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Reinventing Renewal Marketing for the Digital Age

by Administrator on September 20th, 2010

In the world of circulation marketing, common experience has led us to believe that there are a number of givens that are so certain that they need not be questioned. Renewal marketing has long fallen into that category. Repeated tests by numerous publications over many years have all reinforced that renewal efforts should be sent early and often. While the individual renewal series details may vary, at this point it is pretty safe to say that almost all renewal programs are coming from the same playbook.

As we all know, the past few years have brought dramatic changes to the publishing industry and the circulation marketing process. Chief among those changes has been the growth of internet sold subscriptions. When compared to the costs associated with the other major sources of subscriptions, it is easy to see why internet sold subscriptions are so appealing. Here’s a replacement channel of sales that can provide volume and at a very low cost per order. However, thinking about these subs as simply another channel of sales without considering them in the larger context of where they are coming from, may be very dangerous.

Current State of Renewal Marketing

Earlier this year, I was asked to prepare a presentation reporting on the current state of renewal marketing. As part of that report, I started investigating how publishers were using digital methods (internet and email) as part of their renewal programs as well as their experiences associated with attempting to renew their internet generated subs. The results of this investigation suggest that current renewal marketing thinking may not be keeping up with the changes that are being experienced and that it is time for a new way to think about renewals.

Using an online survey, I invited numerous circulation marketers to contribute their experiences on a variety of questions about renewal marketing. Among the observations collected, there were two that suggest that current renewal thinking has not kept up with the changing circulation marketplace. First, confirming what many probably expected, 83% of respondents reported that their internet generated subscriptions were renewing less than their non-internet sources. And second, less than 27% of the respondents reported that they had implemented a separate renewal strategy for their internet generated subscriptions. The combination of the growing importance of this channel of subscriptions, the relatively poor renewal performance to date, and the lack of focused effort at improving these results strongly suggests that we need to re-think how we are attempting to renew these internet generated subscriptions.

Also in the survey results, the respondents were reporting the rapid integration of email renewal efforts into their renewal marketing programs. Most respondents reported that they now had multiple email efforts in their renewal series. An examination of some examples of these efforts suggested a partial explanation of the apparent paradox between the previously noted poor results and the success of these email renewal efforts. To date, the focus has been on using the internet as an alternate delivery method for renewals. Current email renewal efforts mimic traditional renewal notices and have simply substituted a faster, cheaper delivery method. However, they do not reflect any of the characteristics of the sales channel or the internet consumer buying experience.

So while these new email renewal efforts may be helping to improve the efficiency of the renewals of traditional subscription sources, they really have not begun to explore what it will take to achieve the goal of improving the renewability of internet generated subscriptions. For that, we need to look beyond our offline renewal marketing experience and instead focus on successful internet marketing best practices.

While some may still question the existence of successful internet marketing, the truth is that over the last few years, a group of aggressive internet marketing entrepreneurs, unencumbered by any preconceived notions of what would or wouldn’t work, have developed a set of best practices that are totally focused on the consumer internet buying experience. These practices provide a new perspective that lets us start from scratch and build a new renewal marketing strategy.

The Elements of Successful Internet Marketing

Here are some of the elements that the consumer has come to expect as part of their internet buying experience:

Opt-in – The internet customer expects a greater respect for privacy. The key to successful internet marketing is focusing on the segment of the prospect pool that is involved and has indicated a desire to receive information from you.

Timely – The internet customer expects things to be timely.  They have no tolerance for any time lags.

Content Based – Consumers use the internet to satisfy their need for information.

Interactive – The internet experience has changed consumer’s expectations. They now expect an interactive experience where they can receive and communicate back quickly and efficiently.

Multiple Modalities – The internet consumer has become accustomed to (and to some degree has come to expect) the use of multiple modalities as to how they receive and consume information. The wide variety of channels available (text, audio, video, webinar, pre-packaged reports) have expanded the way that we can communicate with the internet consumer.

