FEATURE 

Forced free trials

It’s amazing how often publishers send out free copies of their subscription magazines in support of a circulation figure – but don’t grasp the subs sales opportunity this offers. Here, Polygon Media’s Laurie Wedd explains how they use a system of FFT’s to convert their free circulation to paid-for.

By Laurie Wedd

What’s a forced free trial (FFT)? The free trial bit is self-explanatory, I guess. The forced bit just means we don’t ask them – we just send the magazines.

Quite often publishers distribute free copies and the reader is not even asked to subscribe. His address appears on a piece of paper that goes out with the mag - a label carrier that could so easily contain a promotional message. The copies are being sent out anyway, so the postage is already paid: the additional cost of promotion is negligible. And when the reader subscribes, you’ve already got his name and address pre-printed on the form. Add in some cross-selling opportunities (conference? directory? newsletter?) and the lifetime value can be huge - from a subscriber that cost you just pence to acquire.

Conventional wisdom says sending a sample mag with a subs mailshot cuts response. But combine a sensible rotating promotional list with a system of promotional carriers, and new subscriptions can be gained at very low cost. However, there are some pitfalls to avoid.

Be consistent

If FFT’s are to succeed, the whole magazine team have to be committed to them. It’s no good this month promising readers three free issues, and then next month changing your mind because the ad team need extra coverage in China for a special supplement. Like good parents we must not promise what we can’t deliver – and if we do promise, we must make sure we DO deliver.

Send enough issues…

The idea is to establish a reading habit. That means the reader must receive enough issues to get hooked. At Polygon we are currently using a four-month system on monthly mags. (We tell the reader three months. So the last issue is a surprise bonus issue: "We still haven’t heard from you! But you won’t want to miss this month’s exciting issue, so I’m sending it free of charge. You can still subscribe and not miss a single issue…". We’d have sent them four anyway – but this way it looks like they’re getting something extra.)

If the mag’s not monthly, we need to adapt the system accordingly: for a weekly we might give them eight issues over two months; for a bi-monthly we might need to send three issues, or six months’ worth.

… but not too many!

The more issues you send, the fewer rotations in a year; the fewer rotations, the fewer selling opportunities. And if you send too many, you risk giving the impression that the mag is free forever. Two issues of a monthly is clearly too few to establish a habit: three would be a minimum. At Polygon we currently think four issues gives the best balance between establishing a reading habit and allowing the maximum number of rotations.

How many people get the free trial?

You need enough addresses (sites – not contacts) to rotate the list at least three times. If there are 5,000 people in each tranche, you need at least 15,000 on your database – and the more, the better.

If you don’t have enough data to rotate the whole list, you can always rotate a proportion of it. Let’s say we have 5,000 free copies going out – but only 11,000 names and addresses. In that case, simply rotate 3,000 of the 5,000, keeping the other 2,000 in continuous receipt. (Most likely you’ll get so many subs out of this exercise that you’ll find the money to build the addresses you need to rotate the whole 5,000!)

If you have advertisers and audits to think of, you’ll also need to manage the list to maintain a consistent demographic profile; the tranches need to be selected with some care to give the required balance.

List quality

As with all promotions, the single most important factor in your success is the quality of the list. If you have no contact names, you’ll do badly; if your addresses are all miss-spelt, you’ll make yourself look silly. And if you don’t deduplicate your list, you will get a bunch of angry subscribers phoning you up and asking why you’re offering them free copies when they’ve subscribed for years. This could COST you money.

