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Mar 19, 2009

How Marketer Grows Subs 22% With a Limited Ad Budget - 3 PR Secrets & Other Tips

SUMMARY: If response to your print and online advertising is sagging or if you’re on a limited marketing budget, don’t despair. Let PR fill the void.

See how one marketer dumped most of their ad budget in favor of targeting journalists with a simple letter outlining their service and pointing out their similar demographics.

The tactic is working -- with PR, a blog and their affiliate network, they’re seeing 22% membership growth. And they're getting mentions in leading publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Consumer Reports and Redbook.
Editor's Note: This Case Study features an excellent strategy that was originally published on 06/21/2007. We've verified that the company's PR efforts, blog and affiliate programs are still up and running.

“We started back in 2000 when Internet stuff was still booming, but we saw Net companies dropping money in ads and not getting anywhere. We’ve been a little more cautious with how we spend our money,” says Bryan Stafford, VP, Booksfree.

That caution has meant a move away from print and online advertising, as well as email marketing and renting lists. Yet, giving up some of online marketers’ most popular techniques hasn’t hurt the company, which offers a Netflix-like service for avid readers. Members pay a monthly fee to rent paperbacks that are mailed to their homes. Last year, they saw a 22% increase in subscribers, continuing a trend of roughly 20% membership growth each year for the past three years.

Driving this growth are several low-cost strategies designed to attract new subscribers and retain them once they sign up. Here are five techniques they used to replace ads and email blasts:

-> Strategy #1. Magazine PR push

In the company’s early days, Stafford and his team tried advertising, but the dismal results didn’t justify the costs. Rather than burn up more money, they made a PR push focusing on getting articles written in magazines to drive visitors and subscribers:

From membership surveys, Stafford knew that 90% of Booksfree’s members were women. So, the team targeted magazines that appealed to the same demographic, including Redbook and Woman’s Day.

- Introduce the service. First, they identified specific editors at those titles and sent a simple, one-page letter introducing the service, outlining its features and highlighting the match between their membership demographics and the magazine. Over time, they widened the net by mailing multiple editors at various publications.

- Vary the content. Stafford also experimented with the content of the letters by including ones around the holidays that highlighted gift subscriptions and news from press releases when appropriate.

- Stagger the mailings. Mailings are a year-round effort, but are staggered in batches every few months to generate steady stream of mentions. The scope is large -- encompassing 500 to 600 magazines a year -- but the batch method allows the team to focus on only 100 to 200 letters at a time.

Thanks to these efforts, Stafford and his team have landed at least 19 articles in recent years, appearing in publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Consumer Reports, Real Simple, The New York Times and the Washington Post. By staggering the letters, they’ve achieved their goal of maintaining a steady stream of press mentions, typically generating three or four a year.

“The really nice part about a magazine article is that members continue to come in over time. These magazines end up in doctor’s offices and dentist’s offices, and that shelf life means we’re still seeing new members who heard about us in a Real Simple article that came out over a year ago.”

-> Strategy #2. Measure article impact

Stafford wanted to track these PR efforts, but as the number of articles grew, he needed a way to determine which magazine articles were getting noticed most. The simple solution was to ask new members exactly where they heard of Booksfree.

The registration process featured a short survey after members sign up for a subscription. One of the questions offered a generic list of avenues from which they arrived at the site, including Web search, referral from a friend or simply “magazine article.”

Stafford wanted to put that question more front-and-center on the Web site and make it possible to indicate which magazine article new members had read.

The team took the question, “How did you hear about us,” out of the post-registration survey and placed it on the first page of the sign-up form. Then, instead of making “magazine” one of the check boxes, they added an “other” option with a text box, asking users to be specific in their answer.

With this simple change, new members could not just type in “magazine,” but give a definitive answer, such as “Oprah’s magazine.” Now, Stafford’s team can see that around 30%-40% of new members join the service after reading about Booksfree in a magazine, and they know which articles, in particular, people are reading.

-> Strategy #3. Affiliate network

From the beginning, Booksfree began signing up affiliates to help market the service. As that network grew (it now numbers about 5,000), Stafford found that those sites could make better use of their own email lists and banner and text advertising than his team could.

“Our experience with email hasn’t driven enough subscribers to make it worth doing. But if affiliates want to do it because it’s a performance-based campaign, then great.”

Today, affiliates account for 30% of the site’s new subscribers, and while Stafford has turned to a couple of vendors to help manage the system, he still works closely with top affiliates, offering them better commission rates than the standard $10 per member and 5% of sales for ecommerce purchases, such as gift subscriptions, individual books and a la carte audiobook downloads. He also provides new creative when required for certain affiliate marketing efforts.

-> Strategy #4. Incentives prevent cancellations

Besides attracting new members, Stafford’s team also focuses on upselling existing subscribers or retaining those who want to cancel. Booksfree offers five membership plans, ranging from two books at a time to 12 books at a time, and understanding how members typically use the service has helped the team identify an upgrade offer for cancellation requests.

Books are shipped two at a time, so members who choose the lowest-priced plan will have some lag between when they return books they’ve read and when new titles arrive in their mailbox. Subscribers receiving four or more books at a time can stagger their shipments so new books arrive while older books are still en route back to Booksfree.

Knowing this, Stafford suspected that some users on the lowest level plan might be canceling because they’re not getting an uninterrupted supply of books. So, the team created an offer that lets subscribers canceling a two-books-at-a-time membership try a higher level free of charge for one month.

The offer was integrated into the online cancellation process, serving up a page with a diagram showing how the flow of staggered shipments helps keep members stocked with books. More than 20% of the would-be cancellations have accepted the free upgrade offer, and Stafford will track how many of those continue on as paying customers after their free month.

-> Strategy #5. Blog highlights new features and engages members

Because Booksfree limits its email communication with members to notices when new books are shipped or returns or received, Stafford’s team needed another way to highlight when new features are added to the site.

Last year, they added a company blog, which is now among the top 10 pages through which users enter the site. They’ve used the blog to highlight existing features that help users get the most out of their memberships, as well as introduce additions designed to enhance the service.

Some of those blog entries covered:
o Addition of member reviews
o Ability to search audiobooks by narrator
o New, personalized RSS feeds

Because the blog receives high traffic, Stafford can see the impact of a post that highlights new features that the team hopes will encourage members to stick around. For example, after posting a notice of the new user review feature, Stafford saw more than 20 reviews written within a few hours.

“We’re continuously upgrading the site and want to make our members aware of those features. That’s where the blog really helps us achieve that.”

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from Booksfree:

Commission Junction - one of the vendors that helps manage Booksfree's affiliate network:

Link Connector - also provides affiliate management services to


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