Testing Keeps Direct Mail Running as Circulation Workhorse

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NEW YORK -- For all the talk and investment in online marketing, direct mail remains the workhorse that pulls in most new subscriptions.


That sentiment was expressed this month by a top circulator at American Express Publishing. She was a panelist at the 20th Annual Direct Marketing Association Circulation Day on Feb. 6-7 in New York.


"I really believe direct mail is not dead," said Michele Murphy, senior marketing manager at American Express Publishing Corp., New York.


The average consumer got 3.1 pieces of mail daily in 1971, less than half the 8 pieces expected this year, she said. This year's figure breaks down into four bills, 3.6 promotions/solicitations, 0.3 catalogs/magazines and 0.1 letters. This spurt comes despite the growth of cable television and the Internet.


American Express Publishing's mail volume rose 26 percent in 2005 and is to climb another 10 percent in 2006. The company, which publishes the Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine and SkyGuide magazines, expects a 37 percent increase in net subs through its mail efforts this year, Murphy said.


However, though direct mail is not dead, it is harder to get consumers' attention, she said. Publishers should mail smarter, testing price, package and offer frequently. American Express Publishing tests different price points, going from two issues to two-year terms. The company also tests annual and three-year offers.


Which price points resonated with its audience? Murphy said $19.95 and $19.97 were well received. Not so $19.49. She saw a 10 percent lift in $19.99 versus $19.95. A test for $12 was OK, too.


"What may be small to you is catching your consumer's eye," she said.


Of course, circulators should weigh traditional hard offers versus soft. They should consider price expression. Also, installment payments work better with higher-priced subscriptions, as Murphy learned during a previous stint at Soap Opera Digest.


Another tip she offered involved shipping and handling. Separate that expense, like many publishers do, from the cost of the subscription. Then there are premiums: Choose only those that have an affinity with the magazine. Food & Wine offers cookbooks and mustards.


On the creative side, circulators should tweak the mail piece's color to keep the package fresh. The message also should stress auto renewals as an option, with the incentive of a bonus issue.


Murphy said segmentation of the offer by list is crucial these days. Circulators can tweak the control package and welcome back lapsed subscribers, reminding them why they subscribed in the first place. The older expired names need more discounts than the newer lapsed ones who still remember the magazine.


American Express Publishing takes segmentation seriously. For instance, mail sent to the American Express blue card group receives a pitch in a language and with an offer appropriate to that group.


Travel + Leisure, like many publishers, offers a unique package and offer for professionals. This option works for business magazines.


Other things to consider: Look at the top-tiered names and test against them, including how many times they can be mailed to; check whether active names work just as well as hotlines; and circulators should check change of address and expireds.


Finally, Murphy recommended cleaning the subscription lists and visiting the magazine's fulfillment house.


"Really sit down and communicate with your merge/purge house," she said.


Mickey Alam Khan covers Internet marketing campaigns and e-commerce, agency news as well as circulation for DM News and DMNews.com. To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters


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