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Branded renewals

Despite their importance, many publishers adopt a mechanistic, almost minimalist, approach to renewals. Readers are informed of the impending expiry but little effort is made to resell the magazine. Anne Kottler shows how the new trend in branded renewals is lifting response for US publishers.

By Anne Kottler

In general consumer advertising, branding is the name of the game. Now publishers in the US are finding that the same thing is true for direct mail promotions for magazines — especially with their renewals.

By replaying branding strategies and content-oriented sales messages from new business packages used to acquire subscribers in the first place, US magazine publishers are finding ways to dramatically increase renewal rates. In addition, by applying design motifs developed originally for acquisition packages and bills to renewal packages, publishers are improving pay-up percentages as well.

Renewals are more than a business transaction

Until recently, the assumption by most US circulators towards renewals was that since readers had already subscribed, you didn’t have to resell them on your title’s main benefits. Instead, renewal messaging had focused primarily on service related messages, like preventing a lapse in service and the fact that your subscription would soon come to an end if you didn’t act promptly. Or, special offers like 2-for-1 savings or premiums have been used to increase customer loyalty and promote retention.

Circulators in the United States are now learning that using a branding strategy with renewals can bring record results. In addition to using urgent messages pertaining to expiration dates and discontinuation of service, branded renewals utilize a number of other creative elements — including the innovative use of graphics on outer envelopes and strong content-related messages that capture the personality of the magazine.

Remind readers what they love about you!

The current trend is to weave in to your renewal messaging content references that remind readers what they like most about a magazine — and why they subscribed in the first place. After all, it isn’t the savings or the premium they’re reading issue after issue — it’s your editorial content!

For example, the new renewal series for Boston Magazine gives recipients practical tips taken from the magazine’s content — such as where to find convenient city parking; how to get last-minute tickets to theatre or sporting events; learning to shop for the best locally grown food; the inside scoop on local politics; and what hot new restaurants are worth trying. Using this branded approach, Metro Corp (Boston Magazine’s parent company) saw an increase in renewal orders of over 36%!

Design your renewals to look like your magazine

Most magazines invest considerable resources in developing a unique look and feel to their publication to create a Unique Brand Personality. These preferences should be upheld when designing a renewal series, especially when it comes to font choices and colour palette. In addition, column head designs, icon graphics, and navigation devices used to direct readers to important sections of editorial can be used to call attention in a similar way to important renewal messages. This way, your renewals will reflect your magazine’s brand positioning and be more consistent with your actual product.

Repeating design elements found inside the publication on branded renewal forms and inserts has proven to boost response. Cook’s Illustrated, a magazine for home cooking enthusiasts, got more than a 30% lift in renewal response with a new series that included the use of simple graphics of attractive fruits and herbs that are typically used to illustrate the magazine’s editorial. By replaying inviting hand-drawn food images from the magazine, Cook’s immediately reminded readers of why they loved receiving home delivery of each issue.

The lesson learned: to strengthen your renewal promotions, highlight the same branded motivators of editorial tone and layout design that built loyalty in the first place.

Use branded 4-colour inserts to resell your title’s key benefits

Although spending extra money on creative and printing for freestanding inserts may seem like a big investment up front, it can yield dramatic back-end results. For instance, Veranda (a high-end shelter magazine in the US) added a 4-colour insert to their second renewal effort and received a 40% lift in response. It features photos of magnificent homes and includes testimonials from readers describing what they love about Veranda, while reminding the subscriber of the publication’s main promise.

Good Housekeeping, a leading women’s magazine in the US, recently tested a branded 4-colour insert in renewals that prominently featured new edit column names from their table of contents and reminded readers of the magazine’s recent redesign. The insert worked so well, the publisher is currently testing it with new business mailings as well.

"Renew & Give" inserts can produce a Giant lift in response

Inserts can also be used in your renewal series to offer a premium, gift subscription, or a special one-time savings opportunity. Giant, a new entertainment title for men — founded by the former US publisher of Maxim — is using a branded gift insert with their renewal efforts to enlist their readers’ help in bringing more readers into the fold. The insert promotes new business by offering Giant readers a chance to add gift subscriptions for friends for just $1 more when they renew their own. Fitness magazine offers readers a free "Total Toning" video as a premium when they renew, while Child offers a free backpack inscribed with the magazine’s logo.

Another proven strategy is to repurpose editorial content by creating a useful guide or booklet that you can offer customers when they renew. Boston Magazine offers readers a free "Guide to Boston’s Best Restaurants" when they respond to efforts 2 or 3 in their renewal series (effort 3 is your "last chance" to get the premium). New Jersey Monthly offers customers a guide to the "26 Best Things To Do In New Jersey" in their series. In both cases, the renewal premium speaks to the core interests of their subscribers and helps them satisfy a specific desire that led them to subscribe in the first place.

Build urgency into every contact

In addition to incorporating your USP into your renewal designs, it is essential that you move the sense of urgency forward in your series to encourage your customers to renew sooner. This not only builds your retention file faster, but also saves money on printing and postage by reducing the size of the renewal pool as you move further into the series.

One of the rules of thumb used by US publishers is to make every renewal contact with customers seem extremely important. One proven tactic to achieve this is the use of phrases like "One-Time Offer Only" or "Last Chance" which signifies that if you don’t act now you will miss out on a special opportunity.

Magazine circulators typically place "Last Chance" messages near the end of a renewal series to indicate that this is your final opportunity to prevent your subscription from expiring. However, you can also use "Last Chance" messages earlier in the series in connection with special offers like premiums or the final chance to take advantage of a discounted 2- or 3-year term.

"No Lapse" stickers and "Urgent" message stamps are other devices that can be used to move response forward in your renewal series. It helps to back these messages up with an explanation that if your subscription were to lapse it may cause you a 6-8 week delay in service to reinstate it.

Keep it personal

One of the most overlooked strategies in renewals is the full use of personalization. Most renewal forms already use imaging on their forms to communicate their customers’ name and address on the order form and in the salutation of the letter message below. You can stretch the use of personalization further by incorporating the subscriber’s name in your headline copy, special call out message areas, and in subhead treatments. Repeating the person’s name in a smaller second window through the outer envelope is also effective, especially in conjunction with a call to action and reply-by-date request.

* Shake things up

Although printing costs on renewals need to be closely monitored, US publishers are finding cost-effective ways to add different looks to their renewal series so that when the customers receive them they pay more attention. One simple method is to alternate the use of craft envelopes with white wove stock for the outers. Another is varying the size of the forms inside or of the overall package itself. Cover wraps are typically used to effectively communicate a LAST ISSUE message, but can also be used earlier in your series to promote response. For example, BusinessWeek uses four cover wraps in their renewal series, with the first one appearing a full six months prior to the expiration date.

Be proactive with your active file

Remember, while you can’t always update the offer in your renewals, you can change how you speak to your subscribers. Let them know how important they are to you and that you value them! Remind your customers that they are part of a select community of readers who share a common passion and interest in your subject matter.

If you are looking to lift response to an outdated, stale, or fatigued renewal series, the first step is to view it with fresh eyes. Executed correctly, the addition of these proven branded techniques will change how your subscribers see you as well.