Three Phases of Digital Renewal Marketing

These elements form the basis for a new way to think about renewals that allows the circulation marketer to interact with these internet consumers in ways that they have become accustomed.  This new renewal process includes three phases to create the involvement with the consumer that will ultimately lead to the renewal order.

The first step in the process is “Listen & Learn”. The initial goal is to establish a two way dialog with the subscription file. We want to engage the subscribers by opening channels to solicit input and feedback. Using email and/or surveys, we want the subscribers to really feel like they are being treated as distinct individuals, not just a mass hoard. We want them to feel like they have a stake in the product. Getting them to share their likes and dislikes, identify their hot buttons and giving them a way to voice their objections will build a stronger bond with the subscribers. It also gives you valuable insight into what they are thinking about and what they want to know. This initial dialog “warms” the list and gets them ready to move on to the next step in the process.

Having established the dialog, the next phase of the process is “Sharing”. The internet consumer wants information. That is one of the main reasons why they use the internet. Publishers, as trusted providers of information, are perfectly positioned to take advantage of that position of authority to share additional information with their subscribers. By sharing content and information that educates and provides solutions that address their needs and concerns that were identified during “Listen & Learn”, we create a feeling of reciprocity which opens the door to the actual sales process.

The final phase of the process is “Selling”. After creating a channel of dialog and sharing information, these soon-to-expire subscribers have been elevated to more involved customers that are more likely to value the relationship and want to continue receiving the publication for another year. Since the prior phases have served to remind and reinforce the publication’s position of authority, the selling process can focus on delivering strong offers and timely messages. And the renewal order becomes the culmination of the marketing interaction sequence.

Starting Over – Creating a New Renewal Strategy

The application of these concepts results in a new type of renewal series that looks very different than the traditional renewal series. The old strategy was built in large part to address the functional processing requirements of the fulfillment system and the post office. When we remove those shackles, we can now time the sequence to fit the message and not have to worry about how long it takes to select the names, lettershop the notices, allow for postal delivery time, response by the subscriber, and the return postal delivery and processing time. Instead, we can time the sequence to match the message.

A traditional renewal series starts about six months before expire and send notices once a month (possibly with some additional attached efforts selected to go on the next-to-last and last issues) until a month or two after expire. This new renewal series is more compact. The early efforts of the Listen & Learn phase start between three and four months before expire. The Sharing phase occurs in the two months before expire. And the Selling phase occurs in a period that spans from six weeks before expire to six weeks after expire. In this condensed period, it’s still possible to send up to twelve notices thanks to the immediacy of email delivery and response.

Beyond the opportunity to increase the renewal rates of internet generated subscriptions, you can also achieve an additional benefit from adopting this new renewal strategy. With many publishers (and their practices) being seen as old fashioned and out of touch, this new way of interacting with the subscribers will help to change that perception. The use of these newer internet relationship elements will quickly help to improve the comparison to the consumer’s experience with the rest of their internet relationships. This improvement is vital for publishing’s long term prospects.

It’s time to get started reinventing the renewal marketing process to keep pace with all of the changes that the internet marketing experience has brought about. It’s time to move past the last century’s practices. It’s time for circulation marketers to expand their marketing toolbox to create new renewal strategies that will align their renewal efforts with the experience that the customers are accustomed to. This will result in more involved subscribers which will solve the riddle on how to renew internet generated subscriptions.

I welcome your comments below and encourage you to share this article with your co-workers and colleagues.

  1. Great points. We can’t treat our internet sold subs in the same way at all.

  2. Hi Stuart: Great points. There is definitely a difference between renewing on online and offline.
    However, I think that good offline renewal campaigns have always used the 3 elements you mentioned. Requesting input/suggestions/comments to engage the subscriber. Offering info (possibly as an edit freemium). And of course the last phase: the sell.

    My question to you is: Have you found differences if a publisher wants to renew a digital publication vs. a print publication?

  3. It was great to see the critical and creative thinking you bring to bear on a subject that’s been suffering from the absence of fresh ideas and the testing of genuinely new approaches for a long time.

