DM on the web

Despite the onward march of the web as a subscription source, subscription marketers are still underperforming in the online world. The reasons are, firstly, a failure to apply direct marketing techniques as rigorously in the online environment and, secondly, a lack of direct control over the web pages. Both, says Gill Lambert, can be remedied.

By Gill Lambert

When it comes to selling subscriptions on the web, why do so many companies leave direct marketing techniques at the virtual door?

I’ve lost count of the number of magazine sites that present a virtual coupon as their solution to subscriptions acquisition. Subs marketers would never dream of just printing a coupon, so why do it on the web?

Here is my list of the top six common subscriptions sins on the web:

1. No benefits
How many times have you seen a "subscribe" button on a magazine site? My instant reaction is "why should I?" My guess is that it happens because printed subs ads often start with "subscribe and save…" or "subscribe and claim your free widget…". Clearly, visitors to your site need to be told the benefit in order to motivate them to click, so why don’t we all do it?

2. Hunt the link
If subscriptions are a key element of your circulation strategy, why down-grade the position of the subs offer on your website? Online editors strive to keep the site fresh by constantly updating content. So, if you can change the offer quite regularly and the banner or button even more often, it will help to secure a good position.

3. No code
If you can’t track the source of your web orders, it will not only limit your online marketing effort but can seriously distort your paper-based promotions.

If you can’t distinguish a genuine web sale from someone using the web as a preferred response mechanism to a page ad or DM offer, how can you measure the effectiveness of your marketing? Distorted stats can lead to wrong media choices, and renewals disguised as new orders can lead you to think that your file is growing faster than it really is.

4. Clashing offers
Consumers associate the web with discounts, and there is nothing wrong with having an online discount rate if you want to encourage online responses as part of your overall circulation strategy, but if your online offers are not targeted, make sure they don’t undermine your retention communication. Protect your existing relationships at all costs.

5. Look and feel
If visitors are about to spend money with you, then your magazine brand has succeeded in winning their trust, so the point when they are about to hand over their cash is the very last place that you want to let them feel that they have left your site. This is a common occurrence if your ad links to a bureau site or you have a separate e-commerce site.

6. Too much choice
How many times have you hit a subscription button and been offered a whole portfolio of titles? I guess this is the negative side to flexible electronic pages, because in the world of direct marketing we know that too much choice suppresses response. It is great for Christmas campaigns, but not when you are trying to make a focused sale.

So how can you avoid making these online faux pas?

Understand why they happen. This may sound a bit far-fetched, but understanding the organisational structure of the business and the effect on resource allocation can help you to get results.

Is your online resource centralised or local to each title? Is it an editorial or advertising resource? What are the key skills of the site creators? Publishers that deliver the best subscriptions results have direct control over their online presence, so work out who is in control.

Next, you can work out how to influence them. Use stats from your site as ammunition. Compare the click-rate to your subs page with other areas of the site, both editorial and ads. Then measure the click-through rate of your subs offer to actual orders. If you can, do this analysis by source as you should expect different results for web surfers than from people responding to an offline promotion.

Once you are armed with the facts, you can develop a range of tactics to make the changes you need:

* Circulate the cumulative subs income from the site.
* Establish subs as a priority objective for the site. To do this, you may need to lobby management with the data, and editorial with an undertaking to update the buttons or banners with new copy to keep the site fresh. Editors want change to encourage repeat visits, which in turn will let you present new reasons to subscribe (the offer can stay the same, just rotate the benefits).
* Consider the practical issues by developing a range of templates in conjunction with your web dept; make life simple for everyone.
* If your bureau charges you for each promotion code or web form that you set up, renegotiate as soon as you can.
* If your page is a response mechanism to an offline offer, you’ll want to mirror the print creative, so set up a test to prove the concept.
* Invest in a bespoke software tool such as the Subscriptions Wizard from Wide Area Communications. This product will give total control to your subs designers and creates a file that will load into most fulfilment systems, bureau or inhouse. You can code the offer, control the start and end dates, create your own coupon and maintain the look and feel throughout the sales process. Wide Area will allow you to trial the product, so you can use your improved stats to help secure the budget. You should expect an uplift in converted clicks of around 10%. There may well be other products on the market that deliver similar results; I’ve not come across them but do shop around (if you have one do send me details).

Creative opportunities on the web

Once you have resolved the practical issues, you can start making the most of your website to leverage subs response.

If visitors have to register to visit any area of your site, try and collect enough information to allow a de-dupe against your subs database. Once again, if you hit organisational barriers, try negotiating a test before any significant resource is committed to the project. The low-tech approach to separating out subscribers is simply to ask them! Competitions and reader surveys are also great techniques for data collection.

Once you have extracted your subscribers, you can email non-subscribers with subs offers on a regular basis. When you have proved that it works, you can confidently commit resource to integrating the data. If necessary, you can offset the costs from email rental income, as long as you collect the necessary data protection permissions.

Reel them in slow

Because data collection is so cheap on the web, you don’t have to sell a sub in the first instance. Use traditional direct marketing techniques to create a prospect list and increase your overall response.

Free trials and information packs are typical DM offers, but electronic media can give instant gratification and reduce costs by delivering downloads such as PDF, game, ring-tone, music, pin-up, screen-saver… the list is endless but the concept is simple; you are giving away something in exchange for more information or a commitment to trial your product.

Once you have acquired your hot prospect, you should follow up quickly with your best subs offer, remembering to maintain the same look and feel throughout your communication. If you have asked for a phone number, you can also test an email offer against telemarketing – or doing both may uplift your overall response.

If you plan to email your prospects on a regular basis, make sure you vary the content as much as you can, as repetitive subs offers will make response fall off a cliff. Editorial extracts and product endorsements from well known contributors or famous readers are all useful methods of introducing variety, as are special offers for other products.

If you produce title-specific merchandise or publish other relevant titles, you may be able to generate additional revenue from your list, but if your own products are not too relevant, think about offering products from advertisers or other third parties. You can either earn revenue from each sale or run a similar promotion to their list. Do keep focused on products that are most appropriate to your audience and don’t be diverted by the internal sales targets of other products!

The great thing about the web is the ability to maintain a communications thread. This is completely liberating and opens up a world of direct marketing possibilities.

You can, at last, implement those great member-get-member ideas that you have had in the past but which always got bogged down in the quagmire of administration and fulfilment systems needing to match new orders with donors. Just remember to call it viral marketing when talking to your online department!

So remember, don’t let the organisation grind you down. Take control of your web marketing and break free from the shackles of your online department. After all, if you don’t take the credit for generating that all-elusive online revenue, somebody else will!