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Sep 14, 2006
Case Study

What Playboy Has Learned From Constant Tests to Improve Online Subscription Revenues

SUMMARY: Do most visitors come to your site just to view the open access content?

No matter what you publish online, if your visitors prefer to surf your open content instead of buying subscriptions, you may find this Case Study of practical value. Includes lessons from:

- Pricing tests
- Copy tests
- Web layout tests
- Exit pop offer tests

... and more:

Ah, the trouble with fame.

As Michael Sprouse, Senior VP Marketing Playboy Entertainment, explains, it's wonderful to get millions of monthly online visitors, but it's not easy to convert them into premium content subscribers.

The problem is that the brand attracts millions of visitors every month ... almost all looking for free entertainment. "The variety of users that go to the home page aren't going there thinking, 'Hey I'm going to spend some money today,’ " Sprouse explains.

To make things harder, much of the site is entirely free, supported by promoting the print magazine and by third-party ads. And when it comes to selling subscriptions, the more unbarriered content you offer, the lower your paid conversion rate.


Since 2002, Sprouse and his team have tested subscription conversion tactics online relentlessly. In fact, the site's servers continually split traffic to enable A/B tests.

Major tests are launched to match when the new monthly issue hits the newsstands because so many visitors come online in a wave of activity at that time. But, often Sprouse can't resist from tweaking some elements, such as photographs daily or even hourly.

His main goal: how to get home page visitors to convert to premium subscription buyers. Five of the most critical tests have included (links to sample creative below):

Test #1. Home page promotions

Instead of assuming one promotional box will do the trick, Sprouse's team have tested running up to four different boxes with offers, along with a standard text link in the navigation for the stray visitor who actually is seeking premium offers.

He's also tested everything from the size of these boxes and their placement -- above or below the fold, horizontal row across the top versus vertical row down the left side, etc.

Last but not least, the team tested which sort of offer copy would work best. Should they be clear about the fact that this is a membership offer (example: Join Cyber Club Now) versus enticing copy such as "Free Preview.” “We're trying to tease people into making one or two clicks and getting them into the purchase path," says Sprouse.

Test #2. Clickthrough landing pages

Once users click a promotion box, they arrive at a landing page. They may see a promotional video clip or large enticing pictures of the subject at hand. Plus, of course, there's offer copy to get them to continue down the purchase path.

Sprouse's team have tested a variety of copy length and messaging, ranging from lots of text with bullet points and almost no copy at all beyond a giant click button labeled "Click here for instant access."

Test #3. Order page

Landing page clicks then funnel into a common order page that incorporates the order form plus the sales copy on one single page. If the creative convinces a prospect to buy, Sprouse didn't want to waste that shopping energy on requiring another click to start the checkout process.

His team has tested layout, copy length and images.

Test #4. Exit pops

Anyone who bails on the order page without purchasing gets served with an exit pop. Sprouse's team have tested a variety of offers, including a discounted price, a subscription to a different Playboy club or free opt-in email signup.

Test #5. Prices

Sprouse conducts price testing every six or eight weeks for the Cyber Club. Key tests have included $19.95, $24.95 and $29.95.

Also, he doesn't make the mistake of assuming that the best price for one club is the best price for other niche clubs Playboy offers online. He price tests them all.


After Sprouse began heavy testing and optimization in 2002, premium online subscriptions leapt by 65% per year for two years in a row. Then, with the low-handing subscriber fruit picked, it got a bit harder to budge the needle. Currently Cyber Club revenues grow more slowly, yet impressively steadily, at about 9% per year.

Sprouse never considers test results "final." He re-tests every major finding on a regular basis. So anything he revealed to us may not be true for Playboy in the future, nor may it hold true for other brand's sites. The key is it's testing that's important.

That said, here are some of the lessons he's learned so far:

Lesson #1. Teaser copy featuring the word "free preview" gets far more clicks from home page visitors than copy that requires any type of purchase decision such as 'Cyber Club Sign Up.'

This tactic is akin to the old salesman's trick of asking prospects a super-easy question just to get them in the habit of responding. Then once they start head nodding, it's easier to get them to say "Yes" to an actual offer.

Lesson #2. Until you get to the actual order form, shortest copy works the best. The more you force people to read and consider, the fewer will put the work in to do so.

Lesson #3. Multiple promotion boxes work best because they give you a chance to appeal separately to multiple types of people (especially useful if you base Web design on personas).

Surprisingly many prospects click on each offer, one at a time, during the same visit -- especially if the boxes are presented in a horizontal row. This can increase conversions ultimately because each box reinforces the value of the subscription.

Lesson #4. The most valuable exit pop so far has been the email opt-in form because it gives Sprouse's team the opportunity to send more promotions to that prospect until they ultimately convert.

Lesson #5. Price testing boosts your bottom line. "We thought, intuitively, that the $24 price range would be the next range in volume of signups from $19," says Sprouse.

Instead, he found that even in volume of conversions, there's no difference between $24 and $29 -- and, this has held true in multiple tests.

Plus, if you do test offering an annual subscription as the only offer, be sure to state the cost it breaks down to per month in the copy even though prospects can't buy by the month.

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from Playboy's test:

Note: Michael Sprouse was a featured speaker at a recent eTail conference. Here's info about upcoming eTail conferences:


See Also:

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