If I Had a Million Readers

You’ve probably already heard about what’s going on in Arizona. According to an article in The New York Times earlier this week, in an effort to increase voter turnout at the polls, there is a proposal being considered which would offer one million dollars to one randomly selected voter in every general election.

That’s right. Vote in the election, win a million. Although perhaps not the shortest path to reassuring voters that our already embattled electoral process is on the level, you do have to give them credit for thinking outside the (ballot) box.

Unfortunately, and as many people have already pointed out, increasing the number of people who vote is not the goal per se… it’s simply the way in which we measure the goal, that being something along the lines of getting as many citizens as possible thoughtfully involved in how the government is run.

And while offering you the chance at a million dollars may get you in the door, it will do little to focus your attention on the issues.

Interestingly, E-Newsletter publishers often take a similarly flawed approach towards growing their subscriber lists. Knowing that “more subscribers” is generally a good thing, and believing (correctly) that incentives will increase sign-ups, they offer enticements in exchange for submitted e-mail addresses.

Here too however, the danger with incentives is that you get what you pay for, and – as any manager of commission-based sales people will tell you – that can easily diverge from whatever it is you really want.

Here’s what I mean…

Think about your newsletter reader list for a minute. Although each person on the list represents one head to be counted, as individuals, they have wildly varying levels of interest in what you’ve got to say.

On one end of the continuum you’ve got someone who was not only eager to subscribe, but who would have been willing to pay real money to get on the list (Ah, if only I had 50,000 mothers, I’d be a rich man).

On the other end of the continuum however, you’ve got someone who was just barely intrigued enough to sign up. Had the registration process been any more time consuming or cumbersome, he would have bailed out in the middle and never given it another thought.

Most of your subscribers of course – like the voting public – live between the two extremes of rabid enthusiast and apathetic participant.

When you offer an incentive, you’re working on the disinterested reader (or voter) side of the equation; the people who absent a chance at a prize, wouldn’t bother.

In fact, it’s easy to see that as you move down the path from offering a large positive incentive at one extreme (e.g. everyone who signs up for your newsletter gets $1,000), to offering a large negative incentive at the other (e.g. everyone who signs up for your newsletter pays $1,000), your subscriber numbers will go down but (and this is the key point, so pay attention) the average level of interest among those who remain will go up.

So what’s the answer? I’m so glad you asked. As you can see, it’s really a sliding scale, and the objective is to find a place where you’ll get as many interested people as possible without bringing in those who are simply along for the prize.

Some recommendations:

  1. First remove the barriers. Before even considering incentives, make sure that you’ve made it as easy as possible for those who want to get involved to do so. In our voting example, that means things like extending poll hours, declaring election day a national holiday, allowing registration at the polls, doing your best to actually count the votes that do come in, etc.

    For your E-Newsletter, it’s things like requiring a minimum of information at sign-up, convincing people of your newsletter’s value by archiving past issues and providing reader testimonials, sending a confirmation e-mail so that new subscribers know “their vote was counted.”

  1. Incent people enough to cause immediate action, but not so much that you attract the truly disinterested. I like offering a free report or white paper on something related to the newsletter’s topic scope for those who sign up. It’s not enough to bring people out of the woodwork who don’t care, but for the person standing at the precipice of subscribership, it helps to push them over the edge (not that I’m suggesting that signing up for your newsletter is even vaguely reminiscent of a painful death).
  1. Don’t worry so much about the size of your list. As I’ve said here before, list size isn’t really what matters. It’s list size multiplied by reader interest that leads to a steady stream of client phone calls (and of the two, reader interest is a much more important part of the equation).

Bottom Line. Not all readers are created equal. Simply increasing their number through expensive incentives, while offering the feel of progress, may do little more than generate a lot of unproductive activity.

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