Several years ago I went to Peter, my doctor, for a routine checkup and saw some colorful boxes on the end of the counter. Patricia, the office manager and Peter’s wife, said they were dietary supplements for people over the age of 50. “Should I get them?” I asked. “I take them and I feel wonderful,” she said. “Do you and Peter get a piece of the action?” She said she did, which I had no problem with. So I ordered LifePak Prime for my wife Peggy and myself—60 little cellophane packages, each with four horse pills to be taken twice a day with meals, delivered automatically once a month. The cost: about $40 a month for each of us or a total of $80 automatically billed to my Visa.
Here is the perfect continuity product. I don’t have to think about vitamin pills beyond remembering to take them. I don’t have to think about paying for them. The company, Interior Design Nutritionals, doesn’t have to worry about renewing my order or getting paid, since they have permission to charge my Visa once a month. The system works for Peggy and me, for Interior Design, for Visa and for Peter and Patricia.
This is the perfect continuity arrangement.
Continuity Marketing: A Definition
Continuity marketing means persuading a customer to agree to automatic shipments—books, vitamins, cosmetics, pantyhose, CDs, coffee, first-day-of-issue stamps, audiotapes, coins, ingots and other collectibles as well as home study courses which qualify as continuity marketing.
Two basic types of continuity offers exist: (1) closed-ended where, for example, you offer a 24-volume series of art books; (2) open-ended whereby an unlimited number of these art books continue to be sent on a predetermined schedule until the customer writes, calls or faxes to forbid you from sending any more (known as a “till forbid” offer).
A variation of this is the “negative option,” invented by Maxwell Sackheim and Harry Schermann, founders of Book-of-the-Month. In this model, you are sent an announcement of a forthcoming book and a rejection slip; if you don’t want the book—or want an alternate—you return the rejection slip with your instructions by a specified date. If you miss the deadline, you’ll get the book.
True continuity series avoid this step.
The Advantages of Continuity
The continuity approach can be good business for all concerned. It enables a publisher to generate revenue as he or she is publishing. And it enables the buyer to split up the payments of a high-end, expensive product. For the consumer, $19.95 a month is a lot more palatable than paying out a whopping $400 all at once for a 20-volume series.
Continuity Marketing: A Brief History
In the late 1940s, my cousin Eve signed me up for a series called “Things of Science”—little blue boxes that arrived once a month with samples and explanations—rocks, lenses, little experiments, etc. At the same time, Book-of-the-Month in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art offered monthly booklets about its collection with 2˝ x 4˝ stamps on which were printed color reproductions of paintings; you would lick and paste each stamp in the appropriate frame in the booklet. A half century later, I can still remember the ghastly acid taste of the stamps.
Following World War II, British publishers came up with the concept of “partsworks”—small magazine-like publications of 16, 24 or 32 pages on a given subject sold weekly on the newsstand. Among the subject areas: World War II history, cooking, gardening, etc. Usually printed in four color, these booklets were meant to be collected until you had a complete set which would equal an encyclopedia. You could buy holders for them or the publisher would sell you a binder by mail.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the British Publisher, Marshall Cavendish, brought its partsworks to this country and began marketing them by mail as a book continuity series where four or six of the original pamphlets were combined into an individual volume.
Around this time, Time-Life took a look at its vast archives of intellectual assets—particularly its treasury of great photographs dating back to the 1920s—and decided to form a book publishing group under the guiding genius of Jerome Hardy. Hardy had two choices: simply recycle the old stuff or use the massive archives as the basis for creating brand new product. He wisely chose the latter course and started a vast empire that for a time was more profitable than the magazines. Among the subject areas Time-Life Books dealt with: cooking, gardening, the Old West, home repair, World War II, Ancient Civilizations and a slew more. In recent years, books have taken a back seat to Time-Life recordings which are promoted heavily on television.
At the same time Time-Life started up, an entrepreneur named John Stevenson started Greystone Press, offering books on gardening, World War II and automobile repair. The bindings were of boring maroon fake leather with gold stamping. His offers were opulent 9˝ x 12˝ mailings with four-page letters and giant 17˝ x 22˝ four-color bedsheet circulars written and designed by one of the great creative pioneers, Fred Briesmeister.
Briesmeister’s hallmark: a brochure cover with the first volume of the series thrust at you in deep perspective held with a human thumb at the top of the book cover and the screaming headline: “TAKE VOLUME 1 FREE!” In Briesmeister’s promotions, the book was always slightly larger than life and the thumb slightly smaller so the product looked really, really big.
Grolier Inc. published Encyclopedia Americana, which was sold door-to-door. Elsworth Howell formed Grolier Inc. to ship annual update volumes to American buyers on an automatic, continuity basis. Why stop with encyclopedias? In the early 1960s, Howell, together with Bob Clarke, Lew Smith and Ed Bakal, hit on the idea for “The Beginning Reader’s Club” that sold the Dr. Seuss books by mail for children. It is still profitable after 40 years.
