Sell Your Newsletter — by Giving It Away

Among the several subscription marketing methods used regularly by newsletter publishers and some magazines – is the “forced free trial” or FFT. However, the FFT is a rather specialized tool and should be used with caution, both because of the costs involved and the response dynamics inherent in newsletter marketing generally.

As the name implies, prospects are sent a free subscription to your newsletter, completely absent any request on their part – hence “forced.” The term of the subscription can range from three issues for a monthly or bi-monthly to as many as six for a daily or weekly publication.

FFT Drivers

The forced free trial is a hybrid of several newsletter subscription methods tried  by publishers over the years, especially the ever-popular free trial issue, not to be confused with first issue free, which is probably the most widely used offer in subscription marketing today.

Whenever or wherever you find two or three newsletter publishers gathered, such as at the annual conference of the Newsletter and Electronic Publishers Association (NEPA), you will inevitably encounter the running discussion of which is more effective, sending a sample issue with a cover letter or a straight direct mail package with an offer. The answer of course, is always the same: test them! And most do, despite the fact that some newsletter publishers would rather eat broken glass than send out a “junk mail” package. (That, in fact, many be another driver in the decision to use FFT’s, but never mind.)

Even with a powerful sales letter, some specialized newsletters are too complicated to be effectively communicated in a sales letter and are best understood by reading them.

In other cases, when a newsletter price point reaches the $1000 neighborhood, it simply takes more than a well-crafted letter to push the prospect over the fence.  It may also be too costly for a prospect to purchase on his or her own hook, and may require a group decision, best facilitated by 2-3 sample issues.

Costs and Response Rates

Also, you will be sending at least 3 issues, mailing them as flats in 9 x 12 outers, plus “continuation” notices either 6 x 9  or #10 with all the costs these mailings entail. Clearly, it’s not a place for large lists and databases, but rather for the more limited, specialized lists that newsletters most often mail to.

Remember, newsletters, especially in the $1000 price range, usually live in 1% response territory. Indeed, many such newsletter publishers would give their eye teeth for a 1% response, so you won’t be selling a lot of newsletters with this method.

As this is written, in fact, newsletter subscriptions are down, generally. Some publishers will tell you their FFTs are OTL.  Others are still getting sufficient response to continue testing them, while still others are finding signs of life in traditional direct mail packages. A year from now, it could all turn around again.

An FFT Schedule

So you can see where this is going, the following is a typical FFT schedule, built around a 3-issue promotion. Models can vary in number of issues, timing, use of email, mix of print and electronic issues and more. Another client who publishes $2000 newsletters for investment professionals, for example, sends four free issues and eleven “conversion” or sales letters mailed separately – all at a special savings price point. Yet another combines regular print issues of their newsletter with electronic or PDF issues, uses email more heavily. This is one model I work with.

Email #1: Heads-up message prior to 1st mailing. Let the prospect know he/she has been selected to receive a Free Sample issue of Widget World  and to watch for it in the mail.
(Best not to mention the free trial subscription at this point.)
< 1 week >
Mailing #1: Issue mails flat, 9×12 outer, teaser: Free Sample Issue Enclosed
Personalized letter is best, with address block showing through window.) Includes 2-page or 4-page letter*, and fax-back order form.
<30 days>
Mailing #2: 30 days later, 2nd  free sample issue only. Could include a brief note.
(2 weeks>
Mailing #3: Continuation Notice#1 only*. No issue, no letter.
<2 weeks>
Mailing #4: 3rd free sample issue w/ Continuation Notice #2, no letter
<30 days>
Mailing #5: “Sorry you missed this issue” employs the front page from the issue
they would have received had they subscribed by this point. Copy on back
w/ Continuation Notice #3, no letter.*
< 2 weeks>
Mailing #6: Continuation Notice #4. No issue, no letter.
<2 weeks>
Mailing #7: Continuation Notice #5. No issue, no letter.
< 2 weeks >
Email #2: Followup email asks “why” they haven’t subscribed, includes
brief survey questions, offers final subscription opportunity via email or web site landing page.

*We’ll revisit these points below.

The Landing Page

You’ll want to include a web site address as a payment option, along with mail-back/fax-back order form, telephone and email, especially if you have a substantial international market.

The web option is actually a “landing page” on your web site with its own unique url provided in the mailing. In addition to providing a payment option, it affords another opportunity to sell your newsletter and promote the 3-issue “Free Trial Subscription.” It briefly describes – and clarifies – the offer and provides benefit highlights of the newsletter.

I start my page with “Thank you for your interest in Widget World. We hope you enjoy the three FREE sample issues you receive.” I then go on to make benefit points about the newsletter and clearly describe the offer. That’s important, because this is an unusual offer, and a bit complicated for most people. They must understand that they’re getting 3 issues only and then they must subscribe in order to continue receiving issues. This offer can be further complicated with electronic newsletters, because so many are available free on the web and through email.

*Creative Considerations

There are a number of creative elements you’ll want to consider in planning your FFT.

The forced free trial begins life as a Free sample issue mailing, but unlike the first issue free offer, the FFT entails no further obligation or subscription commitment expressed or implied. You can provide a mail-back/fax-back order form with the first newsletter, but you want to sell the 3-issue “Free Trial Subscription” so prospects will give your publication a fair reading. If you could sell it with one issue, you would have.

You can help get your package past the mailroom police with a teaser indicating “Free Sample Issue Enclosed.”  It’s also helpful for that teaser to work in concert with a large, clear corner card featuring the newsletter title. Subsequent teasers can be “2nd FREE Issue enclosed” and “Last Issue Enclosed.”

I headline the 3 issues FREE at the top of the letter, introduce the sample issue with references to 2 or 3 articles in the issue and sell the benefits of the newsletter. While you can test a 2-page letter vs. a 4-page, I usually recommend a 2-page (single sheet front and back) since I’m also including a 16-page newsletter and I want them to get to it.

In the offer section, I make a transition: “…and because no one issue can fully communicate the value of a full year subscription, I have arranged for you receive two more issues, FREE and without obligation of any kind.”

We use a “continuation notice” in place of a “renewal” because, technically, the prospect has not yet subscribed, despite our use of the term Free Trial Subscription. Prospects can get touchy about such assumptions.

Also, you can usually put a benefit/call to action blurb on the continuation notice for added push. In any case, make sure it doesn’t look like an invoice or bill, and include words to that effect: “This is not an invoice, you are not required to pay.”

Editorial Considerations

Certainly, you want to put your best face forward, especially when big promotion bucks are at stake, so it’s a good idea to alert your editor to your FFT plans. Tell him or her which issues will be involved in the mailings – and give him plenty of advance notice so he can rev up those issues and make them as good as they can be.

Be sure those issues include all the most popular features and topics.

But Wait, There’s More!

As I mentioned above, one major financial newsletter publisher sends four issues and mails a series of eleven “conversion” or sales letters separately. The first four are concurrent with the mailing of the issues. Price point is around $2000 with a heavy introductory discount during the FFT.

Some publishers employ a telemarketing effort either toward the end of the trial subscription period, or at the beginning to qualify prospects for the offer. Some publishers find that they can sell ancillary products like a conference with inserts in the FTT packages.

Another technique is to obtain a request for 3 free issues so the prospect is somewhat self-qualified, or position the offer as a request for the newsletter with the first 3 issues free. In that case, you can flat out bill ‘em, Danno!

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George Duncan is a national award-winning direct mail copywriter and consultant specializing in business-to-business marketing. Author of Streetwise Direct Marketing (Adams Media) and winner of the 2001 Newsletter on Newsletters Gold Award, he can be reached at 603-924-3121, or through his Web site at

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