How I Beat the Control: 'Renew in Advance? Are You Crazy?'
Nope. And a 50-percent lift in response proves it.
By Robert Lerose
As all circulation pros should know, the real money is in renewals, not new subscriber acquisitions.
Advance renewals head the list.
They are, in effect, an attempt to get your subscriber to renew long in advance of the start of your "regular" renewal series and longer still from the expiration of his subscription.
In the spring of 2003, I was contacted by KCI Communications, a Virginia-based publisher specializing in investment publications, to come up with a new advance renewal for their Utility Forecaster newsletter.
Utility Forecaster, edited by Roger Conrad, focuses on safe, sound, high-quality investments in the much-maligned utilities sector. Among other endorsements, UF was named the Best Financial Advisory Newsletter from the Newsletter Publishers Foundation two times.
Why try new advance renewals? Since KCI Communications inserts them in just about every issue of all its publications, there's a constant need for new efforts. While it doesn't have a control per se, the best efforts are rerun every six months.
UF most often used two advance renewals: the first pushed two extra issues for every year the subscriber renewed; the second offered a free report.
Amanda Hath, UF product manager, and I decided to essentially develop two new advance renewals, but to retain the same offers.
The First Effort
Direct mail is an ideal medium to reinforce the close, personal bond that exists between buyer and seller. Nowhere is this more apparent than between a publication and a subscriber. More than most other products, a publication has an idiosyncratic character and tone that resonates with the reader.
I wanted to exploit that connection in the tone of the copy, to dramatize the personality of letter's author.
My first advance renewal begins with the headline "LAST CHANCE!" This grabs the subscriber's attention and underscores the unique nature of the communication. After all, an advance renewal is a one-time only offer.
The letter begins: "Renew in advance? Are you crazy, Roger?!"
This immediately announces the reason for the letter. The mock outrage disarms the reader's skepticism.
The second paragraph continues the theme: "Well, yes, a little (you can't be in the newsletter business without being a little strange) ... but not when it comes to you and your money."
This enlarges the surprise from the first line with a stab of humor and contrasts the seriousness of protecting the reader's money (a key benefit) with the editor's self-ridiculing tone (a rapport-builder).
The third paragraph spells out the offer: two free issues for every year of renewal plus a new, free report.
The next two paragraphs are, for me, the most important: "Why you? Why this? Why now?" ... followed by an answer for each.
Why do I consider these paragraphs critical? They answer fundamental questions in the subscriber's mind. They frame the offer in a believable context. They explain the singular character of the renewal, and they justify the benefit to the subscriber.
Too many promotions use words like important and special without proof, weakening the sales argument. A "why" and "because" force you to clarify and crystallize why the reader should pay attention. It documents your claim and gives you credibility.
Some argue that an advance renewal doesn't need to resell the publication's benefits. Instead, it should concentrate on the immediate value of responding.
In the letter, five enumerated points lay out the benefits of renewing. The fifth and last point is interesting: "By eliminating the paper and production costs of future renewal notices, you'll do something good for the environment." Appealing to a larger issue can be effective.
The letter concludes: "Well, I did my part. The decision rests with you now." A line like this empowers the reader: You've made your case; now it's up to him. You show respect for his judgment.
The P.S. reads: "I hate to belabor the obvious, but this is your one and only chance to seal up these values. Advance means just that. It won't be repeated."
Subscribers are used to waiting for the end of a renewal series to get the sweetest deal. The copy had to prove that this is the best deal and it would be a mistake not to act.
The Second Effort
Where the first effort emphasized the free extra issues, the second effort plays up the free report.
The letter comes on the letterhead of the publisher. The headline, "A Private Offer For You," pushes exclusivity.
The letter begins: "As publisher of UTILITY FORECASTER, I'm in the
enviable position of being able to peer over Roger Conrad's shoulder as he
uncovers great utility stocks.
"I don't remember how many times we both said, 'If only we could do this for non-utilities ... '." This builds rapport by demonstrating concern for the reader's interests and by offering salvation: Here was an insurmountable problem that we finally solved on your behalf.
Next, the copy teases the reader with one investment, giving out tantalizing details without naming the stock, channeling the subscriber's hidden desire (in this case, greed) onto the report.
The letter goes on: "I had our marketing department do a quick analysis. They assure me I could easily charge $40almost half the cost of a one-year subscriptionif I sold the report separately."
This is a classic way to reinforce great value. By fixing a dollar amount on the free report and comparing it to the cost of something bigger (the cost of the subscription), you prove to the reader what a bargain it is.
Again, for me, the most important part: "Roger and I decided to reward loyal subscribers like you and give it away absolutely FREE when you renew your subscription to UTILITY FORECASTER today. Here's why."
As before, you set up "reason why" copy. You give a legitimate reason, explain your actions, build credibility and prove your claims. I can't emphasize this enough as a fundamental of good copywriting.
The letter winds up by spelling out to the subscriber the immediate benefits of early renewalfree extra issues, uninterrupted continued service and a good deed for the environment.
The letter concludes: "Roger and I try to do all we can to honor our commitment to you as a loyal subscriber. The rest is up to you."
As before, a line like this solidifies the bond between reader and publication, subtly bolsters the particular mission of the publication (the reason why the person subscribed in the first place) and respects the reader's power to act. More importantly, it demonstrates the publication's ongoing efforts to actively work for the subscriber and reward his loyalty.
According to Hath, both new advance renewals performed beyond expectations. "I was thrilled to see that the combined response rate from the renewals was over 50 percent better than the last three advance renewals we had sent out," says Hath. "The offer-driven version on its own pulled 86 percent better, with a response rate we hadn't seen in over six months."
To sum up: a personal tone, a clearly stated offer, "reason why" copy, demonstrating your claims and respecting the reader's power to decide can help any renewal effort generate steady profits year after year.
Robert Lerose is a freelance copywriter specializing in direct-response advertising. He can be reached at (516) 486-0472 or by e-mail at RobertLerose@compuserve.com.