    Of course, as I read it I couldn’t help but be aware of the obstacles and challenges involved. Besides the inherent inertia of legacy systems and thinking at most publishers to start with, the current economy presents us with tighter budgets, overworked and overburdened circulation staff, and greater aversion to risk.

    Still, even one or two successful tests can create a bandwagon. So I do hope you’ll keep us informed about any progress you and your clients make along the lines described in your post.

  4. Stuart — I submitted a comment. Have you decided not to use it?

  5. Administrator permalink


    Your comment got posted under a different post. I am reposting it here for others to see.

    A couple of thoughts on your comprehensive and forward-looking analysis of renewal marketing in the digital age.

    1) As you know, traditionally, subscribers renew best via the channel in which they originally subscribed. But….there could be a disconnect between readers who actually prefer the paper magazine, of which many remain, and their willingness to renew online, even if they subscribed online.

    2) It follows, then, that magazines should try to direct subscribers to their digital editions as much as possible if they want to raise their internet renewal rates. Monthly emails announcing that month’s digital edition would help.

    3) Regarding your statement that consumers use the internet to satisfy their need for information. A tactic that could be used in one or more digital renewal efforts is to telegraph what’s coming editorially in the magazine. This is informative, and it gives readers a reason to renew now.

    I am reminded of a new business email sent in July by Conde Nast that showed Angela Jolie on the cover of Vanity Fair, headlined by “Subscribe Now and Get the August Issue of Vanity Fair featuring Angela Jolie.” I don’t know the results but I’d be willing to bet it was successful.

    4) Regarding your “sharing” insight – the magazines with the most involving web sites already provide additional information to readers. They also allow them to share content and information, and provide forums for interactivity. I imagine periodic emails to subs alerting them to additional information about various articles, etc. would be easy to do to “warm” up readers. However . . .

    5) One hurdle to get past is open rates. Most internet newsletters get less than a 30-40% open rate. This suggests that a substantial number of internet renewal efforts won’t get opened (possibly after the first or second ones). This may limit the cost efficiency of investing additional editorial/marketing resources in “sharing additional information.”

    Thanks for an incisive analysis and series of guidelines.


  6. Administrator permalink


    A couple of thoughts on the points in your comment.

    1) Very true. Some people who buy a print product online may be very happy with the traditional offline renewal process. But, my point is that if you are going to try to renew people online, you need to adapt your strategy to the online world.

    2) Getting online customers to subscribe to the digital editions may be a long term goal, but now you are looking to actively change the how the reader consumes content. I have seen a number of interesting models of how publishers are attempting to introduce their digital editions. They seem to be succeeding.

    3) I agree. Part of my online renewal strategy would include to explore additional aspects of the most interesting articles from the past 12 months as well as looking to preview what is coming in the next year.

    4 & 5) Getting readers/subscribers to interact dramatically changes the dynamic between the readers and the publisher. The publisher will have to reach out to encourage the readers to get involved. But, I’m not too concerned about the open rates. There are ways to get past that hurdle by using opt-in methods to separate the levels of interest of the readers.

  7. Administrator permalink


    Thanks for the comments. It is always going to be challenging to get people to explore new ways to do things. However, you can get past the legacy systems when you find marketing champions who are willing to explore the unknown because they recognize the value of being among the first to adopt new marketing methods.

  8. Administrator permalink


    Thanks for the note. I agree that some offline campaigns have tried to use these elements. The problem has been that it was not practical or efficient to truly pursue these avenues in the offline world. The online environment allows us to be much more committed to the engagement process and that should result in more positive results.

    To answer your question, yes there are differences that need to be addressed when you are trying to renew a digital publication. As I mentioned in my post, timing is a big deal. You can’t use the long lead times. You have to condense the series to allow for the real-time perception of the online world. Also, you probably need to hit the value proposition harder because we are still fighting to get people to recognize that digital content can have a similar (or greater) value than its offline counterpart.

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