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Why sample issue mailings continue to pull.

Recently, a question on the Marketing Listserv hosted by the Newsletter & Electronic Publishers Association sparked a spirited discussion of sample issue direct mail packages.

There is a longstanding mythology in newsletter industry literature that samples don't work in subscriber acquisition, except--the conventional reasoning goes--when it's a title where the content is similar from issue to issue, e.g., an oil industry price alert or an investment charting service.

Not true! For the 26 years that I've been working with newsletter publishers, I've seen sample promotions pull successfully for a wide variety of publications. The format is particularly well suited to business titles. (For a discussion of sample issues for consumer markets, keep reading.)

Higher perceived value

As the internet is proving all over again, editorial content has "higher perceived value" than sales copy. Thus, a newsletter that teems with useful information, even though it's unsolicited, has a better chance at overcoming the resistance to hype and "junk mail" that causes so much promotional mail to be relegated to secondary status, or ignored, or discarded.

Sampling is a time-tested marketing strategy. If you like the tiny shampoo bottle in your hotel room, aren't you likely to consider buying the big one at the store? After supermarket shoppers scarf the free-sample cheese wedges and cake slices, many are motivated to add the products to their carts.

The sample issue is a qualifying device. What you see is what you get. Because the prospect subscribes on the basis of the product itself, not just promises, he or she will probably be pleased instead of disappointed after subscribing. The experience of publishers confirms this assumption. In DM tests, the use of samples increases conversion and renewal rates.

Clients have also told me that sample issue promotions have a "long tail." They generate more replies over a longer period than promotions that consist only of sales copy. Presumably, the sample is saved rather than tossed; it's referred to again later; it's passed on to others--all activities which increase the odds of a decision to subscribe. (Be sure to include a duplicate order form as part of the issue.)

Some publishers find that an envelope pulls better than a wrap-around, although the increased response doesn't always offset the higher costs.

How about FFTs?

The forced free trial is an established and successful newsletter marketing technique. It's rarely mentioned that the FFT is simply a variation on sampling. Because FFTs are more expensive, however, you may want to test a one-shot sample mailing first.

But both techniques can create a surprising problem. Sometimes a recipient of a sample issue promotion or an FFT assumes that he or she must already be a subscriber!

To preclude this catastrophe, the front cover should be prominently marked "Complimentary Issue" or the like. The copy in the accompanying sales letter (or wrap, if it's a self-mailer) should clearly state that this is a onetime-only freebie. Also, it's a good idea for the copy to preview the future content and benefits provocatively, emphasizing that the sample is just a taste, and can you really live without more?

Include powerful sales copy

These cautions underscore the fact that it is necessary to include powerful sales copy in the DM package. I wouldn't recommend sending a sample issue and nothing else.

Should you use a "live" sample (that is, the actual issue you send your paid subscribers) or a compiled specimen issue? Although certain publications generate better results with a live issue, most publishers I've worked for favor the specimen formula.

This strategy permits you to select your best, most popular and timeless articles. It's not dishonest, as some contend. Remember, the sample represents a subscription--the total experience of receiving your newsletter for a year. That's what you're really selling. Another advantage of the compiled approach: You have the opportunity to incorporate subtle plugs and reminders. ("Useful case studies like this one in every issue!")

Dan Oswald, president of Ragan Communications, says, "We have 17 B2B publications and we've mailed samples or FFTs profitably for every one."

The consumer market

Finally, how about the consumer market? It's true that sample issues aren't as common here. Consumer marketers tend to assume that sizzle sells better than steak.

But maybe the technique just hasn't been tested enough. After all, the Rukeyser investment advisories and Personal Finance (published by KCI) mail compiled sample self-mailers with great success.

And I created a promotion for The No-Load Fund Investor which is a hybrid--a sample issue self-mailer with some of the characteristics of a magalog.

A detailed account of this piece, which has been the control for the past ten years, is the cover story of the December 2000 issue of the newsletter Inside Direct Mail For a free copy, send a message to Use "NL/NL Offer" as your subject line, and include your real-world address.

Don Hauptman is a freelance copywriter/ consultant whose clients include many newsletter publishers.
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Author:Hauptman, Don
Publication:The Newsletter on Newsletters
Date:Dec 31, 2000
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