February 20, 2022

In one of the mastermind groups where I am a member, someone posted a question whether they should use (for their students for a charter membership offer), a free trial, a one-dollar offer, a short term/lower priced offer…or simply charge them full price. 

And the answers that came back from a group (who are some of the most dynamic online marketers in the world) were on point and what you would expect.

Most felt that offering any kind of free/$1 trial offer would be the best way to get a huge number of signups quickly…but they also warned (based on decades of experience marketing online) that offers like that on the front-end lead to more refunds, complaints, and lower lifetime value. 

Simply put, why market in a way to encourage tire kickers to either not be part of a long-term relationship with you…or worse, be more of a headache than an opportunity. 

When I wrote, “Beginning with the end in mind” (with a corollary of “marketing to cold traffic with the second order in mind”), I didn’t focus on whether the first order was a bill me later (“free”) or cash offer. 

But I was (and still am) aware that free offers with no commitment can be boon or bust. 

However, every rule of thumb in marketing has a counter rule of thumb…you know, “learning the rules (of thumb) like a pro enables you to break them like an artist” (nod to Pablo Picasso) …and this one is no exception. 

I chimed in to the email thread with my mastermind brothers and sisters with an example where a completely free up-front offer—actually encouraging the prospect with a line in boldface, large, red font saying, “DON’T SEND MONEY! —created millions of subscribers to what was at one time the largest paid circulation consumer newsletter in the world.   

I thought this week I would repeat this counter intuitive example to what mainly goes on today online—where free (or $1 offers and the like) are often doomed to failure before they get off the ground…and cash or credit card only up-front offers rule the day. 

This example may give you some ideas of a way to test a truly free offer as long as it has the guardrails of world class copy behind it combined with an offer that leads with content first. 

Once upon a time, back in the dark ages of the 1990’s, one of the greatest copywriters of all time, Gary Bencivenga, wrote a lucrative front-end promotion for Boardroom’s newsletter Bottom Line/Personal,  which we called “the survey package.” 

It was lucrative in terms of building circulation very quickly to the newsletter…but we eventually learned that it was circulation built on sand (i.e., short term gain and a long-term disaster). 

Before it was too late, we found the solution that turned a disaster into one of the most successful promotions we ever mailed when Gary created what we called a “bookalog.” 

The last time I shared this story, I titled it, “How you sell is how they respond” …with the alternate title, “The Survey Package vs. The Bookalog.” 

It also appears in my book Overdeliver…but just in case you missed it… 

The survey package was a fairly simple letter in a standard #10 envelope…with a gift certificate attached to the letter (which was also the order device, with that “DON’T SEND MONEY” warning) …and the letter began:

“I need your honest opinion…and I’m willing to reward you handsomely for it. That’s why I’ve enclosed the above Gift Certificate, which entitles you to two very valuable gifts in exchange for your opinion.” 

The goal was to have prospects send in the “survey” with the gift certificate for a free trial subscription to the newsletter. 

It was a generous offer (6 free issues was one of the gifts and a premium book was the other). 

And everything was sent, in the mail, printed with the postage paid, all before they had to pay anything…a true “try it before you like it” approach; but the way we got them to subscribe was, even in my high-integrity opinion, a “gimmick.” 

It was clear that we did not give enough information about the product to make an unaware audience wed themselves to Bottom Line/Personal, and it is an example of the kinds of free offers that will get more tire kicker subscribers than folks who would stick with us. 

It was incredibly successful on one significant metric…it had one of the highest front-end responses in our history without the use of a contest or sweepstakes (and by front end I mean trial subscribers, not taking into account who would eventually pay for the newsletter). 

As you might expect, since they came into the newsletter without a lot of “selling” or background on how great Bottom Line/Personal really is, the number of people who actually paid us the $29.95 subscription price after the 6 free issue trial period was significantly lower than previous packages. 

We had a great hook which led to an impulsive response–but the promotion did not reflect what the product was all about. 

Impulse gets people to respond…but it doesn’t necessarily get them to stick around. 

The bottom line (pun intended) was that the survey package net-net was still a huge success since it still added many new, paid subscribers. 

However, it bugged us that the pay up was so low and many of the trial subscribers were, for lack of a better term, “disappointed.” 

And we speculated that those who did pay may not be as loyal long term as well (i.e., when they came up for renewal for a second year). 

But at this point, that was only speculation. 

I really didn’t like the survey package…there was nothing illegal or immoral about it…but it always felt like a sneaky way to sell what I knew was the best consumer newsletter in America. 

