Marketing Copywriting

Bonkers! Five weird marketing decisions routinely made by publishers

Marketing in general, and subscriptions marketing in particular, can be measured down to the last penny. So why, asks grumpy old copywriter Andy Maslen, do publishers keep making these five strangely emotion-led decisions?

I am rapidly approaching the point when I shall have spent half of my entire life writing subscriptions copy. I love it and the people who allow me to do it for a living. But still I shudder (inwardly, I’m far too polite to show my true feelings) when I am informed, again, that “obviously, because it’s a website, your copy needs to be short” … that “nobody reads long emails” … and that “we don’t do any testing but we have a pretty good idea of what works”. How do you know? I want to ask. Because if I could know what works without testing, I would be very rich indeed.

The really puzzling aspect to all this is that the secrets of successful direct marketing – for publishers and everybody else – are not secrets at all. They are all in the public domain, between the covers of five or six really excellent books. Have you read The Solid Gold Mailbox by Walter Weintz? Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples? Commonsense Direct and Digital Marketing by Drayton Bird? They’re a good place to start.

So before I choke on my Werther’s original, here are five batty decisions still doing the rounds and some humble suggestions for what to do instead.

1. Short copy without testing

Yes, yes, I know. But if you’re going to start anywhere this old chestnut seems fitting. A client of ours emailed me a couple of years ago to say, “Dear Andy, you personally brainwashed me into using long copy and I have never found it outpulled by short, even for emails”. She is, I must say, in a minority. Not of people who have seen that test result, but of those who have tested it at all.

The usual counter-argument runs thus: You need to keep it short because: “I can’t believe anyone would read a [insert number of pages/screens here] letter”. Alternatively, “Our customers are busy, so they won’t read long copy”. Or, “That sort of thing is fine for b2c but we’re writing to businesspeople”.

Well, here’s the thing. What one assumes or believes to be true and what’s actually going to happen aren’t always the same thing. If it were, the apocalypse would have happened on May 21 this year. A more rational approach dictates that we test our assumptions. And a quick word on testing for those who say we tried it last year and it didn’t work. Trying something is not the same as testing it. Testing something means doing it with a control, scientific method and a significant sample size. Trying doesn’t.

There are many freely available books, white papers, e-books and the rest that all share the results of copy tests in which longer copy outpulls shorter. I have publishing contacts right now who are using 16pp sales letters in print and on the web. The lament of one marketing manager ran along these lines, “I wish we didn’t have to write such long copy, but every time we test shorter we make less money”.

My suggestion: test longer copy and remember that longer might mean 300 words versus 50.

2. Feeble renewal series

The old saw has it that “sales are vanity, profits are sanity”. Substitute “acquisitions” for “sales” and “renewals” for “profits” and you have the perfect mantra for the subscriptions marketer. You can generally reckon on a cost per acquisition (CPA) of £X turning into a cost per renewal of £X/7.

So why do so many publishers employ such dreary, samey, lazy, unimaginative, poorly written, underweight renewal series? A typical series (the bad kind, I mean) is specced like this:

No. of efforts: 3

Renewal at birth?: no

Discount structure: increasing through series

Approach: push discount off full price in every effort

Look and feel: identical throughout series

Channel: mail throughout

Tone of voice: neutral throughout

Copywriter: someone at our subs bureau

Designer: ditto


Much has been written on this subject in InPublishing, so I will confine myself to a couple of general observations. First, that anyone wanting to know what best practice consists of in renewals marketing need only spend half an hour on the internet (or even just on this magazine’s website) to discover pretty much all they need to know. Second, that as this is where the real money is, it pays to invest in a decent renewal series then milk it for as long as it keeps making you money. I know of one series (which coincidentally, I wrote) that is still returning money to the bottom line for one magazine nine years after I wrote it for them.

My suggestion: look at a series of seven efforts minimum. Ensure no two efforts could be mistaken for one another. Spread your efforts across at least two channels eg mail, email.

3. Hatred of Courier

What is it about this simple typewriter typeface that inspires such horror, hatred even, in otherwise perfectly calm and rational human beings? I’ve been told it’s ugly (I disagree), old-fashioned (I agree), and not part of our brand identity (see next point). What I have only ever been told once is, “Use it – we make more money with it than any other typeface”.

And this is the point. Far more experienced and wise direct marketers than I – step forward Drayton Bird – have written about the profit-inducing power of Courier. The uplift can be as much as 20%, to the joy of clients who are discovering this delightful truth with every mailing they send out.

Who cares whether you find a particular typeface ugly or old-fashioned looking? This isn’t your home we’re decorating, it’s a piece of direct marketing. What matters is what works. I find it instructive that the people who tell me they don’t use Courier are the same people who also tell me they don’t test. The New Yorker, a magazine of peerless good writing and restrained, classical design, does not use Courier anywhere in the magazine itself. They do, however, use it exclusively in their renewal series and I’ve no doubt in their acquisitions pieces too. But maybe the subs manager at Condé Nast doesn’t know what they’re doing? Yeah right!

My suggestion: test Courier. Don’t game the test by changing any other variable.

4. Design guidelines

I have nothing in general against design guidelines, corporate identity manuals, brand books and the rest. (Well, not much, anyway.) But they are almost always useless for direct marketing purposes. Crime number one is the virtually universal requirement that body copy be set in a sans serif typeface. We are told, in the sort of portentous language favoured in these documents, that “we have selected Boxjelly Light because it is clean, contemporary and versatile”. So far, so same-old-same-old.

Yet, testing (again) has revealed that, in print, serif faces are more legible, more comprehensible and more profitable than their unadorned sisters. (The opposite is true for online copy.) If Courier is beyond the pale, then Times is a reasonable substitute, yet this, too, is deemed lacking in cleanliness, modernity and versatility by the style police.

The problem is that brand guidelines extend to the most copy-driven of all evocations of the brand: subscriptions marketing. Yet they are written, not by copywriters, who understand the relationship between the printed word and profits, but by graphic designers, who don’t.

My suggestion: ask your brand identity manager, very sweetly, whether they’d mind awfully, if you derogated from the guidelines for this teensy, unimportant little sales letter. If they say yes, do it anyway and show your test results to your CEO.

5. Subs promotions that sell the premium, not the product


Constructed from rugged ripstop teflonamide and wi-fi-enabled for effortless web access up even the steepest slope, this fantastic cagoule is your free gift for subscribing to Scarp Magazine.

Three reasons to subscribe

1 Free cagoule worth £25

2 Savings off the cover price

3 Pay just £1.47 an issue

Congratulations! You just sold a cagoule. And you’re wondering why your renewal rates are so low.

This sort of copy is prevalent in in-mag ads for glossy monthlies of the men’s and women’s varieties. I’ve been told by subs managers, and I believe them, that the goal is to prop up page rates for the ad sales team, so in this particular revenue mix, the sub is the loss leader.

That’s OK if you have the same business model, and similarly deep pockets. But too often I see the same, premium-led strategy being applied to magazines where the subscription is the main slice of the pie. If you want someone to subscribe to your magazine long-term, you have to sell them the magazine, not the premium or the offer. Premiums and offers do have a role to play in closing the sale, but if you want respectable renewal rates, you have to convince your punter that what they really want in their life is your magazine, not the shiny bauble you’re dangling in front of them.

My suggestion: try repurposing editorial to create an old-school “ink on paper” premium. You can assign a cash value to a mini-book or wallchart, it has intrinsic value, and you will only attract people genuinely interested in what you’re selling.

There you are then: rant over. Thank you. Nurse! Time for my sedative, I think.

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