Renewal Trends 2005A mix of new and old tactics being used by publishers to keep subscribers coming back for more
Rigorous. That's the best word to describe the work involved in developing a stellar renewal series. But as in all direct mail campaigns, rewarding is the word that illustrates what it means to roll up your sleeves, crunch the numbers and test your way into a high-performing series.
If you think you've left a few testing stones unturned in your renewal series, the following trends might provide some food for thought. In print, quite a few specific approaches seem to be hot at the moment. But what's interesting is to note how little progress has happened in migrating to e-mail renewals; this channel was touted as a big breakthrough for the publishing industry as far back as five years ago. Several circ experts have pointed to phishing and spoofing as major deterrents to publishers' investment in this channel for renewals. But e-mail still is seeing a fair amount of testing to gauge audiences' tolerance level for e-renewals.
The following circulation professionals shared their insights on how to profitably renew subscribers: Bill Baird, founder of Baird Direct, a direct marketing consultancy in Norwalk, Conn.; David N. Rosen, a copywriter, consultant and partner at creative agency Rock Hill Direct in Armonk, N.Y.; Ruth Sheldon, a freelance copywriter based in New York City; and Jay Van Wagenen, a freelance copywriter and co-founder of the Philadelphia agency JVW Direct. Here's what they had to say.
Overwhelmingly, all experts noted that voucher renewals have become as popular as the voucher acquisition packages that bring in new customers. Van Wagenen says that it's only natural for publishers to renew customers with the same approach used to get them to sign up in the first place. For example, the fact that Coastal Living has had a double postcard acquisition control in the past explains why the magazine would test a double postcard renewal format.
Offer-focused efforts continue to work, says Rosen, adding that two-for-one gift promotions are a good example of a strong appeal. Circulators have to be careful to get the language ABC-compliant when they use this offer, making sure to explain the deal as sending a gift subscription to a friend when paying for the primary subscriber's renewal. Another strong, offer-based approach is to make your best deal early in the series, he says, and to promote it as such to subscribers so they know they won't see a better value again.
Still on the offer front, Baird notes that efforts to extend term also are popular, with most presenting a two-for-one offer that gives the subscriber a free year's subscriptiona good offer when publishers' subscriber replacement cost is increasingand some presenting three-for-one offers.
Premiums can be great promotional tools with which to tease response higher, but they aren't necessary for everyone, says Baird. Generally, if you brought a customer in with a premium, then you'll likely need a premium-based renewal offer to keep her. It helps to test to make sure you really need this additional expense.
The voucher trend has had a big influence on format and design for all renewals, says Sheldon. Her clients rarely do anything but lasered forms where letter and order form are one piece. Gone are the days of two-page letters, she states, because people don't want to read anymore, they just want the facts.
She adds that as magazines become more visually oriented, this trend is showing up in renewals. Information is now displayed in a visual way, such as in a list of benefits; even billing series have been skeletonized, Sheldon says.
Baird finds that as publishers lean more heavily toward using voucher formats for renewals, they then need to differentiate their invoices more to indicate that these efforts are bills and not renewals. Otherwise the goal of each effort is diluted by the confusion.
Along the lines of less is more, as Sheldon says, Rosen has noticed publishers using pre-printed shells that allow personalized information to be ink-jetted just before each effort drops. Sheldon reports that some clients are testing versioned copy, especially to highlight subscription end dates. She thinks this tactic has potential for both positive and negative effects: Response could lift from use, but it also could backfire if recipients find the messaging overly familiar.
On the design side, double windows are a big deal right now, Rosen points out. These extra windows mostly are used for reply-by dates and to showcase premiums. Extra windows do offer testing flexibility to publishers who want to vary messaging in the window, but Rosen does not see many publishers taking full advantage of this capability.
Sheldon reports that she is seeing a few particular design tactics employed, including certificate-style order forms; official-looking outers with no teasers or simple ones that stress urgency; stamps or stickers that show through a giant window on the outer; and any simple graphic elements that can be done via the form printing or lasering process, such as personalization, colored backgrounds to make reply-by dates stand out, etc.
The worst trend, Baird laments, is that renewal series continue to have a generic look to them, when service bureaus now offer options to help change up the creative appearance and messaging from effort to effort. Not enough publishers are taking advantage of this opportunity to create a real sense of urgency in their series, he says.
Rosen agrees, stating that varying each renewal package's approach is one of the most important factors to the success of a series. He notes that those clients of his investing in this strategy are seeing good results in return.
Timing is another crucial element to the performance of a renewal campaign. Smart circulators, says Rosen, are looking at their series to see if they can mail earlier or later to improve results. For example, one of his clients provided expires with a second grace issue that received such a strong response to the magazine's tip-on element that the publisher has ordered a second expire effort to be developed to take advantage of customers' continued response after their terms end.
To get an early renewal from a subscriber, Rosen explains that it's best to provide a strong benefit to entice quick action. Early renewals are the best-case scenario for publishers, so Rosen encourages circulators to devote testing dollars to finding offers that work well.
Another testing arena that is proving successful for some publishers is that of inserting buckslips that have been versioned to fit the content needs of different audience segments, says Sheldon. For example, one client mailed a voucher renewal for a lifestyle magazine that featured buckslips targeted toward subscribers who liked various aspects of the publication including home decorating, healthy living, cooking, etc.
With partnerships all the rage for acquisition, testing this relationship's value in renewals also has been paramount. Sheldon notes that the jury is still out on whether leveraging the partner's name helps or hurts a renewal effort, given that subscribers might not remember what motivated them to sign up in the first place.
Publishers are getting comfortable with using e-mail as a tool to supplement their print renewal series, says Rosen. E-mail efforts are not replacing print yet, but they definitely are providing an incremental boost. What's working best right now in e-renewals for Rosen's clients is dropping an e-mail campaign just before the print package mails to try to preempt the need for the print piece, if possible. And e-mail efforts are being tested more and more for the first drop in the renewal series, he says, to see how many re-ups can be brought in via this less expensive channel.
In addition, Rosen says, e-mail is proving to be a very easy way to handle post-expire efforts. It's only a matter of testing and time, he states, before e-mail is a standard tool for renewal efforts.