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Planning a subscriber acquisition strategy

Creating a successful strategy relies on setting the right objectives and utilising the best mix of media, list and offer. With the emergence of on-line techniques, the opportunities open to subscription marketers have grown substantially. On one level, subs marketers are spoilt for choice – something which doesn’t necessarily make the planning process any easier. David Nutt looks at some of the options open to you.

By David Nutt

This article is designed to help you assemble a promotional programme for a subscription-based product. The strategy outlined here includes a variety of promotional media and techniques as well as a review of alternative offers and price tests.

Numbers versus revenue

But first, what are your aims for the campaign? The logical answer is that you’d like to make some money or at the very least not lose much. However, this desire may not be the right answer in the long-term.

It may be that on an ad-carrying new product launch, your first aim is a rapid build-up of subscriber volume in order to have a credible story for your ad sales team. A loss on the launch promotion may be perfectly acceptable because you can offset this revenue against the ad sales. If you were happy to wait for renewal revenue to arrive (using the lifetime value model) then this would also allow you to run the campaign at a loss.

Allowing yourself a first-year loss may give you more scope when it comes to list and media selection and evaluation. Depending on your long-term revenue projection, you may well be able to promote your product with a lower return on investment requirement.

Testing using small quantities

The creation of new (or test) promotional material incurs a one-off cost that will not be repeated when you re-use it for future campaigns. So you should ring-fence these costs and ignore them when evaluating the performance of your various test promotions.

Similarly, printing small test quantities of material (to use in direct mail or inserts) will be more expensive (in unit cost) so again evaluate using a mainscale quantity cost-base. Put the extra short-run costs into your ring-fenced ‘test costs’ zone along with your creative costs. This shouldn’t be a problem because when you did your budgets you allocated (or I hope you did) a lump sum to cover one-off test costs that was not part of specific product marketing budgets and which is not used when calculating return on investment.

Opportunities available to you

You need to start by assessing the promotional elements that you can use. For instance:

* Direct mail
* Inserts (loose or bound-in) with publications (your own/external), one-off product shipments (your own/external), billing/collection notices (your own/external), renewal mailings
* Piggy-back with external company mailings
* E-mail to your own or rented files
* Banner and pop-up advertising on websites
* One-to-one telephone sales
* Faxshots
* Space advertising
* Forced or requested free trial
* Optimising search engines

This list is by no means exhaustive. Alongside testing the various media possibilities outlined above, you must include (amongst others that may be significant to you) two important variables.

* Offer
* Price

These two can have a significant effect on the performance of your promotion, although it must be said that the list will control your results more significantly than any other variable. Let us now look at the components of your plan:

Direct mail

Although the performance of direct mail has fallen away in this country over recent years, it’s still the easiest medium in which to test creative, offer and price.

In planning your direct mail, it’s best to start by establishing a control offer and price. With an established product, this is obviously the price and offer you currently use. With a product launch you’d normally mirror an existing product though the nature of the new product may change this.

The hard work in any direct mail campaign is obtaining lists. These might include:

Subscribers. Active subscribers to other magazines in your stable. And don’t worry about the topic not appearing to be relevant to the audience to whom you’re promoting. Because they trust you, they’ll endorse the product when speaking to colleagues and friends about it.
Ex-subscribers. Cancelled and lapsed (essentially the same thing except I see cancelled as better because they bothered to communicate with you so they should be stored separately). I’ve never met a publisher where these files fail to out-perform everything else (except your own subscribers) by a substantial amount. Less good are those who have not paid after a free trial or receiving a sample copy.
Other customers. People who have bought something from you – buyers of conferences, one-off products, website access – in fact anything involving a financial transaction with you.
Enquirers. This group includes everyone who’s ever given you their contact details for whatever reason but who’ve never bought.
External subscribers. Those subscribers that you can obtain from friendly publishers. Arranged as a swap, even competitors can sometimes be persuaded to release their file (sometimes not active subscribers but any file is worth a test).
External lists. You’ll obtain rented lists via list brokers and you can search for swappable lists yourself. Talk to both editorial and ad sales people who will know of other companies (not necessarily publishers) who may have suitable lists. The most important fact to establish with list owners is how old are the names (you can usually forget names more than 2 years old) and what’s their typical transaction value.

