Spotlight on newsletters


The 4 most important factors in direct mail subscription marketing success … and the 2 you can control most


By Robert W. Bly



            Despite declining response rates, direct mail is still the most profitable and effective method of generating subscriptions for newsletters.

            Four major factors affect the performance of your direct mail package:

            1. The list.

            2. The offer.

            3. The format.

            4. The copy

            Traditional marketing advice says that the list and the offer are the most important factors, with copy and design (of which format is a subset) being far less critical.

            Well … yes and no.

            Here’s what I mean: Yes, the list and offer are the most important factors affecting response rates.

            But you can identify, fairly quickly and easily, those lists that work best for your publication.

            If you publish a stock market newsletter, for instance, there is a limited universe of “hard money” lists that all publishers know about and routinely test.

            They know that these are the only lists that usually work for stock market newsletter promotion, and this knowledge has already been gained through long experience; there is no need to reinvent it for each new financial newsletter.

            For a particular publication, your initial test determines which of these lists are going to work for you. New lists come onto the market infrequently, so once you know what works, there’s little additional leverage to be gained in the list area.

            Next in importance is offer. But again, offers for newletters – unlike some products, such as consulting services or software – are fairly simple, standard, and straightforward.

            Yes, there are variations. But your initial tests will quickly yield an offer that becomes the standard for your publication.

            After that, there’s little additional leverage to be gained in the offer area.

            That leaves us with copy and format. And even though these areas may affect response less than list and offer overall, once list and offer are set, the only additional leverage you can get is in testing new copy and formats.

            Therefore copy and format become of paramount, not secondary, importance: the only place where you can realistically hope to beat your control.

            Let’s talk about copy first.

            My rule of thumb in direct marketing is: observe what the largest direct marketers in your industry do, and copy them.

            Why? They mail many more pieces than you do. Therefore, they have more test experience.

            Their greater the accumulated wisdom gained through testing, the more the marketer knows about what works and what does not work for their product.

            The largest newsletter publishers – Boardroom, Phillips, Agora, KCI – do a lot of copy testing.

            They would not continue to mail large tests and pay top dollar to copywriters for direct mail packages unless they found the effort worthwhile and profitable.

            Therefore, it probably makes sense to do more copy testing than you currently do.

            At the very least, don’t go out with just one package on a product launch or test. Create at least two versions, e.g., two different outer envelope teasers (or a teaser vs. no teaser) and letter leads (headline and body copy on page one of the sales letter).

            The most important part of the copy to test is the teaser, headline, or lead, and what you should be testing are two different “big ideas” or concepts, e.g., “tastes great” vs. “less filling.”

            A winning headline or concept test can increase response rates 25% to 100% or even more – a much greater improvement than minor copy tweaks in the body of the package letter or brochure.

            For instance, the publisher of a newsletter on commodities trading tested two headlines: (A) “The Greatest Market Discovery Ever Made” and (B) “Only Two Commodity Markets Are Going to Return Explosive Profits This Year.” In this test, (B) underperformed (A) by 25%.

            The second area where you have great leverage is in format. To begin with, test a letter package vs. a self-mailer.

            If the letter package wins, think about testing a #10 vs. 6 X 9” vs. a jumbo. If the self-mailer wins, test a magalog vs. a tabloid vs. a digest vs. a bookalog.

            There is no standard format that remains the champion for all newsletters all the time. Different formats seem to perform best for different products at different times.

            A major publisher of health newsletters told me recently that for her company, nothing can beat a jumbo package.

            A large publisher of financial newsletters says that only magalogs are working for him now. But one of his competitors has five newsletters, and controls for all five are #10 packages. Go figure.

            Even if the format does not change, varying the design alone can make a significant difference.

            Designer Ted Nicholas once beat a control package for a client by 100% by changing only the design and not a word of the copy.

            And a major publisher of consumer newsletters tested two versions of its control, identical in every way except (A) had a white outer envelope and (B) had a kraft outer envelope. The kraft version (B) underperformed the white control version (A) by 25%.

            So when an expert tells you, “Lists and offer are everything; copy, design, and format are unimportant” … don’t you believe it for a second.


             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