Selling Newsletters With Online Conversion


By Robert W. Bly



We publishing types don't give up.

When the Internet sprung into life, we said, "Direct mail works offline to sell subscriptions; why not online, too?"

So we rented e-mail lists and sent them e-mails asking them to subscribe.

It bombed.

But instead of giving up, we went back to the drawing board, asking, "If traditional acquisition direct response does not work online, let's find something that does!"

And that something is online conversion. Both traditional and online publishers are testing it, and many are enjoying promising results.

In a nutshell, here's an oversimplified version of how online conversion works:

1. You create some free content.

2. You offer people the free content online.

3. When they accept, you then upsell them to your paid subscription product -- again, online.

Let's break down each step.

Step 1: Create some free content.

This is the easiest step. Just repackage some of your content as an information premium.

The content does not have to be long. Re-purposing existing articles works fine for this purpose. So do special reports specifically written for the online conversion campaign. Or the same reports you offer as premiums in postal direct marketing.

The premium is typically offered as a "free special report." It is usually available as a downloadable PDF file. Some marketers prefer to post the report as a multi-page html document on the Web.

Step 2: Offering the free content

The most common way to offer the free content is by sending an e-mail to your house file. You can also test outside lists.

The e-mail offers the content as a "free special report." To get the free report, the recipient clicks on an embedded URL in the message text.

If the content is a downloadable PDF file, the recipient is brought to a short transaction page. He enters his e-mail address, and is then allowed to download and print the PDF file.

If the content is a series of sequential html pages, the recipient is again brought to a short transaction page. He enters his e-mail address, clicks SUBMIT, and is brought to the first page of the micro site where the report is available to read as a posted html document.

(Within the html report, put a number of links to a landing page or transaction page for your paid subscription product. Many readers may click on these links and order your paid product while they are in the middle of reading your free bonus report online.)

Either way, the reader must give us his e-mail address to read the free report, which is the key to the online conversion method.

There are other methods you can use to generate leads for your online conversion campaign, as shown in Fig. 1. Some publishers have had great success with postcards. Others have used banners or online ads in e-zines.

Step 3: Converting the leads to paid subscribers

Now two things have happened. First, we have captured the prospect's e-mail address, so we can market to him as often as we like at virtually no cost.

And second, we know that the prospect is interested in the topic of our content, because he at least requested a free article or report on it.

Since the content was free, we do not know at this point whether he will pay for more content on this topic. But he is a qualified lead in the sense that he is (a) interested in the topic and (b) responds to online marketing.

The next step is to send him a series of e-mails, known as the online conversion series, with the objective of converting him from a requester of free content to a subscriber or buyer of our paid content.

Planning the online conversion series

While the online conversion process is still relatively new, experience so far shows that our online conversion series works best with between three to seven efforts.

Some marketers like every e-mail in the series to attempt to make a sale. That is, they all have a URL the reader can click to reach a page from which the product may be ordered.

Others like the first two e-mails to be simply goodwill, promoting the value of the information and encouraging the reader to actually read the free content -- and in some cases, even giving him more free content. These are called "free touch" e-mails, because they touch the reader without asking him to purchase.

Subsequent e-mails in the series ask for the order; these are called "conversion e-mails." In a six-effort series, the first one or two e-mails might be free touch; the remainder, conversion e-mails.

Designing the online response vehicle

When the reader clicks on the URL link in your e-mail, he may go either to a landing page or a transaction page.

A landing page has a fair amount of descriptive copy about the product you are selling and your offer. It does a strong job of selling the reader on the value of the product.

A transaction page has minimal description of the product. It is basically an online order form.

Some marketers always send the e-mail recipient who clicks on the link in the e-mail to the landing page, on the theory that the more sales copy there is, the more sales that will be made.

Other marketers believe that if the conversion e-mail is long and has a lot of sales copy, there is no need to repeat this in a landing page; and so they just send the prospect to a short transaction page.

Creating the conversion offer

The best offer for an online conversion effort is a free 30-day trial of the product. If you can set up your site so that the recipient's credit card is not billed until after the 30-day trial period, that's the best choice. Then you are truly offering a free trial or free 30-day subscription.

By comparison, if you charge their credit card as soon as they submit their order, it is not really a free 30-day trial; it is a risk-free 30-day trial. They are paying, but if they cancel within 30 days, they get a refund.

Planning the online conversion series

You can experiment with timing, number of efforts, and mix of efforts (free touch and online conversion) in your series.

A typical series might go like this:

Day 1 -- e-mail #1, free touch. Thank the prospect for requesting your free content and reinforce its value.

Day 2 -- e-mail #2, free touch. Encourage the prospect to read the free content and highlight its value. Point out some especially good ideas, tips, or strategies it contains.

Day 4 -- e-mail #3, online conversion. Tell the prospect he can get more of the same content by accepting a free 30-day trial to your publication. Sell him on the publication and its value.

Day 7 -- e-mail #4. Remind the prospect that he can still become an expert on the topic by getting your publication and accepting your free trial offer.

Day 14 -- e-mail #5. Tell the prospect the free 30-day trial is expiring, resell him on the content you are offering, and urge him to act today. Tell him after that, it's too late.

Writing the online conversion series

Write your online conversion series e-mails the same as you would write other online and offline promotions to sell your products. Use the same copy, content, and organization. Get attention in the lead ... generate interest ... create desire for your product ... and ask for the order.

One key difference: In your lead, always acknowledge that they are hearing from you as a follow-up to the free report or article they asked you to send them. This has two benefits.

First, they may feel slightly more obligated to read your message; after all, you did give them a gift. And second, if they liked the free content, it automatically puts them in a receptive mood for more of the same -- even if they have to pay for it.

Should you try online conversion?

Every publisher who wants to market information products on the Internet should try an online conversion series.

Just renting an e-list of opt-in names and asking them to subscribe won't work; people who are online tend not to buy from strangers.

But send those same names an offer of a free article or report, and they will take you up on it. After all, what's to lose?

If you have targeted the right audience for your publication, and the free content you give is of high quality and value, then enough of the readers will want more of the same that they will be willing to accept a free 30-day trial of a paid subscription product on the same topic.

And if your paid subscription product is of high quality and value, a large percentage of the readers will not cancel, and you will have successfully converted free content requesters to paid buyers -- your goal in online conversion.


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

Fig, 1. The online conversion process at a glance.