January 17, 2008
Case Study

6 Subscription Strategies to Increase Renewal Rates

SUMMARY: Subscription marketers often face a double challenge: convincing customers, who may not be the end users, to sign up for products, and then convincing the end users to use the publications so customers renew.

An educational marketer transformed their subscriber newsletters into publications that became teaching tools as well as product promotions. The change is working. Renewal rates, opt-ins, clickthroughs and Web traffic have increased as much as 40%.

Tim McLain, Marketing Manager, ProQuest, was finding plenty of customers for the company’s online research and education databases for K-12 educators. What he really wanted was to convince librarians and teachers to use the subscriptions purchased for them so renewal rates would increase.

To encourage use of those resources, McLain and his team developed email newsletters that focused on product features, updates and other support services. But the strategy was missing the mark.

“Our list was growing nicely, but we kept hearing from customers, ‘Product updates are all well and good, but I’m a middle school teacher who teaches Social Studies. Can you give me lesson plans so I can use [these tools] with my kids?’ ”

McLain’s team realized they needed a different newsletter strategy: one that would persuade librarians and teachers to actually use their products in their classrooms and libraries to encourage subscription renewals.

The ProQuest team undertook a complete overhaul of the newsletters that went to subscribers of their K-12 services by creating new titles, a new design template and new content. The goal: to demonstrate hands-on applications for their research products.

Here are the strategies they used to turn product-support messages into curriculum tools.

-> Strategy #1. Add lesson plans and activity guides

Product updates and user tips weren’t abandoned. Instead, new content -- classroom and library activities and lesson plans -- was added. Activities were designed to encourage users to explore the resources available in the products.

The change required McLain’s team to add curriculum expertise. A former school curriculum developer was hired to create lesson plans. He joined content producers on staff who were used to writing for teachers and librarians as part of the K-12 division, which was started as a separate company to cater to teachers, students and parents.

For each newsletter, the curriculum developer created content that often was inspired by news or cultural events, such as:
o An exercise in financial literacy, sparked by the credit crisis
o An exploration of similarities between the Vietnam War and the War in Iraq, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the Tet Offensive
o Mini-research reports on Native American culture to coincide with American Indian Heritage Month

Each activity featured an overview of the task and step-by-step directions.

-> Strategy #2. Redesign the newsletters

ProQuest’s newsletters had been text heavy, with users required to scroll down a page repeatedly to read an entire issue. Concerned that the layout prevented subscribers from seeing all the content available, McLain’s designer, Bethany Leiter, created a new design template with some key features to make it more reader-friendly and encourage clicks to the company’s website.

- Two to three sentence summaries replaced complete text of articles.
- Hotlinks took readers back to the K-12 product homepage to read the entire article.
- Icons to signify each type of newsletter article were added, such as:
o Computer screen for product updates
o Stack of books for lessons and activities
o Old movie projector for multimedia features
o Hand for hands-on tips and tricks

“Now, the emails are literally a page to a page and half long. You only have to touch the scroll wheel once,” McLain says.

-> Strategy #3. Create user-focused titles

Each product in the research line had its own newsletter, with many clients subscribing to more than one product. McLain received feedback from some users who complained that they didn’t want to receive several different newsletters to get teaching tips.

The team created newsletters that skipped product updates and, instead, focused on curriculum advice for specific audiences. New titles included:
o Teachable Moments, which highlighted several teaching ideas and activities in each issue
o History Happenings, which focused on teaching activities for Social Studies teachers
o State-specific newsletters for four of the company’s largest market areas -- Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia and Utah; each provided lessons and activities aligned with state teaching standards.

-> Strategy #4. Use multiple channels to increase opt ins

The team promoted the newsletters in multiple channels to reach subscribers:

- Direct sales force. The company employs a large sales force that regularly calls on different schools. They educate librarians, curriculum coordinators and teachers about the K-12 newsletters and online resources available.

- New member signups. The team included offers of newsletter opt-ins as part of the regular welcome/sign-up emails that new users received when they first logged in to receive their username and password to access the databases.

- A new K-12 homepage. Team members revamped their K-12 product homepage to provide additional resources for teachers and librarians; newsletters also were promoted in several sign-up sections:
o On the K-12 homepage
o On special sections for teachers and librarians
o In new “marketing kits” designed to help teachers and librarians engage students, teachers and parents with the online tools.

The team also focused on keeping the subscriber list clean. Once a year, they performed list-cleansing exercises that eliminated bounces and touched base with users who had stopped opening emails. They asked them whether they wanted to change their preferences or unsubscribe.

-> Strategy #5. Modify publishing schedule

When McLain’s team first created product newsletters, they were sent every month. They noticed that open rates were declining. “We were oversaturated.”

When they redesigned the newsletters, they adopted a new publishing schedule:

- Instead of sending each newsletter monthly, they sent four to six issues of each one during the school year. Issues were staggered so they were sent roughly every other month. “It’s a very interesting thing to play in this market. Teachers, librarians and schools are a very different market. They prefer not to be contacted as often.”

-> Strategy #6. Change subject line policy

McLain also changed their subject line policy to focus on the content.

Subject lines no longer focused on the product name, such as eLibrary Newsletter or ProQuest Platinum Newsletter. They were written to highlight what McLain’s team thought was the most exciting content in each issue, such as “Sinners and Saints at History Happenings.”
The impact of the changes has been better than expected. “Traffic is great; clickthrough rates are great,” McLain says. “I feel like we’re in a really great spot right now.”

Product newsletter lists are growing 10%-12% year over year. But the new, lesson-plan focused titles are growing even faster.
- The opt-in list for History Happenings, which is only a few months old, is now nearly 60% as big as the lists for the product newsletters.
- Open rates average 26%-48%.
- Users make three to seven clicks per newsletter.

The K-12 products website is seeing tons of traffic -- an average of 18 million page views a month, with 250,000 unique visitors. That traffic has grown by 400,000 page views a month -- a 40% increase compared to traffic growth in the same period last year.
- Users spend nine to 11 minutes on the site.
- Users view an average of four pages.

Subscription renewals -- already in the high 90% range, have increased, although McLain couldn’t disclose specific numbers.

“In general, we see that people are amazed these newsletters exist. It helps supercharge usage in key accounts.”

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from ProQuest:

ProQuest K-12 division:


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