Writing a Christmas Package in July

18 May

The Nation sells thousands of holiday gift subscriptions with an eight-part gift subscription series running from July through December

At press time, America just experienced the transfer of power as President Barack Obama was sworn in. Yet back in July, when The Nation, a weekly liberal news magazine, dropped effort one of its eight-part holiday gift subscription series, it had no way of knowing which candidate would come out on top. “We actually wrote this back in June and July … so we were sort of dancing around the issue that we didn’t know who’s going to win the election,” says Art Stupar, vice president of circulation for The Nation.

All eight of the packages, sent from July to December, have a holiday look and feel to them. “We design the whole series in the summer and mail the first effort in the last week of July, if you can believe it, and of course, the first effort gets the best response as with most renewals. So here you have people ordering gift subscriptions at the end of July,” reveals Stupar.

Because it delivers high response, high pay and high revenue, Stupar says the holiday gift series is an important part of The Nation’s marketing strategy. The first mailing drops to an audience of more than 11,000 previous donors and garners about a 22 percent response rate; the eighth effort mails to about half the number of donors and gets between a 5 percent and 7 percent response rate. Year over year, the gift renewal rate is 60 percent, and the series generates about 17,000 subscriptions with a revenue of more than $340,000.

Package eight, dropped in late November and early December, just in time for the holiday rush, arrives in a 4˝ x 7½˝ outer with the copy, “Final Notice,” and “Do you have a better gift in mind than The Nation?” Inside is a short, one-page letter, lift note from the editor and publisher, reply form prepopulated with any previous gift subscription information, buckslip explaining the adopt-a-library program, and a BRE (Archive code #710-171640-0812).

This is a control package that has been updated to incorporate current events and winning copy and design tests over the years. Stupar says there were no tests rolled out against the letter this year, due to the fact that the package will need to be rewritten in 2009. “We’ll probably do a whole new group of testing coming up at the end of 2009,” he explains. He sees the offer, a first gift for $39.97 and each additional gift for $29.97, as an optimum price point that has been arrived at over years of testing. In addition to giving their friends and families the gift of The Nation, donors also can choose to purchase subscriptions for local libraries or schools.

The change to a Democratic Congress and president could pose a threat to readership, as the magazine actually doubled its circulation during the Bush years. “Back in 2000, we had 94,000 subscribers and I think we peaked around 188,000, so we literally doubled our circulation in part thanks to [Bush’s] brilliant work,” Stupar jokes. It’s anyone’s guess whether the liberal readership will continue to be as fired up during this new political era.

That’s part of the reason why Stupar plans to rewrite the copy, to better reflect the political climate. “By the time we write this [Obama will] already have been in office for six months or so. So we’ll test a lot about what’s going on relative to the political scene,” Stupar says. He also plans to do more extensive testing in 2009 to the offer and creative. “We have to review the entire series and see if there were any weak spots, and then see where we might want to test a new approach,” he comments.

While this package has a mail-only reply channel, The Nation does receive a few thousand gift subscriptions via the web. For every gift subscription donor with a disclosed e-mail address, it sends an e-mail promotion in addition to the direct mail series. Also, during a relaunch of its website in 2008, Stupar says a link to the gift subscriptions was moved to the upper right corner of the page to improve visibility, and since then he’s seen more and more gift orders pouring in through the web channel.

In the past, Stupar hasn’t had much success with placing an online call to action in a mailing. That’s mainly why this series features reply by mail only. “I think they’re just separate audiences. I think people that are sitting and opening the mail and reading a direct mail package are not necessarily sitting in front of their computer. You lose the impulse buy,” he describes.

Moving into the new year, Stupar is being conservative not only regarding the change in politics, but also the down economy. As a magazine that is very circulation-driven, Stupar believes it’d be an easy answer, but unwise choice, to simply cut circulation to immediately improve the bottom line. “We’re just being very conservative with our budgeting,” he says. “We’ re very aware of the downturn and it impacts us, but we’re not considering significant cutbacks right now,” he concludes.

  • Gift-Wrapped Promotion: The Nation’s holiday gift subscription package is sent mostly to previous donors. However, Art Stupar, VP of circulation, says he used to tack on some cold names from the regular subscriber file to each drop. “We would take one of these packages and adopt it for people who never donated before … but the expense of that just wasn’t paying out,” he says. So for the last two years, The Nation has sent its December issue out in four-color gift wrap to advertise the gift subscriptions. “That does very well for us. It gives a better message to subscribers if in early December they receive a magazine wrapped with a give-a-gift offer,” Stupar shares.

(Originally published in Inside Direct Mail, March 2009)

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