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Life after the Official Voucher - New Subscriber Acquisition Trends in the US

There is no rest for the wicked. Or for DM practitioners. Just when you think you’ve cracked it, fatigue kicks in, response starts to wane and you’re off looking for the next killer creative. This is particularly the case in the US, where subs is the dominant route to market. Anne Kottler and Andrew Majewski look at current trends Stateside.

By Anne Kottler

When it comes to circulation marketing, success is not an accident. In fact, each piece of direct mail sent proves that there are only three rules for increasing response and payment rates: Test. Test. And then test again.

Even after having seemingly found the Holy Grail of low-cost, high-pay up mailings – in the form of acquisition vouchers that resemble invoices – many US publishers are now trying to test out of these business-like promotions. Why?

In addition to fatigue and lower gross response rates than traditional soft offers, possible legal implications are arising over what international DMA guidelines refer to as solicitations "in the guise of an invoice or governmental notification."

To keep creative and mailing costs down, one promising tack publishers in the US are now taking is to test a number of alternative, more promotional voucher solutions. These "Hybrid Voucher Packages" can include edit-based photos, illustrations, or personalised letters – and often feature an insert or chit as well. (A simple buck slip offering a premium on payment is an inexpensive attribute to the success of these packages.)

Because they do not include as many printed pieces as traditional 6" x 9" component mailings, Hybrid Voucher Packages are less expensive to produce and mail. The key to beating an existing control lies in finding the right balance of content and sell copy for your particular audience.

US enthusiast titles such as Cook’s Illustrated, Car Craft, and Model Railroader have all been successfully mailing Hybrid Voucher Packages for well over a year. As with a classic voucher, these mailers fit into a #10 envelope and incorporate a clean order form design with clear savings box messages.

Where the Hybrid differs is by giving the reader an edit-based reason for responding that may go percentage points beyond a simple "Statement of Benefits." US publishers are finding that the addition of sidebar take-away copy – such as listing the year’s top 10 fastest sleds on American Snowmobiler’s creative – or adding colour inset art is having a measurable effect.

These design additions are layering an appeal for urgent response with a promotion that also informs and excites a larger audience about each title through the use of better branding.

Test Your Content…

Casting with a wider net than a standard business-like mailer allows Hybrid Voucher Packages to reflect the promise and value of each publication’s specific editorial content. This setup not only provides the recipient with the answer to "how" and "when" to respond – but also delivers the critical "why" piece of the puzzle more clearly.

Another tool in the Hybrid’s arsenal is the use of a celebrity-driven letter. Through working for various-sized publishers in the US, from Hearst to Miller Sports Group, the controls we’ve developed have reinforced the value of star power again and again.

Connections such as tying Quincy Jones to Vibe, having Pete Sampras speak on behalf of Tennis, or showing Oprah Winfrey as the embodiment of O magazine all yielded winning results – by reinforcing the focus and prestige of these titles. As Good Housekeeping conversely learned through an unsuccessful test, typical "letters from the editor" have a harder time establishing the same level of credibility that is inherent in a celebrity endorsement.

Given the strong one-on-one feeling a Hybrid Voucher Package with letter conveys, this type of communication is equally at home in either a #10 or more cost-effective monarch envelope. The pros of using this technique come in achieving a more personal appeal than can be found in a straight Statement of Benefits presentation. Yet the main sales incentives are all still quickly touched upon in bullet copy.

Test Your Format…

When Strang Publishing was looking for a new format for their flagship title, Charisma, they consulted our company. The creative team at Sage Communications suggested adding a "dimensional side bar" by incorporating a 2-inch flap along the left edge of the voucher.

This interactive element opened to reveal the number of free preview issues the recipient would receive as part of their no-risk mini-subscription. In addition to clearly summarising the offer, the dimensional side bar served double duty by picturing noted celebrity contributors to the magazine.

