A few months back I posted a blog regarding the Toronto Star's venture into an opt-in paid product with our TV listings book, Starweek. It’s time to share the results — and great results they are.

Just as a reminder, here’s what we did:

1. Expanded our television listings, adding more detailed descriptions of daily prime time programs and introducing celebrity articles and puzzles that will increase the ways in which readers can use and enjoy Starweek.

2. We converted the book to an opt-in product. Starweek is no longer automatically included as part of the subscription. To receive it readers must tell us specifically that they want it.

3. When they opt-in, they will receive the expanded Starweek for an additional 50 cents a week with their Saturday newspaper.

4. Starweek is still included in all single-copy newspapers sold in stores and newspaper boxes but the cost increased from C$2 to C$2.50 in the Greater Toronto area.

The research

This experiment was not without risk and quite a divergence from what most others in the industry have been doing. In most cases TV books have been reduced to a shell of their former selves or have been eliminated altogether. We were on a similar path but chose to take a step back to better understand what our readers might expect from the TV listing publication. We conducted market research and found the following:

  • 63% of subscribers read Starweek at least once in the past four weeks.
  • 43% of subscribers read every issue of Starweek.
  • 61% of subscribers would opt-in for a free Starweek.
  • 24% of subscribers were willing to pay for Starweek as it is.
  • 30% of subscribers were willing to pay for a “significantly improved” Starweek.
  • 16% of subscribers were very unlikely to continue their subscription if Starweek was no longer available.

Clearly eliminating the book was a high-risk maneuver for us to consider, but we were also over serving roughly half of our readers. It was interesting to note that engaged Starweek readers were willing to actually pay to keep their book, even pay more for an improved offering.

As a next step, we developed three versions of the book to take to focus groups to better understand just what a “better” book might actually mean. The results of the focus groups were quite enlightening:

  • Weekly Starweek readers are highly engaged with the product and find great utility in the listings. It is used and depended upon as a vital planning and viewing tool on a regular basis.
  • The addition of prime time rolling logs (detailed show listings by half-hour time blocks) was welcomed by most.
  • A daily editorial feature giving “best bets” type information was considered valuable.
  • A notable number of attendees valued the revived “Chef’s Showcase” feature, and many liked puzzles.
  • Other editorial content appeared to be largely unvalued by most attendees — nice to have, but certainly not necessary and unlikely to be coveted.

The changes

We listened. Our content changes included:

  • Greatly expanded television listings including two full pages of prime time listings for every day of the week, with more detailed descriptions of episodes of popular programs.
  • Doubled our TV movie listings to four pages, with enhanced movie descriptions and more photos from featured movies.
  • Enhanced the full-page “Worth Watching” feature, which will now include details of new shows each week, including drama series and documentaries.
  • Introduced a “Best Bets” feature for each day of the week, with a description of episodes of the most popular current shows, such as Flashpoint and CSI.
  • Launched a new “Chef’s Showcase,” which each week will spotlight a different local chef and the recipe of their favourite dish.
  • Added more celebrity content, including a second featured cover story, primarily focusing on Canadian stars, as well as more news about television personalities.
  • Created a full page for TV puzzles and games that will include the current celebrity crossword, plus a new television Word Search and a TV Jumble.

The marketing approach

We developed a communication plan after reviewing our internal research and interviewing other newspapers that had taken an opt-in approach to their TV Book. We knew that, despite many attempts, getting opt-ins before launch date would be difficult. Readers don’t always pay attention to our marketing messages! We also knew that the readers who were passionate about Starweek Magazine would be pretty upset if they missed a single issue.

Our communication objectives were to encourage subscribers to opt-in to Starweek delivery prior to their 1st non-delivery date and to highlight the improvements we were making to Starweek format/content/layout/design.

Our plan was built around the following strategic imperatives:

1. A phased-in approach

With the potential for a massive volume of opt-ins and the first significant attempt by our carrier force to deliver an address-specific product, we decided not to bite off more than we could chew. We staggered the transition over an eight-week period, with six regions rolling out and two breaks in the process to re-group and figure out if our plan was working.

Each group received the improved Starweek Magazine on the launch date and thereafter until their region was ready to transition. Each region was exposed to a “countdown” campaign, designed to create a sense of urgency and drive sign ups. Starting with “you have only 4 weeks to sign up” and working down to “this is your last chance to sign up,” each group had four weeks to make the decision.

2. Multiple points of targeted communication (a.k.a., communication overload)

To prevent a disaster on each “stop date” we had to make sure that everyone who wanted the magazine signed up in advance. To break through the noise, we developed a multiple channel, multiple contact approach to our marketing campaign.

Each household received no less than 14 messages over the course of four weeks, in addition to the more general marketing messages we had in the market.

We put a countdown tip-on on every copy of Starweek in each region during the four-week countdown period. We used the front of paper wraps, post-it notes, notification letters, email and outbound automated calling to get our message out.

On launch day, our publisher told our readership all about the changes and explained the process. This gave readers a chance to get used to the idea, and more than 9,000 subscribers signed-up even before the first region began the countdown process.

We had in-newspaper ads, ads in Starweek Magazine, a letter from the editor in Starweek, messages on our interactive voice response (IVR) system and our subscriber web self-serve pages. At single-copy locations, we had rack cards and we put box cards on our vending boxes.

3. Drive most traffic to web or automated IVR

To prevent the onslaught of calls to our customer call centre, our marketing communications directed people to a dedicated web site or a dedicated phone number, both of which provided further information and allowed the individual to sign up without the need of live assistance.

Approximately 12% of our sign-ups were the result of our automated outbound calling plan. More than 85% of our sign-ups were completed on the web or IVR.

The Results

Our business model estimated a break-even point with single-digit response rates; research results indicated we could easily achieve that level of response. We set a target for ourselves of 20% opt-in. And how did we do?

  • More than 105,000 subscribers opted in for agreeing to the 50 cents per week surcharge, well over our 20% target. An additional 25,000 customers have been signed up through new sales efforts. New orders include mandatory Starweek until the introductory period is over, at which time customers can opt-out.
  • Of those who opted in, about 44% did so through our IVR, 23% through a CSR (either live call or e-mail), 20% used the automated website, and 13% responded to the automated call blaster. So, over three quarters of the transactions were done with no human intervention, significantly better than expected.
  • Fewer than 100 subscribers stopped as a result of the Starweek changes.
  • Complaints on Starweek missed delivery never became a significant issue, attributable to the phased-in approach of implementation. CPMs steadily declined each week after launch, and are now at roughly a 2.5 CPM level.
We are thrilled with the outcome, the financial contribution is significant, our revenues are up, and costs down, and our readers are more satisfied that ever.

What's the lesson here? Don't necessarily follow the path of your peers. Had we done that, we would have likely reduced the paging in the book, increased dissatisfaction with roughly half of our readers, all for a small financial impact. Instead, we have a huge financial win and happy customers. Our investment, roughly C$500,000 as one-time marketing and research costs, plus increased paging on an ongoing basis.

Was it worth the risk? You bet.

Watch for more opt-in initiatives from the Toronto Star.