If you’ve been a reader of this blog over the past number of years, you know that a rule of thumb to being a world class direct marketer (in my play book) is to believe that “the control is your enemy.” 

Or… that “the best package is the best package,” and until you beat it, it remains the incumbent (winner). 

For those of you who are new to that concept, your “control” is your best promotion at any point in time. 

In this example, figuring out how to test against the survey package (and beat it) was now the task at hand–despite its success on the metrics we used to call a winner—that is, overall net profit. 

Until the survey package got beat on the battlefield labelled as a “statistically significant test,” the survey package was our control…and our best friend. 

Lucky for me I was working with the best copywriter on the planet at the time. 

Gary Bencivenga authored the survey package and he was aware of the benefits and flaws…and he is the one who did the deepest thinking (and heavy lifting) to beat his own package. 

I talked about Gary and this concept of “beating your own control” in a previous blog post, of course titled, ‘The control is your enemy.” 

That one dates back to 2014…but the world hasn’t changed much regarding this concept. 

Gary wrote a masterpiece to test against the survey package: 

A 64 page “bookalog” (which resembles a digest magazine), which had the title, “The Little Black Book of Secrets.” 

The two pieces on the left are the outer envelope and the “survey” …the image on the right is the cover of the bookalog…and you’ll have to trust me that it is 64 pages: 

The bookalog had sizzle AND steak…longer form direct mail…which was trending at the time…a precursor to the various forms of “content marketing” we see online today. 

And the offer? 

It was the same as the survey package…free issues (3 or 6) with no cash required or accepted. 

And different too, without the gimmick of the survey, and no impulsive gift certificate order device featured anywhere in those 64 pages. 

What were the front-end results of the bookalog against the survey package? 

The bookalog response was MUCH lower…it produced approximately half the number of new, trial subscribers. 

But what about the back end results? 

The percentage of people who PAID for the newsletter after taking a trial subscription from the bookalog was close to double for the survey package…and most paid even before they got all of their 6 free issues…which gave us further insight into their long term, lifetime value. 

The bookalog ended up with less quantity initially but more quality in the long run…and that quality led to much higher profits when we analyzed the subscribers who came in from the bookalog long after the first sale. 

Tracking the paid subscribers who came in initially from the bookalog into their second year (renewal– or what we called “conversions” in the old days) was the key number to track. 

They were engaged in such a way from the initial promotion that their expectations were met before they even completed year one–and then the renewals sold themselves. 

The lifetime value (LTV) of subscribers who came in from the bookalog over those who originally came in from the survey package was a game changer. 

And it went beyond just the higher renewal rate, blowing away all of the positives of the survey package on other levels: 

  • After the bookalog became the new control, it inspired us to aggressively test (and perfect) new, long copy formats and packages for decades.
  • We sold many different kinds of books to our subscriber list and the response rate to all of our book offers (also using longer promotion copy, such as bookalogs and magalogs) was significantly higher to the subscribers who came in from the bookalog over the survey package.
  • When we rented our lists to the outside world (which would be equivalent to folks using their list for revenue share/affiliate offers online today), outside mailers saw higher response rates when THEY mailed names derived from the bookalog.

Quality over quantity in terms of the new customers we added to our family…with multiple waves of profits…and a new way to market our products.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

Creative and copy dictates so much in your marketing…whether it’s a free offer or a paid offer…and this story is a reminder to read your numbers carefully front end and back end, look for the hidden opportunities…and then act on the opportunities that present themselves.

Free is not always the devil. I admit it can be, especially online, when you are selling digital products with copy that is less than compelling and complete.

And that doesn’t mean that “credit card only” has to be the only way to sell either.

That’s why we test…and always test with the list, the offer and your creative working in tandem, like a well-oiled three-legged stool.

To summarize:

  1. Don’t underestimate (or overestimate) the power of “how you promote” to what kind of customers you attract.
  2. Look at the customers you repel as additive to your business (perhaps).
  3. Make sure you can calculate the lifetime value (LTV) of every new customer based on the promotion they came in on…at least to the second sale…because the initial sale doesn’t tell the full story.
  4. LTV, not the first sale, is the most important metric when deciding on your most profitable acquisition vehicle.
  5. If you think these concepts are only true for direct mail, think again.



P.S. Those of you who know my story about how I pissed off all of the females in direct response marketing at the “Titans of Direct Response” event in 2014, also know I didn’t deserve their wrath 🙂

And you would  know how much I admire A-list copywriter Marcella Allison for creating The Mentoress Collective which was created out of the Titans event.

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About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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