Better renewals copywriting (Please read this article now. Put it aside and you may forget.)January 01, 2009
We all know the theory of effective renewals copywriting. But what does it mean in practice? Here, subscriptions copywriter Andy Maslen provides a few real-world examples.
There’s been a lot written about renewals, much in this magazine, and it’s all good stuff. Vary the approach. Use different signatories. Chop and change the design. But what does it mean in practice? And what can you – or your copywriter – write that will overcome the creative restrictions placed on you by your fulfilment / subscriptions bureau?
Reselling the benefits
When it comes to writing renewals copy, you’re not really selling to committed subscribers. The truly brand loyal have taken out a Direct Debit or given you continuous credit card authority. No, we’re selling to people who like the magazine enough to subscribe, but I would argue, still need reminding, at the very least, of the reasons they subscribed in the first place. Which brings me to a crucial point. Why did they subscribe in the first place?
Here we need to draw a distinction between the usually B2B and professional titles, where subscribing is often the ONLY channel for acquiring the publication, and consumer titles. For the former, there is no newsstand option. The sell there is a straightforward benefits-driven appeal. For the latter, they can buy the magazine in any newsagent, so subscribing is a slightly more complex proposition. So, taking consumer titles, they subscribed in the first place because they:
a) believed that the publication would improve their life to such an extent that they wanted a regular copy – at a discount off the shop price
b) wanted the “free gift” (Isn’t that just a gift?).
For a renewal series, the latter group present more of a challenge. They’re what I call “bribe to subscribe”. Little or no emotional investment in subscribing – just wanted a big bottle of perfume. Or a picnic rug. Or whatever you got your tame supplier to give you cheap.
What this means for us as copywriters is reselling the benefits of subscribing. And I think this goes deeper than free delivery direct to your door, never miss an issue and the rest of our trusty posse of subscriber benefits. Everyone sells these, rightly so, but you need to identify and dramatise those deeper benefits that your title confers on its subscribers.
Here’s an example. For Medicine Journal, which sells to doctors and gives practical advice and information on clinical practice, I said,
“We aim to keep you abreast of the progress made by clinicians around the world as they seek ever more precise understanding of the causes, symptoms and treatment of disease.”
For Euromoney, the magazine of choice for that currently beleaguered breed, bankers and financiers, I wrote, “You and your fellow subscribers to Euromoney have much in common besides your membership of the global financial elite (and your subscription to its house journal).”
Tone of voice
Easy to say, hard to do: varying the tone of voice is key in any renewal series. It helps if you line up an array of people who’ll sign the efforts. My ideal squad of recruits would include the editor, the publisher, the subscriptions / renewals manager (though with a softer job title created just for the series) and someone connected to, but not commercially managing, the publication. An author perhaps, or a subscriber.
The tone of your efforts should start off pretty relaxed, after all, this is maybe a renewal-at-birth, or just six months into a year-long subscription. You’re just popping a note in the post to suggest a time-saving bit of business. Naturally, as the series moves on, the tone of the efforts becomes progressively more anxious (that they might soon be missing out), urgent (they should do this thing and do it now) and even a little threatening (if you don’t do this thing I’ll be left with no option but to…) or even regretful (it seems we’ve come to the end…).
But think, also, about the overall editorial tone of your publication. Is it unremittingly serious? Or do your contributors and editorial staff occasionally give your readers a little light relief? Doctors expect to be treated with respect, as a minimum, consultants with deference. Classic car nuts probably will accept their favourite mag referring to a cherished restoration project as a basket case. Here are a few examples, taken from two different magazines, of a progression in tone:
“Profit. It’s a simple idea isn’t it? Management consultants – bless ’em – might like to dress it up with PowerPoint presentations, but you and I know it always boils down to the same thing. “How wide is the gap between what we sell it for and what we paid?”
So with that simple idea in mind, I have a little proposition to improve your bottom line.” (The Grocer)
“You didn’t reply to my last letter but I am sure this was merely an oversight on your part. Doctors lead incredibly busy lives, I know, so I hope you will find time to attend to this letter right away.”(Medicine)
Probably the single biggest obstacle to the renewal is inertia. “I’ll do it later / next month / when they send me another letter.” But it’s expensive to send nine efforts to Mr Sample, especially if, with a little careful copywriting, he might have renewed at effort 1. There are a couple of tricks to pull here. The first, not strictly a copywriting job at all, is to offer them your biggest and best discount once and once only, right at the start of the series. But there IS a copywriting job to be done after all. Because you need to make it crystal clear to them that this is the only time you’ll be making such a juicy offer. In other words, train your subscribers to renew early, not late. I do still get shown control series where the discount gets larger with each effort, though mercifully, this is changing.
The other trick is to give your reader very clear and explicit instructions about what to do next. Please, no wishy washy suggestions that “if you’d like to renew, please complete and return the …” Yawn! Try something along these lines instead:
“Tear off the reply coupon at the foot of this letter and return it to us in the envelope provided.”(Euromoney)
“Extend your subscription today and you can save up to XX% off the full rate. That represents a cash saving of nearly £YY a year.” (The Grocer)
And given that your reader is likely to be skimming and scanning your carefully crafted copy, consider repeating your call to action. I’d say at least three times per side and at least one of those as a graphic device of some kind, rather than narrative text.
It’s quite possible to have a boilerplate renewal series that, with a simple search-and-replace, could serve for almost any publication on the planet. I’ve seen them; you may have too [ – stage whisper – you may, actually, be using one – Ed]. The problem is obvious: your subscribers are getting hit by this drearily dressed old salesman from every side. So your series has zero distinctiveness, zero reader-appeal, zero power. But look at your publication. Fresh, sharp, opinionated, lusciously illustrated, cosy, feisty, majestic: whatever your brand values, you need to be carrying them across into your copy. (With a light touch, obviously.) Like this…
“I urge you to consider restarting your relationship with Medicine. Your professional development, your patients and your own skills as a healer can only be enhanced by such a decision.”
“XXX months ago, you made a poor investment decision. You let your subscription to Euromoney lapse.”
Who should write your renewals series?
Leaving aside the obvious suggestion, here are a few thoughts on the best person for the job, in reverse order. In last place, your editor. He, or she, is too close to the product to see it through subscribers’ eyes. In my experience editors, still, tend to write about what their titles are, rather than what they do. They are also uncomfortable with the tone and style of a renewal series, particularly as the boulder gains pace towards the bottom of the hill. In second place, the newbie. It’s too much of an ask to entrust your newest team member with the responsibility for bringing home the bacon (unless you just poached your rival’s renewals manager). In first place, simple. Your best copywriter. Pull them off whatever they’re doing, give them time and space and let them get on with it. Believe me, when your FD is totting up the profits, it’ll be smiles all round.