Four years ago, Fred Langa, Former Editorial Director of CMP's Windows Magazine, left the corporate world to try his luck at self-publishing an email newsletter, LangaList.
In its first three years, LangaList's free, opt-in circulation climbed to almost 150,000 readers, and advertisers were happy to pay Langa to reach these eyeballs. Then the economy took a dive so like many other online publishers, Langa tested launching a paid subscription product, LangaList Plus!, in January 2001 to take up the slack.
The move (as chronicled in our initial Case Study published March 2001 -- see link below) was immediately successful. Within weeks 10,000 free edition readers (about 8% of total readers) converted to paying $10 for a year's subscription. This figure ultimately nearly doubled to 15% of his readership paying.
By December 2002, Langa had another hurdle in front of him; his first group of paying subscribers was coming up for renewal.
This was particularly concerning because unlike some online publishers, Langa had firmly decided against an auto-renew offer at the time of initial subscription.
Langa explains, "I don't think it's a popular option. I literally only had one subscriber request automatic rebilling. It's a fairly common technique for sex sites - once they have you it's hard to have them let go of you. By not doing it, it's my way of reassuring readers that I'm not trying to gouge them. They have to explicitly sign up again at the end of their year."CAMPAIGN
Langa wrote a series of four letters to be emailed to expiring subscribers during the four weeks prior to their expiration. Each was text-only, and printed out to about a page and a half long, including SIG. (See the link at end to actual samples of all four letters.)
-> Letter #1 "Time to RENEW your LangaList Plus! subscription!"
Sent four weeks prior to expiration, this letter starts with an opening guaranteed to win cut-to-the-chase type's hearts:
(Want to skip ahead straight to the renewal pages? Click here!)
Next the letter gives a bulleted list of the features that subscribers received over the past year, such as "almost 100 LangaList Plus! Edition issues comprising over 325,000 words!"
Other bulleted features include a private Web site, downloadable archives, 18 special issues, free downloads, no ads whatsoever, earlier delivery of newsletters than the free version, the ability to choose between HTML, text and digest versions, and the fact that LangaList contributes a portion of profits to help kids in need. As recipients scroll through this list of features, they can not help but feel impressed by length if nothing else.
Each named item includes a link to specific details about that feature on the Plus! site's renewal landing page online (see link below).
Then at the end of the letter, Langa reminds readers that he can take their payment via almost any system (major credit cards, Paypal, mail) and that by keeping "costs to a minimum with the most efficient infrastructure" he is now only charging 11 cents per issue or $11 per year.
Then the letter ends with another call to action and hotlink, and Langa's SIG (text-email signature).
-> Letter #2 Sent 3 Weeks Prior to Expiration
This letter bears a similar subject line to the first one, except the word "renew" is not in all caps, because caps might grow obnoxious upon repetition in your in-box.
The letter's body copy is also almost 100% the same, except the very top cut-to-the-chase line has been replaced by a polite note saying, "Hello! If you've already resubscribed, please ignore this note. But if you have NOT yet resubscribed, time is running out!"
-> Letter #3 Sent 2 Weeks Prior to Expiration
Again, an almost identical note. (Remember brand experts say it takes many, many repetitions before people remember your copy points. Just because you are bored as a copywriter writing the exact same verbiage over and over again, does not mean something "fresh" would do nearly as well as repetition.)
This time the opening statement is a titch longer, dwelling for a quick moment on the fact that after "this month" your subscription will "shut down" and you will not get a special $1 discount.
-> Letter #4 Sent During Expiration Week
This time the subject line reads, "Final chance to renew your LangaList Plus! subscription!"
The opening notes, "time has run out! This is your final chance to resubscribe at the special REDUCED RATE." Then, after a quick hotlink to the renewal form, Langa again enumerates the bulleted list of subscriber-only features unchanged since the very first letter.
All four letters link to the same landing page at Langa's site (see link below). It follows the pattern of letters by offering a quick link to the renewal order form at the very top "Please click here to skip ahead of the actual renewal process," and then lovingly listing subscription benefits point-by-point below.
Langa told us why he writes such long features copy, "I'm trying to give people as many reasons as I can for why they should want to send money, without going into hyperbole. The features have to be real. If they are, then you've got an easy sale, if they aren't, then you're probably in the wrong business."
One clever difference between the landing page and the letters is the addition of a "no thanks" link. Anyone who clicks on this (and we would bet a bunch of folks do just for curiosity's sake) are told, "OK, thanks anyway; I appreciate that you at least consider renewing!" Then they are invited to join the free edition opt-in list. (But we would bet that many click on their back buttons and end up paying.)
Langa says he tries to match writing styles for his renewal letters and the site to the personal tone in newsletter issues. In fact the renewal landing page features a photo of him front and center so readers can 'meet' the guy behind the newsletter they are subscribing to.
"It's been phenomenal" says Langa. He got a 50% paid positive response to his very first letter sent. Total renewals for January 2002 were 83%, February was 77% and March 2002 hit about 80%. (Note: In the print newsletter world this would be considered a very high response for B-to-B and almost unbelievable for B2C. Langa's publication straddles both camps.)
It is worth noting that while good marketing can help renewals slightly, the real factor behind a high renewal rate is quality editorial.
More specific results:
- The ability to accept Paypal payments has proven nice-to-have but not mission critical. Since early 2001 the amount of orders using Paypal has held steady around 8-9%.
- Just 1% of orders come through fax or mail. But Langa insists the option is important just to reassure people. (Note: We suspect that lists with a stronger female demographic might show a larger preference for paying via check, just as they often do in the direct mail world.)
- The "ISP shakeout" has been the biggest inhibitor of Langa's business over the past year. He says, "When Excite @home went under I lost hundreds and hundreds of readers over a very short period of time."
Luckily his content is good enough that readers notice the lack of it. "Fortunately, when people missed issues they came to me trying to figure out what happened to their subscriptions. During the midst of the @home debacle I built an online system where paids could log in and still see the site with their old paid address even if it was no longer valid. I gave them tools to let them switch subscription addresses, I try to put as much back on the readers, giving them tools rather than me doing it manually."
- Out of his currently almost 20,000 paid subscriptions, Langa receives about "150 or so" emails per issue. He has got them set on an autoresponder so they get a quick returned note telling them not to expect a personal note until just before the next issue.
Then the day before his twice-weekly issues, Langa pours through these emails and whips off personal responses. Luckily the vast majority are questions that can be answered with a form letter on a FAQ topic. Langa says, "For every 50 that require personalized boilerplate, maybe five actually require that I do something more."
- LangaList Plus! subscribers have learned a lesson over the past year about email formats. As noted above, they can take (or change) their choice between HTML, text-only and a text summary version with links to full stories.
Interestingly the vast majority have found they prefer an HTML version (bear in mind LangaList editorial is generally more than a dozen hotlinked news items). The second most popular version is text-only.
However, the version that gets the most changes (both into and out of) is the summaries version. This shows that readers think summaries will be more useful than the longer version, and then learn they are not.
Sample letters from Langa's four-step email renewal campaign:
Langa's Web site landing page where readers click to renew:
MarketingSherpa's Case Study from March 2001 on how Langa switched his 100% free service to a partially paid model: