Why UK website publishers can't sell

Let's face it: UK website publishers cannot sell. That is why there are so many free sites — it has all been some kind of controlled free magazine experiment that is now coming to an end. No-one's been selling.

Our business strengths lie more in ideas, design and words. Walk into any UK publisher's marketing department - where the profitability of any business should be determined - and you will find most personnel preoccupied with procedures and administration. All the action is in editorial.

The media sales people – the people that really talk in the cash – are stuck elsewhere negotiating space deals that reduce in value with each passing year.

Subscriptions Strategy’s regular talks with UK marketers find the focus is on admin. Outsourcing sales, production, fulfillment and other functions take constant monitoring and measuring. Look at some top UK websites and ask: what are they selling? Where are the product sales? Who’s running the store? No-one.

UK brands are trapped behind an Iron Curtain

Renowned brands such as Top Gear just don’t push product. Why is that? It’s a vibrant market: the UK sells a greater variety of cars than almost any other country. As I write this, a look at the Top Gear website reveals the top promotion is for ‘Visit Liverpool.com’ and GiffGaff, the mobile phone company. The only Top Gear product on display is ‘Save up to 40% on a Top Gear Magazine Subscription’.

The New Scientist website, in another vibrant UK market, has an ad for Norwegian Oil. Alongside it is a promotion that reads ‘New Scientist Best Offer Subscribe’.

Is that the best sales effort UK publishers can muster?

One wonders why Top Gear and New Scientist couldn’t find a professional copywriter to write those lines – because home page space is the highest profile spot on a website and almost anything would work better than those weak efforts.

Why are UK website owners so poor at sales? We are renowned as retailers and market traders – famous entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson and Alan Sugar prospered by flogging records and electronic goods. So why haven’t UK websites followed in that excellent sales tradition?

UK retail may thrive at the leading edge of capitalism, but our websites remain trapped behind a communist-era Iron Curtain:

When you happen to find the shop they have only one item in stock.

High product sales and renewals = high lifetime values. A profitable subscription website depends on repeat business, multiple product offerings and fast turnover. To have just one product in your shop makes no sense. Neither does it make sense to rely on subscription sales from outside agencies as most of our publishers now do. You abandon your company’s profitability, as most out-sourced subscription orders lapse at first renewal.

Any website must have a product launch and renewals programme as an integral part of the business plan, with regular creative input. The objective is to create recurring, long term revenue and prevent people from expiring. Otherwise why bother selling anything?

Nine vital ingredients to business growth

To achieve long term cash benefits the whole of your sales and marketing sequence must be defined:

• The products, upgrades and up-sells offered
• The benefits the subscriber receives for showing loyalty
• How the concept is reinforced following the initial sale
• New products introduced at least six times a year
• Price testing four times a year to lift revenue
• Premiums and incentives offered
• Payment methods
• Fulfilment and renewal series
• Strong sales copy sent out at least once a week

For the programme to function at full throttle effective, regular sales messages are a must. Unless the benefits are communicated well and often only a minimum of prospects will bother responding.

Most website owners refuse to accept sales will double if the copy is twice as good, yet will immediately accept that a market stall owner will increase sales by calling out special offers.

Try these questions about renewals

When should you start renewals? Trying to renew a subscriber at month eight or nine means your subscriber file will lose its value fast, day by day. Unfortunately, despite most marketers agreeing with this point in theory, the folly continues!

What is the message for your first renewal effort? The first renewal attempt – the ‘extension’ offer – comes at conception, immediately the new subscriber buys. So it is best promoted on your website as the prospect is placing his order.

Should I offer a free gift? At this early stage, free gifts and other incentives are offered to entice the new subscriber to extend or upgrade the term of his subscription from one year to anything up to a lifetime membership.

When should I send early-bird promotions? Send out early bird renewals up to four times, from month one to four. Monitor response to determine the optimum number of times a year it can be used.

Email or mail? Email renewal messages are cheap and link directly to your renewal and upgrade offers. Copy fees are insignificant – messages can be used over many years. However, renewals by mail still out-perform email messages and top marketers use a combination of both.

What renewal rates can I expect? Subscribers renew at a higher rates as each year progresses. Older, loyal subscribers, however, hide the poor renewal percentages of those fickle new outsourced sales. Typically, of the 45 per cent that renew in the first year, 60 per cent will renew in the second year and 80 per cent in the third year etc.

How should I stock my shop? Create as many editorial reports, books, events, special access privileges and other downloads, with special discounts if the subscriber renews early or upgrades to a longer term, or higher, more expensive subscriber status.

Boost cash flow and profits with ‘super bundle’ offers, where a whole library of books or reports are bundled together and sold at a greatly reduced, but high-ticket price.

What about expiries? Expired subscribers will often pay a considerable amount for a ‘super bundle’, and the publisher receives far more revenue than the usual subscription renewal. After a year or so, include your expire file in all new business promotions.

Peter Hobday

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