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Making the web work harder for print subs

As direct marketers, you all use the web as an acquisition source. But are you making it work as hard as it possibly can? Steve Price and Don Brown advise on how you can get more out of your web marketing.

By Steve Price

In our experience, web marketing is one of the purest forms of direct marketing. It allows you to test, analyse, forecast and control subscription acquisition far faster than most traditional sources, with little or no upfront financial risk.

Starting with the basics, we should all have a magazine website that includes subscription offers, potentially a subscription only microsite, most of us a corporate website and some of us a corporate subscription website, such as and All of us should also be using email marketing to internal and external lists, looking at being part of affiliate networks and making sure our magazines feature on third-party agent sites.

To get the most out of the web in terms of quantity and quality of subscriptions, we need to make these tools work as a generic source for an average CPA and individually for Lifetime Value and Return on Investment. What do we mean? If you were to run a direct mail campaign, you would judge the overall success of the campaign and then analyse the detail of each list. Use the same principles with the web, but each calendar month is the “campaign” because you can do a lot of testing in four weeks.

Test the offer

As with most direct marketing campaigns, your offer is the first thing to test. Some of your potential customers will be actively searching for your title, so a cash upfront offer will get you orders with a good ROI and positive renewal rates. However, because this is a “hard” offer, volumes will be relatively low.

If you are driven by break even targets of one year, then “hard” cash offers will probably be all you can afford to run, but to really grow your subscription volume, test softer offers and run a Lifetime Value model. “x for £x” trial DD offers WILL increase volume but your take through rates could vary between 25-75% dependent on how the offer was marketed. PPC and SEO will be at the higher end of the range whilst agents, affiliates and external emails will be lower.

The web offers testing in almost real time, so test banners on your own sites to compare cash with order versus DD. Break down the term to six months versus 3 for £1, 3 for £3, 3 for £6, trial issues or standard 3 month DD. Rotate the banners regularly over a month and then analyse your take through rates. If you are nervous about letting your core web customers see differing offers, buy some cheap inventory on external sites or test external email data with the same creative but different offers.

The softer the upfront offer the higher the initial volume of orders you will generate, but it will be the take through and renewal rates that dictate which offers get rolled out. Softer DD offers can generate a much higher initial volume that translate into longer term volumes and revenue. Even with the lower first term DD revenue, the financial impact over the longer term is dramatically improved.

Obviously some subscription teams are challenged to chase break even or achieve profit in year 1 and have little option but to run with yearly cash offers. But with increased newsstand pressure, is it not time to question such senior management instructions so that you can really chase volumes and longer term profitability?

Whatever offers you are using, have you considered every opportunity to make your web activity generate extra sales?

Your own websites

These should produce a steady but not overly significant percentage of your online subs, so start by examining how prominent your ‘subscribe’ messages are and how you lead potential customers down the sales funnel. Think about how you can make the subscription process quicker, more straightforward and more intuitive as the more clicks your prospect has to make and the longer they have to wait, the less likely it is that they will become a customer. There will be a lot to look at, so consider multi-variant testing which allows you to test combinations of variables and discover the optimum mix. You might get some surprising results. On the Magazine Group site, for example, we found that some simple changes to the size, colour and text in our ‘subscribe now’ buttons increased clicks by over 10%.

Increasing traffic

Natural search generates orders at no cost and the higher up the rankings you are, the more likely your pages are to be visited, so it is worth devoting resources to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). There are certain changes that you can make to your site’s architecture that will enhance the SEO, and the more relevant you are to the term being searched and the more authoritative you appear to be, the better you will perform. You’ll find a lot more about SEO on sites such as Bruce Clay ( (some really good articles for all levels), SEO MOZ ( and Matt Cutts (, one of Google’s top spam engineers.

Working in conjunction with SEO is your Pay Per Click advertising. Once you’ve gone beyond the basics in PPC, you may want to consider getting an agency to manage your activity, but you need to closely manage them in order to make sure that your budget is being used efficiently. Organise your bidding into campaigns and try not to spend too much time analysing individual keywords, and allow any campaign enough time to run so that you can see the trend. An 80/20 rule applies to your search activity, so start with what will have the most impact and work out from this. Most of your traffic will come from a relatively small number of terms, so establish a core of efficient keywords and then expand the campaigns to develop the ‘long tail’.

Using email more effectively

Getting your emails to work harder is also a matter of constant refinement to get your tests to beat your control. Traditional direct response rules still apply, so list and offer have the biggest impact, but remember that web testing involves more than just design and copy – for example, significant differences can occur with mail sent on different days or at different times and you will need to test this. And review the data you get from your e-broadcast programme or supplier – is it giving you information that you can use? The Magazine Group changed its supplier at the end of last year and we now send fewer emails but get more clicks and more sales.

If email marketing is working for you, then work on getting more emails to target. Give visitors to your magazine websites a reason to give you their personal details, but think in terms of their “return on attention” - ie why should they give you their details? Offer free content, freebies, samples, competitions and surveys. Don’t forget to also swap your email lists with partners or other publishers. If they have low volumes of third party opt-in emails, ask them to send the email for you and offer them a CPA for every order generated.


Other sources of traffic for your offers include affiliates and partner sites. If you have the time and resource, you can try to set up an in-house system, but it is generally easier to plug into one of the affiliate networks. These offer access to hundreds of sites who might link through to your subs pages in return for a share of the revenue. Some of the bigger networks are Affiliate Future, Tradedoubler, Commission Junction and Affiliate Window, but there are many others of varying sizes. Choose one that offers a range of affiliate sites that are appropriate to your titles and which is prepared to be proactive in promoting your site to its network.

Subscription agents – extending your reach

If you seriously want to build subscription volumes, you will need to move beyond your own site and use subscription agents (such as our site Agents can generate extra sales for you through their own email activity, cross-selling, partners and their own search activity (more on this later). If you are not currently listed on such third party sites, examine how the CPA they charge compares with your other online and offline sources. Also, factor in your own resource levels because a good agent could, and should, become an extension of your own direct marketing team.

To get the most from these third party sites, you should support them and try to work with them. Make sure that you update text and covers frequently, and test new offers. Discuss what you’re trying to achieve and see what help they can provide.

If you’re running your own PPC campaign, you might be reluctant to allow agents to bid on your brand terms, but be aware of the overall effect on your acquisitions. The Week, for example, tested bid restrictions for their agents and found that, although the number of direct orders they got increased, they had substantially fewer orders in total and that to hit their overall growth targets using other sources, their average acquisition cost increased dramatically. Other publishers allow agents and affiliates to bid on brand terms but set a limit on the cost per click.

The 80/20 rule also applies to agents, so concentrate on those who deliver for you already – it’s generally easier to get a good agent to produce more than it is to get a poor one to perform better. It is also easier to maintain control and limit potential cannibalisation of orders.

And finally, our top ten tips to make the web work harder for print subscriptions acquisition:

* Treat the web as the perfect direct marketing test bed

* Test many different offers and analyse their Lifetime Value properly

* Don’t ignore the opportunity cost involved – time is money

* Try not to be too reactive – have a testing plan and stick to it

* Use DD offers – they give you the best pay-back over time

* Understand and use PPC and SEO – use experts where you can

* Get as many promotional spots on your editorial site as you can

* Use affiliates and partners to give your offers extra reach on the web

* Use web agents as an additional resource for your own team

* Make sure your emails are as effective as possible

* Concentrate on what delivers the most results for the least time or expense

Okay, so there are eleven top tips and quite a few of you would add some more. It just proves the point that the web is a great acquisition tool and that there is no real “rule book” as we have on other key sources.