US publishers are also testing different outer envelopes in hopes of re-energising their traditional voucher controls. Whether they are using more visually engaging pistol windows, multiple die-cuts, or are printing on coloured, textured stock, the goal is the same: to increase their visibility in the mail in hopes of achieving additional response.

Market leaders such as Forbes are sending their #10 vouchers in an oversized 6" x 9" (to help it better stand out from other correspondence). Hearst is another example of a company testing in this direction. Although they are taking the thought a step further.

To capture attention and orders, Hearst’s acquisition package for Esquire features an enticing show-through image of a beautiful cover girl. While the lack of clothing on the model certainly didn’t hurt the promotion, the presence of the large second window also begged for the outer to be opened. This use of branded intrigue generated a big response while protecting the publisher’s ROI.

Other successful new control packages include using a large tip on addressing label in place of a window. Golf Digest recently tested this matched-mailing format with double digit percentage gains in response. In this case, the added expense of using external and internal addressing paid off as the piece seemed more personal and worth the reader’s time.

The addition of a card stock bookmark or other freemium component can also easily be justified in your budget – by increasing not only gross response but net pay up as well. The psychological effect of introducing a DM recipient to your title with a free in-package gift goes a long way to getting more payment with order.

Format additions of sticker sheets, tip guides, or recipe cards can be composed of repurposed editorial (and therefore cost little to create). Surrounding your offer with something of immediate value also allows you to say "Free Gift" or "Do Not Bend" on the OE – so the reader enters your promotion with an expectation of there being tangible benefits inside.

Exploring new freemiums is a perfect gateway component test that can be overlaid over your existing standard voucher control when budgets are tight.

Then Test Again…

Once you follow the lead of US publishers and find the Hybrid Voucher Package that best speaks to your name lists, there are always additional formats to pit your new control against.

Magalogs – while costly to produce – are becoming popular again for publishers who have been directed by their legal departments to test new promotions that do not resemble invoices. Their long-form articles serve the purpose of giving potential subscribers a more complete taste of the title by presenting sample contents of each issue.

A 16-24 page magalog presentation is usually also more successful than mailing a free full-length current issue as it will not undersell the value of your publication.

Whatever number of pages your marketing and creative team agrees on, it is also worth exploring the cover dimensions of each magalog test. US publishers are finding success with a variety of different magalog formats such as slim jims (Martha Stewart, Yankee), tabloid (Bottom Line), standard magazine size (Consumer Reports), and digests (Prevention).

Rodale is currently mailing several magalogs as controls for their marquee titles like Men’s Health. As part of their testing programme, they also try varying stock weights and increasing mailings from standard magazine dimensions to tabloids. Their findings show that, for them, bigger is better.

A much less expensive format that is gaining popularity is the Oversized Triple Postcard with portfolio flap. These mailings have beaten many double postcards since they allow more space to showcase the magazine’s main promise. They work especially well if your title has great visuals from which to pull.

As Future Music’s head-to-head testing has shown, the Oversized Triple Postcard is best suited to a soft offer and BRC reply device (vs a hard offer with tipped BRE).

Finally, in addition to testing which format will best allow you to reach your audience, it’s worth reviewing assumptions about just who it is you’re targeting.

Simple visual tweaks to your creative can communicate more effectively to certain age groups over others. Inside and outside lists can be addressed more directly via imaging-only message streaming. And the needle can be moved on your percentage of female and male subscribers when you open your creative testing to new prospects.

Research showed This Old House magazine that many more women were interested in do-it-yourself home renovations than were being reached by their control package. To tap into this underutilised market, they created a Hybrid Voucher Package that was mailed to a select group of women.

The colour palette, language, and exclusive use of art featuring women on a how-to insert helped position This Old House to a whole new audience. The publisher reported such successful results that they plan on rolling out with the package soon.

No matter how big or small your budget, you simply cannot afford to rely on your current traditional voucher control forever. As restrictions tighten around the use of invoice-like elements in acquisition promotions, publishers in the US have begun soothing their worries with a simple mantra: "Test. Test. And then test again."

Isn’t it time you joined in?