The Circulator's Secret Weapon
Circulation managers at consumer magazines have many weapons at their disposal in their never-ending search for quality subscribers. Lists and direct mail testing are the two that immediately come to mind. But renewals and billing are just as important.
Unfortunately, many circulation managers I've encountered treat renewals and billing as necessary evils that have to be tolerated, and they give these disciplines short shrift.
To me, they can be a circulator's secret weapon for success. Let's discuss renewal series first.
Number one: Hire a writer/designer team that knows what renewals are all about. Look at their samples. Ask them about the nature of their series, i.e., how the message relates to the timing of each effort. If you get a glazed look, lots of "uhhhhss" or a snappy answer that sounds good but you know is pure ca-ca, look for someone else to do the job.
Number two: Ditch any standardized formats that handcuff the writer/designer team. You can't create effective
efforts with stark outers, cookie-cutter forms and letters.
Number three: Aim for a series that captures the tone and personality of the magazinejust as your control direct mailing did (unless you fell prey to the "curse of the voucher"). This is the key point: The most successful renewal series are those that resell the reader on why he or she subscribed in the first place. Each effort in the series should attempt to create the same excitement as the original direct mail package.
I like series that use a different color outer for each effort. Or a black and white photo. Teaser headlines are good, too. The letters and order forms should carry the same features for a consistent look and feel.
I did a series years ago for Interview that featured photos of Robin Williams, Phyllis Diller and Iggy Pop. Why? Because the magazine is all about celebrity interviews. So why not show celebrities in the renewal series?
The Robin Williams effort showed him with his shirt pulled up over his head, lighted for a '30s-style monster movie effect. The headline read, "You're down to your last three ... " The theme carried over to the letter, in which a photo showed Williams with his hand coming up over the top of his head, pulling his face. The headline was, "Get a hold of yourself," with a subhead that read, "Renew now!"
Phyllis Diller had her mid-'80s crazed expression with the headline, "Just one issue to go." And Iggy Pop's eyes bulged out with the headline, "Your subscription has expired!" Each of the photos came out of issues of the magazine.
Sometimes graphic ideas are obvious, but overlooked. Don't be afraid to use the magazine's logo as a visual element. Use it big, small ... any size. But use it. Or look for visual clues from the masthead or table of contents. Look for dingbats or graphic seals, like The Atlantic Monthly's classic Poseidon.
Whatever you do, make sure you telegraph that the piece is not about subscribing for the first time, but about renewing. I like to use the phrase "Current subscribers only." Since the recipient is already a subscriber, a vague
renewal outer can easily get tossed because the reader thinks it's a pitch for something he's already getting.
One of my favorite series (not created by me) was for Condé Nast Traveler. Each outer in the series was a brilliantly bold color: yellow, red, blue or green. Each outer had a clever teaser or asked a question which was answered inside. The series perfectly captured the look and feel of the original direct mail package most of the subscribers came in on, and it conveyed the primary benefit of the magazine itselfinsider travel information you won't find anywhere else.
Several of the efforts even contained lift letters in addition to the primary letter, and some had four-color insert pieces that again resold the reader on the magazine.
That series did everything a renewal series should do. And it's still mailing after more than a decade.
Another one of my renewal series is for a magazine called American Country. Each effort had the "look of country"beiges, browns, golds, greens, light bluesmixed with clip art from the magazine and clip art books.
Each effort reminded the reader that not only time was running out in his or her subscription, but that the celebration of "country" was what first attracted him or her to the magazine.
So, get rid of the white outers and bland typefaces. Stop using every-effort-the-same attached letters and order forms. Stick to 7" x 10" letters and separate, stand-alone order forms. I promise it will make a difference in response to your renewal series.
What about billing series? Here I don't mind using white outers. They seem more appropriate and business-like, since you're asking for money. But you can still spice up the outers with colored type and a graphic touch or two. Yet I stay away from teasers for billing series. I've found straightforward messages are better"Invoice enclosed," "The bill you requested is inside," "We must hear from you now," "Urgent message about your subscription bill," etc.
Some publishers send the first bill with the first issue, enclosed in a polybag. I think that's a good idea, and it seems to work well. But I'm more of a traditionalist, and sending the bill separate from the first issue seems "right" to me.
But here's my bottom line on billing series, renewal series, new business packageswhatever. Every piece of mail you send out is a reflection of your magazine and its image. It should project that image in a positive, creative way. Canned-form outers, letters and order cards can't do that. It's a waste of a great opportunity to "make a brand impression," as the ad agencies say.
Why crank out efforts that look and feel just like everybody else's? Because they're cheaper to produce? Because you can do them in-house? Because you don't have to put up with those pesky, egotistical freelance writers and designers who cost too much?
Well, how much is your magazine's brand worth? How badly do you need better response rates? In the world of direct mail, it's still undeniably true that you get what you pay for.
Ken Schneider is an award-winning direct mail writer/designer specializing in magazine, book and newsletter promotions. With more than 35 circulation direct marketing awards, he has been honored more than any other individual or direct mail organization. Ken splits his time between Houston, TX, and Aspen, CO. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.