Spotlight on newsletters


Making Your Offer Make Sense


By Robert W. Bly



            When creating a direct mail promotion, the closing copy, especially the offer, often gets short shrift. The marketer simply picks up the boilerplate from previous promotions, without thinking through whether the offer and its wording make sense.

            And often, they don’t. More and more we see offers that are confusing, deceptive, unfair, or illogical – if we look carefully.

            A number of publishers, for instance, offer lifetime guarantees. They permit the subscriber to cancel at any time and receive a prorated refund on “unmailed issues.”

But if you offer both a bill-me option as well as payment with order, such a lifetime guarantee actually gives the customer an incentive not to pay up front – the opposite of what the marketer desires.

Say the customer checks the “bill-me” option for a monthly newsletter, gets his first issue, and then writes “cancel” on his invoice. The publisher doesn’t send him a bill for one issue, nor does the publisher ask for the newsletter back. So the customer gets a free issue.

But if the customer pays in advance, then cancels after the first issue, he gets a refund for 11/12th of the subscription price (the 11 unmailed issues) and therefore ends up paying for the issue received.

Why should the bill-me customer get a free issue, but not the payment-with-order customer? It doesn’t make sense, considering a cash-with-order customer is more desirable than a bill-me order.

How can you fix this problem? Offer a full money-back guarantee within the first 30 days, then a prorated refund thereafter. That way, everyone gets the first issue free if they decide not to become subscribers, whether they enclosed payment with order or chose the bill-me option.

The wording in lifetime guarantees is at times ambiguous, unclear, or even misleading on such offers. The old standard used to offer “a prorated refund on the unused portion of your subscription” or on “unmailed issues.”

No problem there. You knew that if you cancelled after 6 months and the newsletter cost $100, you would get $50 back.

Now many of these guarantees offer “a full refund on the unused portion of your subscription.” Are they offering 100% of your money back?

No. By “full,” they mean the full amount of the cost of the unmailed issues. Again, for a $100 subscription cancelled after 6 months, that’s a $50 refund.

If you really are giving back the subscriber all of her money, make it clear, e.g., “We’ll refund your entire subscription fee in full” or “We’ll refund every penny you paid.”

 Another gray area is the offer of a free issue. Many subscription promotions with a 30-day money-back guarantee promote the first issue, sent within 30 days, as a “free issue.”

In reality, that issue is free only if you do not become a subscriber. If you do subscribe, then you are paying for that issue, i.e. for a monthly publication, that first issue is one of a total of 12 you will get as part of your one-year subscription.

So for those who pay and do not request a refund, there is no free issue. In that case, “free issue” is not wholly accurate. More correctly, we should say “risk-free issue” or “no-risk issue.”

To make it a true free issue, you’d have to give them the first issue plus, if they subscribe, 12 more issues – a total of 13 issues for the price of 12.

Very few newsletters do that, but if you have a how-to newsletter, you could, quite easily. Just create an evergreen “first issue” and include it in the welcome kit. Then begin their regular subscription with the next issue mailed.

            Those of us who use premiums know the danger of offering a too-generous premium with a bill-me option: The subscriber responds, gets the premiums, cancels, pays nothing, and keeps all the great free gifts.

                The solution is to phrase the bill-me option check-off box this way: “Bill me (bonus gift sent upon receipt of payment).” The subscriber can still (if he wishes) pay, get the bonus, cancel within 30 days, get a refund of that payment, and keep the premium.

But that’s going to a lot of trouble to get a free special report. Asking for the money before you send the premium gains more of a commitment from the subscriber, resulting in fewer replies from people who have no intention of subscribing but just want something free.

            At least two publishers have approached me recently with the idea of offering a best-selling book on the topic covered by their publication as a premium. Popular books are a bad choice, however, because many of the people receiving your mailing may already own the book.

            You could offer a choice of an alternate premium, and ask the subscriber to pick one – either the book or another item. In theory, it sounds good, but it seldom works. The reason is the old rule of thumb: The more choices you ask the buyer to make, the more she has to think about it. And a decision deferred is a decision not made.  

The typical guarantee offers a full refund if you cancel the service or return the product within 30 days, but some experts suggest a longer period. How long? Some recommend a lifetime guarantee.

Boardroom offers a full refund on the full subscription price, even if you cancel on the last day of your subscription.  “It is a great selling point,” says Boardroom’s Michael Feldstein. “And since very few people cancel on a bill-me offer after they pay, the risk is minimal.”  

            About the author:

                Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter whose clients include Kiplinger, Forbes, McGraw-Hill, Phillips, Agora, 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