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Designing a billing series to bring in checks from unpaid orders.

While few consumer newsletters accept unpaid orders, almost every business-to-business title does. Publishers I've spoken with have widely different reports on eventual pay-ups. On the whole, the experience seems to be that bill-me orders received from Fortune 500 companies and "institutions" are pretty certain pay-ups, but otherwise results can vary.

So, "Designing the billing series" or "The marketing job doesn't stop when we get the unpaid order in house" may be an area where business-to-business publishers can both learn from and envy consumer magazine publishers.

The folks at Martha Stewart Living do an excellent job with all their billing and renewal pieces. One advantage they have is working with one title. Of course, every piece in the billing and renewals series is "customized" for Martha's subscribers.

On the other hand, at XYZ publishers, who publish 23 b-to-b newsletters, perhaps it's simply asking too much to expect 23 individualized billing or renewal series designs.

Here are some decisions you have to make that can affect the ability to design a strong billing series.

* When to begin. ASAP. Send a welcome package with letter, first issue and invoice. For newsletters, this package can go First Class without postage cost worries. I don't like to send an invoice before an issue is received, but you want new subscribers to receive a notice while the "buying decision" is as fresh in their mind as possible.

* How many to send. Three to five seem to be the industry norm. They don't have to look identical. You can send one in a #10 and one closed face. It doesn't have to be an unbroken series of #7 3/4 window envelopes.

MPL Ltd. in Canada varies the color randomly for the envelopes, invoices and letters (using tints of gray and red as well as white), so that the customer never receives two identical-appearing packages.

* How many issues to fulfill for an unpaid order. You don't want anyone to think, "This thing just keeps coming." Two for a monthly and three for a twice monthly or weekly are probably enough.

Bruce Levenson at UCG notes that he "makes a tentative renewal decision" as soon as after reading two or three issues of a new publication. That should certainly also hold true for a "bill-me" order.

* Nesting an invoice. That should be effective with the "we can't send any more issues" copy. Admittedly an administrative headache. Yes, the subscriber to many business publications may be remote from the accounting office, but the nested invoice can be a needed reminder to get a check cut or request a purchase order. At this point, as much as anything else, you need a decision.

* How tough do you want to get? These are legitimate orders; you can turn them in for collection. What you can't do is threaten that action if you aren't going to follow through. But, you can be fairly stiff with language along the lines of "We did our part. We trusted you to do yours." I've written the third piece in a four-part series as a friendly "personal letter" from someone in circulation. "I don't want to have to turn this over to our collections department."

Are there features you can push even on a "generic" billing series?

* The 800 toll-free number or numbers for customer service and editorial questions.

* The "We'll send you the premium--'Your exclusive executive special report'--as soon as we receive payment" copy. It's possible the subscriber forgot about the great premium that was part of the deal.

* The guarantee. At this point the subscriber is really still on the fence about paying, and it can't hurt to restate the guarantee.

A few years back, a couple of publishers were having good results by sending a final "short-rated" bill--four issues on a $295 biweekly comes to $49.17. I haven't heard much about that recently, though.
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Goss, Fred
Publication:The Newsletter on Newsletters
Date:Oct 15, 2001
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