• “increase circulation”
  • “find more readers”
  • “stop cancellations”

The urgent search terms that bring visitors to this page reflect the existential crisis facing so many newspapers. Craigslist and Google have taken classifieds and advertising. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have taken content, audience, and attention. Even in one-newspaper towns publishers are left fighting for survival. 

For years, newspaper circulation managers could simply look to leading subscription marketers like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and say, “Let’s just do what they’re doing.”

No longer.

Now a better example to emulate may be The Morning Call, the small and venerated newspaper published in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Back in 2011, The Call's answer to the question, “What’s a newspaper to do?” was “Let’s try everything possible!” And that led to a “kitchen-sink” direct mail promotion employing almost every known best practice in subscription marketing for newspapers. It’s annotated below.

Today, as the economy recovers, the industry comes off bottom, and newspapers show more discipline — by protecting content, promoting benefits, and delivering demonstrable value to core audiences in print and online — The Morning Call’s intrepid, dreadnought effort continues to provide fundamental lessons worthy of study.

The idea is to create a low-cost promotion by using a proven-effective, highly-efficient format that is easy-to-print, produce, and mail. This voucher is a two-part, folded form. Each part measures 3-1/2” x 8-1/2”. There’s a perf on the fold. And it is printed on both sides using spot colors.


The carrier envelope is a standard No. 10 window.


The reply envelope is a standard No. 9.

2. Promote the practical value of your content

Research shows readers value newspapers as much for the price-off coupons as for they do for the local news coverage. So be sure to promote both benefits.

Add up the worth of the coupons found in your daily and Sunday editions. Feature that amount prominently along with bullet points about your coverage of local politics, neighborhood news, and school sports.

In your sales copy it’s safe to ignore your coverage of national and world events. Focus instead on close-to-home interests such as cooking, gardening, parenting, weddings, pets, social clubs, real estate sales, church doings, consumer bargains, and crime reports.

When deciding what to promote, ask readers what interests them most before asking your editors what interests them.

3. Create a dramatically low, limited-time, entry-level price

Almost everyone can afford $1.00. Try to create an offer priced that low, even if only for your Sunday paper. Even better: 99¢

4. Offer a free subscription gift

New subscribers expect a reward. Gifts can make a dramatic difference in response, and more often than not pay for themselves in additional orders.

What makes a good gift? Anything that works. Classic premiums include coffee mugs and baseball caps with your logo. Eco-friendly grocery bags. And USB flash drives loaded with local content.

These kind of freebies cycle in and out of fashion, so ask premium vendors to guide you to what’s currently popular. Then test before buying giveaways in bulk.

If you do not have the budget to offer everyone a desirable-but-low-cost something, then offer everyone who responds a chance to win a single prize with an attention-getting value.

That’s what The Morning Call is doing … offering everyone a chance to win a $500 gift card. It’s featured on an insert that measures 7” x 7”, folds in half, and designed to print on one side of coated paper.


5. Apply game theory to up-sell orders

If your Sunday paper costs 99¢, offer Thursday, Friday, and Saturday too for a penny more. Customers will actively seek out the best value and trade up. Once onboard you can renew these readers at a higher rate later when the time comes.

If you have an online edition, try offering it for a $1.00 a week. When customers compare a 99¢ Sunday-only paper edition versus a $1.00 seven-day digital daily, a penny may be all it takes to get readers to trade expensive-to-print-and-deliver paper editions for low-cost pixel delivery.

6. Offer an auto-pay, continuous service option

This will create longer customer life cycles. And more predictable income.

7. Let customers choose their term

Provide options. Try different combinations of weeks and months to arrive at an introductory price that works best. And think of alternative calendars. Try a school-year subscription. A summer subscription. A back-to-school or holiday shopping subscription.

8. Don't force continuous service

It’s not a magic marketing bullet. And many customers resent the commitment. So be sure to allow for an ordinary single payment. And a “bill me later” option.

9. Answer buying objections with a small set of FAQs

The two questions you most want to address are “What’s the catch?” and “What’s in it for me?” Be frank and win customers with disarming candor. 

10. Create a simple, strong guarantee

The more unconditional your promise, the fewer customers who will redeem it (and very few do anyway). That’s why “ALL your money back” guarantees work better than “balance of your subscription” guarantees.

11. Test, measure, evaluate, adjust and repeat

Start by testing the carrier envelope tease. And don’t be afraid of a return-address-only-but-otherwise-blank outer envelope. They often win.

Next test the insert. Determine if you even need one to promote your free gift. You might be able to do it well enough using just the voucher alone or adding a bangtail BRE that features the premium on the flap they see just before sending in an order.

Test several different kinds of gifts.

And finally, for the most impact, test prices — especially low prices.

Once you do that, you can test more “creative” ideas. One I would love to try involves partnering with a local advertisers who gets to enclose price-off coupons in your promotion for a fee that helps defray the cost of your marketing. And in that way demonstrate — even before a single customer buys — how your newspaper delivers for all involved.