Phillip Smith

A new approach to lapsed subscriber campaigns

(UPDATE: Just a quick clarification that the example below was sent to expired subscribers. So these folks had already received -- and not responded to -- a renewal series. That's why I put the response in the 1 - 3% range, vs. what one might expect as part of an actual renewal series.)

Print-based magazines are constantly managing subscriber churn. Every year one group of people lets their subscription lapse, while others either renew or subscribe for the first time. Similar to almost any type of revenue-generating enterprise, the magic is keeping attrition rates low and managing the cost of acquiring new customers or keeping existing ones. E-mail marketing is one way to approach a lapsed campaign at a lower cost than a typical direct mail.

A screenshot from our example lapsed campaign

For example:

  • If your publication decided to send a simple direct mail package to 2000 lapsed subscribers, you could easily invest $1000 or more on the printing, lettershop services, and postage costs.
  • If that campaign delivered what I understand to be the industry average of 1%, you'd be lucky to get 20 returning subscribers.
  • In this scenario, each returning subscriber came at a cost of $50.

To me, that seems like a pretty high price to pay. Though the lifetime value of that customer may work in your publication's favour in the long run, it would certainly be nice to be able to invest less in encouraging that subscriber to come back.

Now, let's say that your direct mail outperforms the 1% rule and gets up to 2% or 3%, reducing the cost per returned subscriber to just $25 or $16. Well now we're talking, right? Wrong: what if you could achieve the same results for $25? Not $25 per returned subscriber -- but just $25 for the whole campaign! Interested? Keep reading...

So, the key ingredients in our example e-mail-based lapsed-subscriber campaign are:

  • A really simple HTML e-mail: just a nice, easy-to-read font, some careful underlining / highlighting, and only two links in the message. (Basically, following the form of a typical direct mail, or e-mail campaign.)
  • Link #1: The "subscribe now for just $36" link.
  • Link #2: If you can't subscribe now, please forward this offer to a friend.
  • A lapsed subscriber list (in this example, we just needed their e-mail address, as we didn't personalize the message).
  • A secure special offer Web page that subscribers visit to fill in their info.

With e-mail marketing, the results typically come in quickly -- days, not weeks -- so the trend was obvious immediately. However, after just one week, this is how our lapsed subscriber e-mail campaign did:

Another screenshot from our example lapsed campaign

  • 1,801 recipients
  • 385 people opened the e-mail (31% of of all recipients)
  • 89 people clicked one of the two links (23% of those who opened the message)
  • 10 of the recipients have unsubscribed
  • 557 emails bounced back (that's 30.93% of all recipients)
  • 14 forwards (where subscribers forwarded the e-mail to another person)

And -- last but not least -- 23 subscriptions. That's a decent 1.2% response rate on the campaign, with a total campaign cost of just $25. At just $1.09 per subscriber, we could even do a follow-up!

Do you have results from a similar campaign that you're able to share? If so, post 'em in the comments below.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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