Ed Bakal left Grolier for Macmillan where he and Bill Houghton began offering The Harvard Classics, also known as Doc Elliott’s five-foot shelf of books. Professor Elliott of Harvard created a list of books that every literate person should read. Using old titles in public domain (e.g., “Huckleberry Finn”, “Plato’s Republic”, etc.)—and, in fact, using the original cruddy plates from the 1920s—Bakal and Houghton bound the series in elegant green “fibrated (ground up and reconstituted) leather” with gold stamping. The first volume (‘Two Years Before the Mast” or “Plato’s Republic”) was free; additional volumes were $4.95 plus shipping, sent at the rate of two a month.
Another player in the continuity sandbox was Harry Stuttman and, later, his son Burt, who sold the Webster’s Unified sets of books on science and World War II. Burt has since retired and so, apparently, have his father’s wonderful mailings that used many of the elements and techniques pioneered by Greystone’s Fred Briesmeister.
Traditionally, book continuity series were sold heavily on the benefits of how reading these great volumes would enrich your life and understanding of the world.
In actuality, these publishers were selling furniture—volumes to put on the shelf to give warmth to your home and impress your friends and neighbors. With the possible exception of Dr. Seuss for kids, it was never anybody’s intention that these books would actually be read.
Virtually every promotional mailing had a big “beauty shot” in the centerfold of the circular that showed how a complete set would look on the shelf. The books-as-furniture technique was taken to new heights by the Franklin Mint which, under the direction of an elegant southern gentleman named Darby Perry, published The Franklin Library, a series of modern classics in real leather bindings with 22-karat gold leaf stamping and signed by the authors (e.g., John Updike, Herman Wouk). MBI/Danbury Mint also created signed, leatherbound books as well as the great classics. MBI also offered stamps with first-day covers as continuities.
The Dirty Load-Up
Before the Federal Trade Commission started taking an active interest in the practices of mail-order merchants, several of the old-time continuity marketers used the following offer and fulfillment technique:
Take Volume I Free. In about four weeks you will receive Volume II. If dissatisfied, return the second volume with your bill marked “cancel” and you owe nothing and will be under no further obligation. Otherwise, you will receive a new volume approximately every four to six weeks—always on approval—always at the same low price. You may return any book; you never pay for a book you do not wish to keep; you may cancel any time.
What really happened was Volume I would be shipped free with a welcome letter. Volume II would be shipped four weeks later with a bill. When the bill was paid, Volume III would be shipped. When payment was received for Volume III, it was clear to the publisher that the customer was a “live one”—a good credit risk who paid on time. The customer was rewarded with a giant box containing all the remaining volumes along with a letter which said, in effect:
Dear lucky, lucky person:
Because the books are all in stock, we assumed that you want them now, rather than having to wait for them on a month-by-month basis. It’s a great deal for you; you have full use of the books and you pay for them at the affordable rate of just one book a month. What’s more, since we shipped them all at once, you save on postage and you pay no interest whatsoever. Here’s your monthly payment book and reply envelopes. Happy reading!
Shipping all the remaining books at once is called the “load-up.” In the situation illustrated above, where the books came as an unordered surprise, it was known as the “dirty load-up.” Although some customers objected, most found it was more trouble to ship the books back than to keep them and pay the low monthly rate.
Profit or loss on a continuity program is measured by the average number of paid items per starter. If you can get someone to accept an entire box of books—and pay for it—the number of paid books for that starter is far higher than the average of 21⁄2 to 51⁄2 which is about where most people get bored and cancel when receiving the series at the rate of one product a month.
So many complaints were lodged against publishers that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruled against the dirty load-up. Ever resourceful, publishers got around this by writing a letter that said:
Dear lucky, lucky person:
All of the books are ready and we are going to send them to you all at once unless you tell us you want them on a once-a-month basis.
This was the negative option load-up. Unless the person said no, the books were shipped. The FTC caught on and said consumers did not have to pay for unordered merchandise and were under no obligation to return it; books sent under the negative option load-up were emphatically unordered.
So publishers were obliged to send a letter following payment for Volumes II and III that said:
Dear lucky, lucky person:
All of the books are ready, and you can have them all at once just by initialing the enclosed form and returning it to us.
This was the positive option; the load-up was actually ordered. Some people ordered; others canceled. The net result is that most continuity series today are shipped at the rate promised on the original order form.
In the 1960s, several publishers offered book series in supermarkets on a continuity basis. You would buy Volume I for, say, 75 cents and then pick up a new volume each week for $1.49. I recall seeing Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias sold this way, as well as a Woman’s Day cookbook series.