Product quality

If your magazine is ill-informed, badly produced or inappropriate to its market, free trials won’t sell it. Remember – you’re actually sending them your product: if it’s rubbish, they’ll know. On the other hand, if it’s as great as the editor says …

Explain what you’re doing at the start

"Dear Reader, You have been chosen to receive three issues of Wombat Weekly absolutely free of charge. We want you to see for yourself what a riveting read it is, and at the end of your free trial we’ll offer you a chance to subscribe in the usual way…"

Repeat the message with each free trial issue

Remind them what’s happening, and give them a chance to subscribe (and an order form) at each stage. "This is your SECOND free issue of Wombat Weekly. We hope you’re enjoying your free trial copies – and there is still one more to come … Subscribe now on the form overleaf – and you’ll still receive your free issues." And let the sub start AFTER the trial: "YES – please start my subscription to Wombat Weekly immediately after my free trial ends so that I do not miss a single issue…"

Backing down in stages

Resist those around you who want to improve the offer at each stage. That’s how some ad sales people work: they start off at rate card, and if they don’t get a sale, they make lower and lower offers until the client accepts. They call this ‘negotiation’. And naturally they think subs sales should work the same way. If you make each offer more attractive than the last, you’re training your prospects to wait and see what you’ll offer next. You don’t want them to wait – you want them to act NOW!

So be like Sibyl

There’s a story about a Sibyl (a kind of Roman Mystic Meg) who offered the king nine books of predictions for a million sesterces (or whatever). He said "No way, that’s far too expensive!"

So the Sibyl threw some of the books on the fire, and offered him the remainder - still for a million sesterces. He said, "If a million sesterces for nine was too much, I’m not going to pay a million sesterces for fewer!" So the Sibyl threw more books on the fire, and offered him what was left - for a million sesterces. "Forget it!", said the king.

Eventually the king, seeing that unless he acted quickly ALL those precious books of predictions would be lost forever, finally coughed up the million sesterces – and got just three books for his money. So be like the Sibyl: make your best offer first, put time limits on the offers and make your offers decreasingly attractive.

Why the ad team doesn’t like it

You may get feedback from the ad team that it’s difficult to sell a circulation that changes through the year. The answer is to explain to advertisers that over a year the magazine reaches MORE people than the circulation figure suggests – giving even better value for money. "And if you take a series of ads across the year, Mr Advertiser, you can be sure of reaching them all…"

Allow extra copies for shrinkage

Gone-aways, dead readers, hatemail, deduping, etc, will reduce the number of copies you are sending over the period of the trial. So if you need a particular quantity for audit you should start with perhaps 10% more copies than you need – depending on how fresh your list is.

Then eliminate them

When the trial is over, it’s crucial to EXCLUDE these readers from receiving promotional copies for a good long time. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver; good parents know it applies to punishment as well as treats.

At Polygon, we still get responses in August from a list that was stopped in March. They don’t believe us when we say "This is your last issue" - we have to show we mean it! So after a free trial we try to exclude people from getting the mag for at least a year - six months as an absolute minimum. (But of course, they’re not out of the picture: you CAN still send them your other promotions – mailshots, free gift offers, whatever.)

When you’re rotating a free list, be sure that another person at the same address doesn’t start as part of list B at the same time as you stop his colleague on list A. In other words, you want to exclude them by site – not by reader.

And follow up

The biggest response can come to the letter that you send the month AFTER you stop the copies. At present the Polygon system is to send them just the cover of that month’s magazine with a letter to underline the point that they’re NOT getting the contents. The month after that, they just get a letter. We could do a telephone follow-up as well. The quantity of calls tends to be high, so on a lower sub rate it tends not to be profitable; it works better on high-priced magazines where the cost of telephoning can be covered – or on really responsive lists.

Good luck with your forced free trials!

The full FFT programme
Month 1Welcome carrier with issue in plastic wrapper
Month 2Second continuation carrier in plastic
Month 3Your Last Issue carrier in plastic
Month 4Bonus issue carrier in plastic
Month 5Just the covers, forward feature list, final letter in plastic (New rotating free lists starts with welcome carrier)
Month 6Letter in an envelope
Month 7Phone call ?
Month 8Nothing

Month 9

Nothing
Month 10Nothing
Month 11Nothing
Month 12

(Potentially) Welcome carrier - and process starts again