Having assembled your lists (test quantities of 5,000 except where you have knowledge of previous results and can use larger quantities) you’ll then arrange for them to be de-duplicated (whilst each record carries a list code).

If you’re short on numbers for testing, test price and offer only. Make the tests as different from each other as possible and with price tests make the gap between prices a factor of 2 or more. For example, when testing introductory discounts, test 15% off against 50% rather than 15 against 25.

Make sure you code the records very carefully so that you can track response on individual list codes as well as track other tests via a supplementary code. By structuring the testing carefully you can do all the testing at the same time.


Whatever the type of insert and in whichever medium, inserts will rarely perform much better than 10-15% of direct mail’s performance. Obviously they cost less – around one fifth of direct mail but they are often the only way to reach certain audiences – especially the ones you can’t mail to. For example, you may wish to reach the members of a trade association but the group won’t release the list for a mailing. All you’ve got is their offer to carry an insert in their own mailing.


Sending an e-mail to a list other than your own can be problematic. People are very sensitive about receiving e-mail from a place they don’t recognise. So when setting up and writing the text, the subject line should explain the message accurately and not use spam filter or firewall trigger words like ‘free’. The text should have at the top who the message is from and what it’s about. The opt-out link can appear here and at the end of the message.

Give thought to whether to send the message as HTML or plain text. Consumer messages are fine as HTML and should get a better response as a result. But business mailings are less clear-cut since some corporate servers do not allow HTML to pass through at all.

What is very important is that your e-mail broadcaster tracks such things as open rates and bounce-backs. The clued-up broadcasters can track a whole load of other stuff for you too.

If you do have a go at rented e-mail lists, ask a lot of questions about the source of the e-mail address and what sort of opt-in they carry. Don’t touch lists where there is doubt about the opt-in status. Some lists are moving to double opt-in where ticking the opt-in box causes an e-mail to arrive in your in-box for reconfirmation.

Website ads

You must track click-throughs from these ads otherwise you’ll never know if your money was well spent. Ideally these ads should be set up to take click-through straight to your subscription page for immediate action. It’s essential that this page allows full order processing through to credit card payment. Web users are impatient. Completing an order form, printing out and faxing it simply is not good enough (and will lose you orders).

Telephone sales

This technique is usually only cost-effective when selling high-ticket (£500+) products. It’s hard to control especially when the operation is contracted out and is therefore off-site. It can be useful when you have a very small audience and they can all be contacted.

Forced Free Trial

This method used to be reckoned as the only way to get round poor direct mail results. Because the trial normally involves sending 3 unsolicited copes of a publication it can cream a larger number from a small and specialised file.

Letters to accompany the issues must be written and two letters are needed to try and clean up the undecided at the end. It’s very important that the copy emphasises the lack of commitment by the recipient and that they can cancel at any time. One of the letters should ask for the names of colleagues who might like to receive the trial. These people will pay-up better than the primary names so treat them well.

Optimising search engine

Many different agencies will claim to be able to make you appear at the top of search engine lists but there seems to be no guaranteed technique. Be very wary of these operators and make sure you can talk to several of their clients. Test their claims for real by putting names into search engines and seeing the result.

Some search engines demand money for enhanced listings – check them out carefully too. At least with Google AdWords you can limit your investment until you see how effective they are.

The finished plan

Make sure you write everything in the plan down in a logical way. An important part of writing the plan is to work out a timetable and establish the cost structure. The plan, the timing and the costs must be carefully joined together so that when you’re asked to reduce costs (who isn’t?) or re-phase the expenditure, it doesn’t require reinvention of the wheel. Building the plan will be, in part, a voyage of discovery. So enjoy it!