The 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s
Over the years, many marketers offered various continuity series, some successful, some not. One format that was (and is) a success is the so-called card page—an 81⁄2˝ x 11˝ cardboard sheet printed in four-color with holes punched in the right-hand side for storing in a loose-leaf binder. Subject areas that have been successful include crafts projects (Newfield Publications, Heritage House), crochet projects (Golden Press), recipes (Southern Living, Newfield/McCall’s).
The offer: Send for one or two sets of card pages—free, together with a free binder, free divider pages and perhaps other goodies. You would then receive, say, two sets of pages every month for $4.95 each (or $9.90 total, plus shipping and handling). Assuming you stuck with the promotion until the bitter end, you would wind up with a loose-leaf book of recipes or crafts projects filled with these card pages that cost a total of $150 or $200—far more than an ordinary bound book from a bookstore or library.
International Masters Publishers
One of the most curious continuity marketers—and, for a time, one of the most successful—was International Masters Publishers (IMP), a Danish organization that opened shop in California and, later, moved to Stamford, CT, where it is today. IMP’s signature mailings: a “sandwich pack” of 4˝ x 6˝cards on such subject areas as wild animals, gardening, cooking and health. What made the mailings unusual is that where most direct mail efforts “sell the sizzle”—make bold promises with powerful, benefit-laden copy, International Masters would “send the steak”—actually wrap 12 of its little cards in clear plastic and sandwich promotional material and the order card in the middle. When the prospect slit open the plastic wrap, a fascinating deluge of actual products would fall all over the table or into the person’s lap. Brightly colored and filled with information, the IMP card promotions delighted everyone who received them.
Many years ago, Historical Times hired me to create a mailing offering 4˝ x 6˝ cards containing every battle, every piece of equipment and every general and politician in the Civil War. This enabled armchair historians to refight the war between the states; amazingly, it was hugely successful.
The Who’s Mailing What! Archive is also littered with continuity series that came and went. Among them: The Notable Trials Library under guidance of Alan Dershowitz, Esq. (“The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case Can Be Yours FREE!”) and the complete works of Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel bound in leather.
Today’s Big Players
Continuities are very much alive and well—despite flux in the music and book continuity business at the hands of the Internet. IMP continues to do the most inventive work in the field. Most adult women in America have received one or more of the deliciously garish Hosiery Corporation of America double postcards with gold stamping that offer a “FREE Pair of Tummy-Slimming Silkies Pantyhose.” Cosmetique in Chicago has been selling women’s makeup for year via continuity offers.
The Wunderman Agency pioneered Gevalia’s offers of a free coffeemaker when you sign up for its coffee on a continuity basis. Harry and David are still successfully marketing its Fruit-of-the-Month Club which it pioneered decades ago. Franklin Mint, which used to offer collector’s coins, ingots and medals on a continuity basis, now sells commemorative knives and other colorful kitsch, sometimes as one-shots or as continuities. For years, Hume Publishing in Atlanta has sold a series of lessons on Successful Investing and Money Management. And for years, American Express has offered a “free” appointment book and pocket diary (you pay postage only) at Christmastime as a “thank you” for being such a good customer. At the bottom of the “Last Chance RSVP Free Gift Form” is the following in 7-point mousetype:
I understand that I will receive future annual editions automatically billed to my American Express Card account at the regular price, if I so desire. Of course, my satisfaction is guaranteed and I may cancel my subscription at any time.
In addition, taking a cue from American Express Publishing—which for years has sold its magazines, Travel & Leisure and Food & Wine on a “continuous service” basis—Jay Walker and Michael Loeb, founders of NewSub Services, are offering a huge selection of magazines this way. Instead of forcing subscribers to renew every year or two, NewSub simply hits the customer’s Visa or MasterCard every six months on a “till forbid” basis, thus turning magazine subscriptions into a continuity offer.
Is Continuity Marketing in Your Future?
According to direct mail analyst Axel Andersson, with the exception of Dr. Seuss and some other children’s offers, the number of continuity book promotions has fallen precipitously. Presumably Amazon.com and the giant Borders and Barnes & Noble superstores have dramatically changed the book-buying landscape. On the other hand, the late Dick Benson said that if you can take a magazine and turn it into the main benefit of an association, you can send a bill for dues rather than going through the hassle of renewing the person; the result: a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in response.
The premise holds for a wide variety of products and services—consumables, collectibles and products and services that people want without having to think about them. Insurance, for example, is a prime example of continuity marketing, as is daily newspaper delivery. If newspapers had to renew their subscribers once a year, they’d be out of business.
One agency talked a pet food manufacturer into testing a continuity program; they forgot the obvious: when you start sending heavy cans of dog food and bags of kibble, your shipping costs eat you alive. (Plus, dog food is available in every supermarket.)
But, if you can come up with a product or service that people want—or need—and do not want to think about having to reorder, continuity marketing is wonderful for everybody concerned.