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FFTs – the promotion process

For the right product, FFTs can be a highly effective subs acquisition tool. Of critical importance are the list, the message and the process implementation. All need to be spot-on. David Nutt looks at how to put together a successful FFT campaign.

By David Nutt

This article is designed to show you why and how you should include the FFT (standing, as you no doubt know, for ‘Forced Free Trial’) technique as part of your subscription marketing tactics. This process is most often used for high-priced newsletters, though there’s no reason why it can’t be used for all types of subscription product. Consider testing it anyway.

What is it?

FFT works best as a promotion method where an audience that’s a good fit with your product is sent live unrequested issues. The only difference with a regular trial subscription being that the recipient didn’t ask for the trial, so it’s important that you don’t cause irritation.

The mechanics are thus very simple – send the issues and hope that sight of them is convincing enough to produce a paid subscription.

List selection

For your FFT to stand a chance of success, it’s essential that you examine the list you intend to use extremely carefully. The FFT technique works best with small lists of very responsive names where you want to extract the maximum number of orders. Obviously an internal list with which you’re familiar will be best, but small external lists can also perform effectively.

When selecting external lists, you need to check attributes such as...

* Where did the names come from?
* What is the type of company?
* And the status of the individuals?
* What have they bought?
* How much did they spend?
* How recent was the activity?

This is no different to the sort of checks you’d make on any list, but because you’re going to spend a larger amount of money on promoting to this list your scrutiny should be all the more intense.

Because FFTs require you to send material more than once, you’ll need to agree a special fee with the list broker or owner. You certainly won’t want to pay a standard list rental fee for each usage, so in most situations, twice the normal fee should be the maximum you’ll pay.

The mechanics

Each time you send a copy of your publication you should send a covering letter. The letter should accompany the issue itself and be personalised to your chosen recipient so that he or she has a one-to-one link with you. This helps to make their selection to receive the free trial seem relevant and almost special. You want them to think they were chosen by you personally and not simply plucked from a mailing list of thousands.

You should send them the issues at the normal frequency and timing so that the trial matches precisely what a paying subscriber would experience (this is necessary so that there is no variation when they pay to start a ‘normal’ subscription).

Each delivery should have its own letter that could look different to previous ones so that it is clear that they are receiving another issue.

Normally you would send three issues of a monthly product, though with a weekly you could send more (possibly up to six). A month or so after the end of the sequence of free issues, you should send another letter to confirm the end of the trial and attempt to close an order. A telephone call could be made after a further week or ten days to both try again for the order but also to obtain some feedback on the product and why they’re not ordering.

The personalisation of the letter should include a personlised order form to make ordering quick and simple (requiring no more than a signature to confirm the order and a request to be invoiced). All available methods of ordering should be offered – in particular, fax and website.

The address of the webpage should be as short as possible (remember it’s got to be typed into their browser) and the page should be specifically designed for FFT respondents: it’s essential that it’s dedicated to FFT visitors (and is invisible to normal website traffic). At all costs, do not direct them to your normal subscription order page – you must spend a little money building a special page (it needn’t be fancy and doesn’t need any selling copy).

The messages to the triallists

Getting the right message across is crucial to the whole programme.

The first letter has to introduce the trial in a clear and down-to-earth manner including what you’re intending to do. The letter should start by explaining why you’re sending issues to someone who didn’t want them (or at least didn’t order them).

It should imply that the recipient has been specially selected to receive the trial, and that they’re privileged to receive this free subscription. If you’ve done your job of carefully choosing the list, they should be pleasantly surprised to receive exclusive intelligence that’s directly relevant to their job.

The letter explains the sequence of free issues and that there is no commitment, and in fact no need to receive the trial at all. You must be at pains to point out that they can cancel the trial at any time, that you’re sorry to bother them if they’re not interested and that you’re sending the issues because you hope they might find them interesting and useful.

The best person to sign the letter is the editor. You can then use a personal tone of voice that’s friendly and reassuring.

You should include copy that asks for the order from the first letter. At this point you can introduce an early order incentive to try and catch people right at the beginning. This incentive should be time-limited to a date just short of the final issue.

At the same time, you must emphasise that even when ordering before the end of the trial, they will still receive the promised free issues. So there’s no downside to ordering early (in fact you’re going to incentivise early ordering so they win twice because they also still receive the free issues).

Future topics

You want to maintain the interest of the recipient to avoid early cancellation (that might be, for example, because the first issue contained nothing of great interest to that particular person). Mentioning forthcoming topics that will be included in the trial helps to avoid this.

The list of future articles should feature topics that will be included in the trial (and they really must be in the trial without any possibility of their being held over and thus falling off the end of the free issues).

Then the letter accompanying the final free issue can include future topics to be received if the paid subscription is taken. You can be slightly vague here and not commit the editor to specific issues (in my experience, editors hate being committed; the phrase "planned for future issues" works best here).

Electronic FFTs

Broadly similar to the print variety, the process starts with an email containing the introductory text and a link to a PDF that the recipient can download or a link to the issue on a dedicated webpage (sometimes reckoned to be better because it’s more immediate).

The sequence continues with further emails linked to issues until the trial finishes. These emails should contain a link to a dedicated order page (the same one that would be use for the online ordering of a print subscription).

There should be a means of ordering a subscription on the PDF or webpage containing the issue.

Opting in / opting out

It’s important, whatever your delivery method, to offer the chance of opting out of the trial. You must never pester or send something that’s not wanted. All your communications, whether print or electronic, should contain a simple method of getting out of the trial at any stage with no hassle or attempts by you to suggest they don’t exit at that point (even though the trial is free, the option should be always available).

On the other hand, it’s also worth offering the free trial to someone else - especially when the opt out is requested and it’s often possible to get another individual’s details for them to receive the trial. This is great for you because not only do you get a possible order (you stand a better chance here because the trial was in effect requested) but also you gain a name of someone else in the organisation that you didn’t know about.


The first time you undertake a FFT for a particular product to a particular list, you haven’t a clue if it’s going to work. So you need to have enough people in the FFT to produce the conversion to paid figure that will form a valid sample and generate the revenue you need to cover your costs.

If your direct mail usually produces about 0.1% response (or one order per thousand mailed), the FFT might produce between five and ten orders for every 1,000 free triallists.

The FFT is going to cost you the run-on print costs for each of the three issues, the cost of laser printing the personalised letter four times, the list rental fee (if appropriate) plus the cost of postage and despatch for three issues and one letter. This might come to as much as £3. (Plus telephone costs if you use it.)

So instead of £4-500 per thousand mailed, it’s going to come to about £3,000.

If your newsletter sells for – say - £400, breakeven is usually about 0.1%. But with the FFT costing about £3,000, you’ll need seven or eight paid orders per thousand.

In conclusion

I hope you can see that the FFT can generate significantly more paid orders from a small list. Since we all know that the best lists are always the smallest, the FFT is a useful way of getting more orders from the responsive small list.