Company: Weekly Reader
Contact: Tom Fischetti, Circulation Analyst, Weekly Reader; Jay Bower, President, Crossbow Group
Location: Stamford, CT
Industry: Publishing, B2C
Annual revenue: Confidential
Number of employees: 1000

Quick Read:

Weekly Reader, a Stamford, CT- based publisher of materials for elementary and secondary schools, wanted to improve direct mail renewal rates, which had been trending downward.

In the spring of 2005, the company wanted to redesign its renewal direct mail campaign in order to curb the downward trend and hoped to increase the response rate and orders for the fall 2005 school year.

Weekly Reader turned to a local marketing and communications agency, which suggested that changes in copywriting approach and the mailer packaging itself might well do the trick. And—voila!—they did.

The Challenge:

Weekly Reader, which has been publishing educational materials for more than a century (it was founded in 1902), is the leading classroom-periodical publisher, with seven grade-specific editions and serving more than 7 million elementary schoolchildren in 50,000 schools.

The company, which was acquired by Readers Digest in 2007, also publishes branded periodicals and instructional materials, including Career World, Know Your World, and Current Health.

For several years its renewal rates had been declining, and with its spring 2005 campaign the company wanted to re-energize renewals for the fall 2005 school year.

Previous campaigns' renewal response rates were down to 2.45%, a level closer to acquisition rather than renewal rates, which should have been higher—somewhere between 5% and 35%.

Weekly Reader turned to CT-based Crossbow Group, a marketing and communication agency, to help halt the response-rate decline and boost renewals.

The Campaign:

The Package

After studying Weekly Reader's direct marketing material from past campaigns, Crossbow Group suggested that it move from self-mailers—self-contained direct mail pieces, such as postcards, that don't require envelopes or wrappings—to #10 packages (4-1/8" x 9-1/2" envelopes).

Jay Bower, president of Crossbow Group, thought that Weekly Reader would achieve a higher renewal response rate if it were willing to spend the additional money for #10 packages.

"Promotional postcards and self-mailers allow subscribers to make a split-second decision about whether to use and process the piece as they get to it while sorting a large stack of mail. A #10, on the other hand, requires the reader to invest more than a split second in opening the package and processing an official-looking message from a source they know and trust," Bower noted.

Crossbow Group helped Weekly Reader design the #10 package, which cost $89 more per 1,000 than the self-mailer.

The #10 package contained a lasered letter with tear-off order form and a #9 business reply envelope. The control piece was a 6-panel self-mailer.

The Creative

The design and copy of the DM piece were revamped to address subscribers' needs. Looking back at what Weekly Reader and Crossbow Group considered when putting together the creative targeting the current subscriber base, Bower provided three insights:

  • Don't sell or promote a renewal to current subscribers. They've already been sold on the publication, so it's key to remove highly graphical design and heavy-handed promotional copy from renewal communications, or they will be evaluated and processed as a sales pitch and not as a friendly reminder of an upcoming transaction.
  • Always, with current subscribers, assume the sale—don't ask for it.
  • Make the communication as official and invoice-like as possible. It should be something they simply put in their bill-pay file.

The Results:

The renewal response from the #10 package was 52% higher than previous mailings', according to Tom Fischetti, circulation analyst at Weekly Reader. Some 3,159 net orders were generated from 84,944 #10 pieces mailed.

"I believe that the similarities between the #10 package and a regular bill largely contributed to its success," Fischetti said.

Bower noted that Weekly Reader took a chance in spending the additional $89 per 1,000 pieces—at a time when it could not afford to fail. The folks at Weekly Reader had to take a leap of direct-mail faith and hope the redesign would be successful, he said.

Weekly Reader plans to continue to use a #10 package in upcoming renewal campaigns.

Lessons Learned:

In the absence of a very strong offer, and when targeting a very niche audience, companies should avoid using postcards and self-mailers. "They are less expensive, but they almost never perform (on a net basis) as well as enveloped mail," Bower said.

He also suggests two approaches when trying to boost renewal response rates:

  • If you're renewing the same offer, make your communication a simple transaction, not a sales pitch.
  • Customer communication should be straightforward, short, respectful, and readable in one to two minutes.

Finally, encourage customers to renew by assuming that they will, and compose copy accordingly.

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