How to write subscriptions copy that works

There’s a man I have written to so often, I feel I know him personally. Maybe you know him, too. His name is Mr A Sample and it appears at the top of my subscriptions sales letters, renewal series, FFTs and emails.In this article I want to share with you some rules for successful subscriptions copywriting. The kind of thing that makes my life easier when composing my entreaties to Mr Sample.

Rule 1: write for your reader

Inexperienced copywriters are usually keen to describe their titles. Subscribers, on the other hand, are far more interested in what the titles will do for them. In deciding what to write, it’s best to concentrate on your reader’s needs. That means you have to know who your reader is and what makes them tick.

The first subs mailing I wrote as a freelance was for VNU’s Personal Computer World. I asked my techie brother-in-law to describe a typical PCW reader. The picture he painted was so vivid I could see this person sitting across from me as I wrote.

This singularity is an important part of the rule. You should always write to one person. Not a list, database selection, target audience or market. These are all internally-focused ideas that come from your marketing plan. The resulting copy fails to draw in your reader and make them feel special.

The easiest and most powerful way to establish rapport is to use the magic word “you”. Use it as often as you can and you’ll find your writing takes on a personal flavour that even the most jaded prospect finds palatable.

Rule 2: grab them from the off

Attend any DM conference or seminar these days and the speaker will sonorously intone that people are busy and that you have just a few seconds to hook them. Well, OK, but people havealways been busy. And the degree to which they feel busy isn’t just a factor of the amount of work they have to do. It’s also a factor of the relevance of your mailing. Waste somebody’s time with copy that doesn’t address their needs and they will feel busier than if you address their burning desires straight away.

So how do you get their attention? If you’re writing a direct mail pack then it’s envelope first and headline second. Ah, envelopes! I love writing teasers for outers. All that effort for half a dozen words. But they’re the words that get your reader into the envelope. Or your whole pack into the bin. I remember a discussion I had with a new client quite early in my freelance career. She said, quite seriously, “We don’t write envelope messages: if we do, people know it’s direct mail.” There have been others since. My answer is always the same: the mailsort logo, window envelope and laser printing scream “direct mail” anyway. The teaser says, “This is direct mail that’s relevant to you.”

Why not ad a few benefits bullet points while you’re about it? And a packshot, too. Or a picture of the premium you’re using to encourage them to subscribe. Or a flash shouting the huge savings you’re offering when they pick up their pen.

Rule 3: write a great headline

Headline-writing is a hybrid: part science, part art. The science bit is in measuring response rates, testing and applying your findings. The art is in coming up with an idea so compelling to your reader that they just have to read on.

You’re probably familiar with Ogilvy and Mather’s research into headlines that showed, surprise, surprise, that headlines promising a benefit outpulled those offering news or (trying to) arouse curiosity. So now you can save yourself hours by forgetting all those clever headlines like “What makes this new lawnmower magazine different?”—because no-one cares enough to find out.

Instead, go for the jugular: “Are you ready for that perfect lawn?” Or “Enjoy the perfect lawn all summer long…and all winter, too.”

You could push the savings: “Subscribe to Perfect Lawn and save 55%”. Or the premium: “Take this lawnmower service kit, worth £8.99—FREE”.

That last one reminds me of the other magic word: free. More teaching my grandmother, no doubt, but it still takes me by surprise when rational marketers are reluctant to use it on the grounds that “people know there’s a catch.” Maybe they do – or suspect there’s one. But FREE still works, otherwise why do we see it so often and in so many places and, crucially, so many times from single publishers?

I like to combine a benefit head with a premium or savings sub-head and get the best of both worlds.

Rule 4: talk benefits

This is hardly going to surprise you, but benefits sell subscriptions. There are several classes of benefits and if you’re wise, you’ll cover all of them.

The first class contains the pure subscription benefits. You know the kind of thing: save money off the shop price, free delivery direct to your door, never miss an issue. The second contains the product benefits: become a koi carp expert, enjoy the world’s finest fiction, get the inside secrets on tuning your Ford Fiesta. The third, and in my opinion the most powerful, contains the deep-seated benefits that play on your reader’s innermost longings…and fears. Humans are gregarious by nature, so make them feel there’s a club out there just waiting for them to join. Are you hitting vain people. Flatter them. Are they greedy, lazy, lustful or all three? There’s your hook.

I use a simple test to ensure I’m talking about benefits, not features. It’s called the “so what?” test. Take each of your benefit points. If you can say “so what?” it isn’t a benefit. For example, “200 pages of widget prices every month” earns an easy “so what?”. On the other hand, “Ensure you’re always paying lowest prices for your widgets” passes.

You can introduce benefits copy, in a letter or flyer, with a simple cross-head saying something like “Five reasons to subscribe…” or “Subscribe today and get all this…”

Rule 5: keep ‘em reading

Maybe because we’re always trying to counter our reader’s scepticism about making a long-term commitment (and that is, I think, our biggest single hurdle as subs copywriters), we tend to write a lot when we’re selling subscriptions. But—and it’s a big but—that makes huge demands on your skill as a copywriter. You have to enthral them, intrigue them, flatter, cajole and worry them into saying “yes”. Not only that but you have to employ a battery of techniques to keep your fish on the line and prevent him throwing the hook and swimming off down-river to more interesting waters.

Here are just three that work for me.

One, use the good old mid-copy teaser. Something like this: “In a moment I am going to reveal to you why Practical Navel-Gazing will transform your life. But first…”

Two, never end a page on a full stop. There is a basic human need for completion, and unfinished sentences play havoc with it. This simple technique forces them to turn over.

Three, promise a specific number of benefits. Then parcel them out through the letter, reminding your reader at each stage that there are more to come.

Rule 6: Reassure them

Yes, it’s Money-Back Guarantee time. Whatever you call it, you have to have one. The feeling that they’re about to make a mistake is one of the prime reasons why people don’t subscribe. The feeling that if they do, they can get out of it intact brings them closer to your net. Don’t be mealy mouthed here. State it in the plainest terms you can manage.

You can also offer the disinterested testimony of current subscribers. This is where subs copywriters often say something like: “Do I sound enthusiastic about Drains and Sewers Executive? I should. After all, I am the editor. But don’t take my word for it…”

And if you haven’t received any testimonials, shame on you! What were you doing hanging around waiting? You’re supposed to go after them. People are usually willing to help and will often be flattered that you’re asking them.

Rule 7: Have a strong call to action

It pays to write your call to action first to get you into that selling mood. And when it comes to the order form, please don’t write “Order form” as your headline. Duh! People know it’s an order form. Better to head it “Subscribe now and save £34.78”, “Your invitation to join the world’s proudest newt owners” or “Professional savings certificate”.

Your call to action is the place to remind them, succinctly, of everything they stand to gain by subscribing. You may also want to partner that line with another reminding them of what they stand to lose by doing nothing.

In linguistic terms, be short, be simple, be direct. This isn’t the time for guessing games. And just to pep them up a bit, add in a deadline for the offer or premium.

And my point is…

I have written subscriptions copy for finance journals aimed at chief executives. Literary newspapers for “the world’s intellectual elite” as we call this particular set of prospects (it works, believe me). Fitness newsletters aimed at athletes and coaches. PC magazines for computer nerds. And in each case, I have followed the rules in this article. With some success. You’ll develop more of your own and argue with the finer points I’ve listed here, but these, I hope, offer a good place to start with your next subscriptions promotion.

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