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Too much “Me Too Marketing”

Nicking ideas is ok – we all do it. But too often, perhaps as a result of skill shortages, under-resourced subs departments or insufficient testing budgets, it is done uncritically, without any assessment being made as to its suitability for different markets. Greg Harris looks at the prevalence of “me too marketing” and maps out the steps needed to break the cycle.

By Greg Harris

Recently, during a review of a client’s subscriptions marketing activities, I questioned the subscriptions manager about their experience with "bill me", or credit, subscriptions offers. The response, without hesitation and with a touch of bravado, was that they didn’t use credit offers since their publications were all consumer titles and not business to business. As a subscriptions professional who has sold over a million subscriptions over the past twenty years, in virtually every market around the world, mostly using credit offers for consumer magazines, I found the response a bit mystifying and questioned the manager about the source of this bit of insight. The answer, not surprisingly, was from a speaker at the PPA, although I suspect the information was heard incorrectly or taken out of context.

Another similar exchange took place when quizzing a client about their practise of discounting subscriptions to encourage customers to switch to direct debit. My basic question related to the wisdom of doing this and on what evidence the strategy was based. The answer I received was that, since retention rates of people who paid by direct debit were obviously better than those of people who didn’t, they believed they would be better off switching all of their customers to direct debit, even at the lower price points. I pressed the issue of evidence and found that they had no information about their retention rates, or at least had not reviewed it, never mind by payment method and that they’d implemented the strategy across their entire portfolio because they had noticed another publisher doing it and figured they had investigated it properly before rolling it out, an assumption that may or may not have been the case.

Blind faith

While I have nothing against nicking ideas from others and have extensively taken advantage of this practise during my career, I do object to replacing good practise with blind faith, particularly in a discipline that provides for easy testing of concepts and offers. And while these shortcuts and omissions have been going on forever, the prevalence of what I call "me too marketing" is particularly alive and well today in the UK publishing industry, especially related to subscriptions selling, where it is tending to stifle subscription development and no doubt costing publishers dearly, either in terms of misused budgets or missed opportunities.

Now I’m not saying there aren’t a lot of innovative and talented subscriptions marketing people in the UK. I’m just saying there aren’t enough of them and that a lot of subscriptions people are cutting too many corners. And this isn’t just a UK problem. Other markets too have their share of "me too marketers". Over the years, while working for some very innovative and progressive companies, we often enjoyed "baiting" some of these people by testing fairly silly concepts, making sure we seeded these guys just to see how many of our ideas we could get others to use. Our success rates were pretty good, unfortunately for our colleagues! And even when our better ideas were copied, many of these were deployed in the wrong situations, no doubt providing disappointing results.

I suspect there are a number of reasons for the prevalence of "me too marketing" in the UK, with a general lack of direct response trained marketing people populating our circulation departments topping the list. As subscriptions have been viewed as an ever increasing opportunity for acquiring readers in a news trade dominated industry, publishers and editors have often pressed retail promotion managers into double duty. Unfortunately, their skill sets have not tended to match those required for developing and implementing analytically and testing-led, direct response promotions. As a result, the basics just aren’t happening in a lot of cases, with the easiest option of taking concepts from others often proving to be the norm.

How it’s sometimes done

The practise at some of the companies I’ve worked for contrasts quite drastically to what I have often observed at many UK publishing houses. Generally, our future subscriptions managers were recruited out of well respected MBA programmes, with highly paid graduates being placed in entry level subscriptions jobs, such as the lofty assistant insert card manager. These incredibly talented young people were teamed with more experienced subscriptions professionals and expected to serve an apprenticeship of a couple of years before being allowed to do much of anything on their own. And my own experience was similar. I used my university degree in finance to land my first job in publishing, working for the first two years running profitability models and managing budgets for other marketers before I’d earned a spot helping develop and implement direct response promotions. After moving up the ladder, I did not report to a supervisor without in depth subscriptions experience until I became a circulation director, reporting to a publisher who came from the advertising sales side of the business. And even then, we were expected to submit our work to other subscriptions colleagues during organised peer reviews.

