalanche of cancellations.
74. Usually suicidal: Sending unsolicited copies of your publication without good reason. “It will sell itself” is both a conceit and a losing strategy.
75. Test big ideas … things that can make money or increase response in multiples of big numbers. Avoid testing minutia, it’s too expensive.
76. Dos: Test prospect lists, price points, and editorial promises. Don’ts: test typefaces, paper colors, logos. At least not to begin with.
77. Fail to test—lists, offers, creative—and you will certainly fail.
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT SUBSCRIPTION INSERTS
78. Blown-in and bound-in subscription cards are undoubtedly among your most efficient and most neglected source of new subscriptions.
79. Think of your insert cards as small space ads. In the drive to find a new subscriber, remember to build your brand image among the 997 out of 1,000 who do not respond.
80. Response to subscription cards falls off quickly after one insertion. Vary your cards, rotate them, and create new ones religiously. Tie subscription cards to time of year. Create a graduation card … Mother’s Day card … anytime as well as holiday gift cards … etc.
81. Subscription cards are wasted on subscribers. Create special-use cards targeted to new readers, newsstand readers, pass-along readers, and the friends of current readers.
82. Target subscription cards to readers only for gift subscriptions and early renewals.
83. The most successful headlines/themes for subscription cards are: Savings Certificate / Discount Voucher / Special Invitation / Welcome / Rebate / Subscription Check / Gift Certificate
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT BILLING EFFORTS
84. A subscription order isn’t an order until the bill is paid. Expect sobering order/cancel rates on free issue offers to exceed 50%, 60%, even 70%.
85. Fight buyer remorse by reselling editorial benefits fast and furiously in early billing efforts.
86. Never threaten to cut-off non-paying customers…it only encourages them to take you up on the offer. Just do it. But don’t stop pursuing the order. Send offers to reinstate for payment.
87. Continuing to send fresh issues to people who haven’t paid (gracing) is a short-sighted strategy and will probably erode your rate base. Try to resist.
88. Installment payments often increase overall response beyond the cost of collecting the total over time.
89. Don’t pay return postage for subscription payments. It doesn’t seem to increase pay up.
90. It’s usually easier and more effective to cut off a subscriber who has not paid his bill and add his name to your new business efforts.
91. Have your publisher or controller sign your billing letters. Circulation directors are also appropriate early in the series.
92. The only groups who complain about too many billing letters are people who pay fast, and people who don’t pay at all. Worry about buyers not deadbeats.
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT RENEWALS
93. Renew subscribers early … starting the day you confirm the initial order.
94. Assume subscribers will renew. Write: “when you renew” not “if you renew.” Write: “because we don’t want you to miss an issue” not “because your subscription will end.”
95. Don’t waste too much time reselling your editorial benefits while chasing a renewal. If they’re loyal readers, it’s too late. If they’re not loyal readers, it’s way too late.
96. Spend your time renewing the offer, value, savings, and continuity before it becomes too late even for that.
97. Unless … you have recently changed your editorial or created special sections or started new features, anniversary issues, one-time editions, new pull-out guides, etc. They can help you win a borderline renewal.
98. Solicit a multiple-year renewal only at the start of a series. Drop it fast.
99. Use early efforts to recruit new subscription business. Offer extra free issues or gifts to subscribers who proselytize. Drop these promotions as you progress in a series.
100. Don’t wait until the end of a subscription to start renewing. Just because you have a six effort series, doesn’t mean wait until six months before the expiration date to start promoting a renewal. It’s better to be intensive early and late, and skip middle months.
101. Intensity—frequent efforts arriving close together—builds renewals. Just be sure to apologize as you go: “If this letter and your renewal have crossed in the mail, thank you for extending your subscription…”
102. Don’t worry about putting enough time (like four to six weeks) between each renewal effort to avoid duplicate or overlap mailings … especially in the middle of a renewal series.
103. Consider giving a gift for an advance renewal. Withdraw it after one effort. Use copy like this to make the offer credible: “To thank you for saving us the cost of sending repeated reminders, we’d like you to have a free…”
104. Treat recent expires like new business. Give them your best offer. Your house list of former readers should perform better than any outside list.
105. Save money by using your publication as the delivery vehicle at second class postage rates. Enclose these efforts in a polybag.
106. Independent direct mail often generates more response than ride-along promotions. What makes ride-alongs competitive is cost efficiency.
107. Use your blown-in or bound-in subscription cards for early renewals from highly motivated A-type subscribers. Renewals from in-publication cards are extremely cost efficient. Bonus: Your cards will suddenly have a raison d'être to nearly 100% of your readership.
108. Likewise, have a standing editorial feature that tells readers how to call or write or, even better, e-mail to renew. Make it part of the masthead or a regular in-issue “subscribers guide.” Letting subscribers manage their subscription online is also smart business.
109. “Until forbid” (send until told to stop) subscription terms often work with daily or weekly newspapers. To date, they have rarely worked with magazines using direct mail. But they have, however, proved extremely effective online. Worth a test.
110. Have your circulation director sign your renewal letters. Publishers can sign these too. But don’t sully editors and mix church and state until the end of the series or for efforts that are making pure editorial appeals.
111. Mail renewal efforts to your last profitable dollar. Persist even it means adding several more efforts to your series.
112. Mostly, the people who complain about receiving too many renewal reminders are disgruntled subscribers who do not renew. Pay them no mind.
113. Don’t stop renewing just because the subscription expired. Keep mailing as long as each renewal effort is profitable.
114. Contact me and I’ll tell you what else I’ve learned since making this list.