Spotlight on newsletters


Are Forced Free Trials Making a Comeback in Newsletter Subscription Marketing?


By Robert W. Bly



            With response rates to traditional number ten packages and other DM formats in decline, newsletter publishers are once again turning to a proven marketing method that periodically comes in and out of favor: forced free trials.

            In a recent survey, the Newsletter and Electronic Publishers Association (NEPA) asked its members (all newsletter publishers) which marketing channel brings in the most orders.

            The #1 newsletter subscription marketing method was direct mail, cited by 50.9% of those surveyed. Forced free trials came in second, with 20% of the vote. Telemarketing was a close third, at 18.2%.

            In his book, Success in Newsletter Publishing: A Practical Guide (Newsletter Publishers Association), Frederick Goss defines a forced free trial as a promotion in which “a selected number of prospects are given a trial without their having requested it.” It is “forced” because the recipient is going to get the issues whether he wants them or not!

            The idea is that by “forcing” samples of your publication upon the recipient, you will convince those for whom the publication is a good fit that it is worth their while to read and subscribe to.

            They are willing to receive and read the issues because the trial subscription is free and they need not take any action to request it. Therefore sales resistance to receiving their free issues is at a minimum.

            In comparison, a direct mail promotion which requires the reader to mail back a card to request free issues generates significant sales resistance, and only a small percentage of recipients will agree to receive the free issues, even if there is no commitment and no money required up front.

            The primary advantage of a forced-free trial is it allows the potential subscriber to sample the publication without making a purchase or taking action of any kind.

            There are at least three other ways to sell newsletter subscriptions through sampling:

            1. Mail a free sample issue with a wrap to a list of prospects.

            2. Enclose a free sample issue in your direct mail package.

            3. Offer a free sample issue to anyone who responds to your direct mail package.

            The three options above, however, only allow the prospect to see one sample issue. If the articles in the sample issue do not match the prospect’s interests, he may decide against subscribing.

            The advantage of a forced-free trial is that the prospect gets to read multiple issue of the publication. Therefore, the chances of his seeing articles relevant to his interests are much higher than with single-free-issue promotions.

            Goss describes one newsletter publisher’s typical forced-free trial program as consisting of six mailings and five issues on a biweekly (basis). The issues go with mailings one through five, the reply form and business reply envelope (BRE) with mailings one, four, five, and six.

            Jean Jennings, a well-known consultant in the newsletter industry, suggests the following sequence of mailings for a forced-free trial promotion:

            1. Initial contact – first issue with a welcome letter.

            2. Week #2 – second free issue.

            3. Week #4 – third free issue with first invoice.

            4. Week #6 – fourth free issue.

            5. Week #8 – fifth free issue with second invoice.

            6. Week #10 – third invoice (no issue).

            The above schedule, which calls for 5 free issues, is for a twice-monthly publication. For a monthly publication, Jennings suggests sending three free issues.

            Efforts can vary, but the typical package components in a series of forced-free trial mailing are the issue, a one-page cover letter, an invoice or reply form, and a business reply envelope.

            Always include language on the invoice or reply form that says, “This is not bill and you are under no obligation to pay.” Trying to fool the recipient into thinking they ordered the publication and have to pay your invoice is deceptive.

            The first mailing in a forced-free trial program almost always contains an issue and a letter explaining to the reader that he has been selected to receive a free trial of the publication. Typically the rationale is that the reader is someone important or active in the industry, and therefore the content of the publication is of vital interest.

            The letter enclosed with the first issue should explain to the reader how to “opt out” or cancel the trial subscription. After all, if someone is certain they do not want the publication, giving them a way to opt out saves you the cost of sending five more mailings to a person who is never going to buy.

            In her book The Ultimate Guide to Newsletter Publishing (Newsletter and Electronic Publishers Association), Patty Wysocki recommends putting a teaser on the outer envelope that reads, “Here’s your free trial issue” – which gets the word “FREE” on the outer envelope.

            I prefer the teaser “Your current issue enclosed” because it gives the impression that you are delivering a publication to which the reader already subscribers (which in a sense is true, since they have not cancelled the free trial subscription you are giving them). A corporate mail room is less likely to throw the envelope away if they think it contains a publication the reader has paid for.

            The main disadvantage of forced-free trials is cost: You are sending six mailings (a combination of sample issues, letters, and order forms) instead of a single DM package. For this reason, forced-free trials are used almost exclusively with business-to-business newsletters costing a minimum of $200 a year or more. You almost never see forced-free trials used with lower-priced consumer newsletters.

            As response rates to traditional direct mail promotions – long the staple of newsletter subscription marketing – continue to struggle, newsletter publishers are looking for other channels of distribution.

            Some are beginning to have success with telemarketing, although the national Do Not Call list may have a negative effect on the telephone as a subscription marketing medium.

            Publishers finally understand how to use the Internet as a subscription marketing medium, and I have covered this in previous articles for Subscription Marketing (see my article in the previous issue on “Online Conversions,” for example).

            Forced-free trials are also staging a comeback. Should you test them? Yes, if you publish a business-to-business newsletter with a high price point and targeted at a well-defined target market for which quality mailing lists are available.


            About the author:

                Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter whose clients include Kiplinger, Forbes, McGraw-Hill, Phillips, Agora, Harvard Business School Publishing, and KCI. He is the author of more than 50 books including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Direct Marketing (Alpha Books). Bob can be reached at 201-385-1220 or at