Obviously, this type of set-up is expensive and often cumbersome in which to work. However, it produced a steady stream of top-quality subscriptions and circulation professionals, ever driving the business to innovate and achieve strong results.

Tricks of the trade

A second reason seems to be a tendency amongst publishers and editors to not understand the intricacies and specialist knowledge required to implement well crafted subscriptions promotions, believing most anyone can do it. Certainly subscriptions people tend to discount the skill needed to edit a magazine or to sell advertising and the reverse seems to be the case too. However, there are a lot of tricks of the trade that seasoned subscription professionals instinctively know how to do. Things like: establishing proper price points (£4.99 produces better response rates than £5.00), making sure headlines contain customer benefits (increasing response rates), offer options are not overwhelming to customers (resulting in lower response rates), and understanding the complexities of how a renewal series works (utilising urgency and calls to action to improve response rates). These are all things that take years to perfect and often change over time, requiring ongoing investigation through testing to stay on top of trends in customer behaviour.

A further reason appears to be a reluctance to invest in testing, choosing instead to roll with promotions. At first glance, testing does seem somewhat expensive but it is certainly not as expensive as using the wrong marketing tactics, which can often leave little to show for marketing budgets and no idea what to do next.

So, assuming we all agree that "me too marketing" is something to be avoided, or at least handled with care, what practical steps can publishers and subscriptions managers take to improve their level of innovation and lessen their reliance on this practise?

First, what publishers can do

The most important thing for any publisher to contemplate before progressing with a subscription growth plan is to clearly determine to what purpose you are expanding your subscriptions sales. Are you after more circulation on which to raise or sustain advertising revenues or are you wanting the increased circulation to provide a profit on its own, covering all of the costs associated with producing and distributing the copies, as well as the promotional costs. If you can’t answer these questions, it is unfair to expect your subscription managers to understand what is expected of them.

Secondly, if the publisher or circulation director with responsibility for overseeing the subscriptions department is not experienced in subscription selling, it is imperative that they get up to speed as quickly as possible, bringing in specialist help, if necessary. It is difficult, but critical, for the uninitiated to ask the right questions and to demand to see the key statistics and detailed analysis on which selling strategies are being based. It is also vital that publishers and editors appreciate the unique skills and experiences required for successfully developing and implementing subscription promotions that work, rejecting a tendency to assume these things can be done in house by inexperienced people.

Thirdly, publishers need to make sure their subscriptions people possess the right skill sets for handling subscription selling promotions. The best subscriptions managers tend to have the ability to be very analytical while at the same time being very creative. Basically, both right and left brain orientated at the same time. Unfortunately, this is a very difficult person to find, often requiring publishers to hire two people to work in tandem, with one concentrating on analysis while the other handles the more creative aspects of consumer promotion. It may be worth the cost of specialist help in conducting an audit of your staff, organisational structure and processes to ensure you have the right people in place and that the structure is supporting your organisation’s goals.

And, what subscriptions managers can do

As a subscriptions manager, the key thing for you to know is what you don’t. If you’re not a tenured subscriptions person, you can’t be expected to know everything. And even if you are, you’ll never know it all – I certainly don’t, which basically keeps the job interesting. Be honest with your management about your limitations and seek out help in your learning processes. Attend every seminar you can, read every article published and, if possible, make use of outside specialist help.

But as you’re observing what others are doing and saying, be sure to be inquisitive and don’t assume anything. If another publisher is doing something you like, make sure you understand the context and key elements of what they’re doing. And then test it first, fully analysing your results before moving forward. Also, be prepared to try things you may not think will work or would prefer not to do. As a subscription professional, it is important to remove the "I", your personal biases, when considering your options and determining your agenda. And keep trying new things, stretching the boundaries of what you have found works. Only when you have failed will you know where the boundaries are.

And lastly, be demanding of your management. Make sure they’re providing you with clear objectives and adequate resources to get your job done. Done the right way, "me too marketing" can be channelled to provide publishers and subscription professionals with increased innovation, profits and satisfaction.