Just Ask!

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order forms. so boring, dull and unattractive - so necessary, powerful, effective

Don’t Forget the Order Form

A long time ago I was working at a mail order company. (For those of you without memories of the last millennium: basically, these were e-commerce-companies without the ‘e’.) It was a big company which published thousands of different leaflets, catalogs, brochures or ads and other commercial stuff each year, all created to make people order stuff. In the direct marketing department, this joke was running: ‘there is nothing to increase orders as much as to add an order form’.

But that was more than a joke. It was evidence-based empirical knowledge. When you create so many marketing materials, all kind of errors will happen. Even the error of producing a catalog without an element which can be used to order the stuff promoted in that very catalog! (Those elements primarily were postcards with an order form and a ‘postage free’-stamp. That’s why such companies were called ‘mail order companies’. But customers also could order by phone – if you wouldn’t forget to promote the call centers’ phone number.)

Also, there was some dispute between ‘direct marketers’, whose job it was to incent orders, and ‘brand marketers’, who were occupied with creating a positive image. The latter colleagues would tend to think of order forms as annoying and disgusting factors in their beautifully designed advertisements.

And now to the empirical evidence: any marketing message, catalog or ad without such an order form creates way less orders than any marketing message, catalog or ad with such a form!

Tighten Your Free Limits

What a hackneyed thing to write about, you might think. But don’t be so fast. This seemingly self-evident piece of wisdom had to be rediscovered by a lot of publishers who some time erected a metered paywall in front of their websites and who some time later wondered that only few people actually would pay.

This was, because in the early days of metered paywalls the free article limit very often was quite high. When the New York Times implemented its now famous and very successful paywall, free riders could access 20 articles per month. That was far more than 99% of the visitors of their website would read. So only 1% of visitors to nyt.com would even notice that there is such a thing as a paywall. And only x% of this 1%, that is y‰ of all the users of the website, would actually pay.

The Times, then, started to reduce the free article limit considerably, thus increasing the number of people who met the paywall and were actually asked to subscribe. Look what happened:


Don’t get me wrong. There is a bunch of reasons why this newspaper is able to catch so many paying subscribers. They do employ hundreds of smart people who analyze what works and what doesn’t work and how to optimize their monetization strategy.

But the paywall limit, for sure, is one important component of their strategy. And when they started with 20 free articles per month, it was completely to be expected that only very few people would even notice the paywall. The vast majority of visitors to nyt.com in 2011 wouldn’t ever see a prompt to pay or even an order form.

In order to get people to sign up for a subscription you must bring them into contact with your paywall!

This learning isn’t at all limited to the New York Times. It is a general rule for the whole industry. In August 2019, researchers of the Shorenstein Center of Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts analyzed data from 500 news organizations. They found: the higher the percentage of people who on average are stopped by the paywall, the more successful the news media is.

They called this percentage a ‘stop rate’, and they found this:


  • The lower half of those 500 news media stopped only 1.8% of user on average
  • But only publishers who stopped 4.2% of all readers had a ‘sustainable’ digital business
  • And those who stopped on average more than 6% of their unique visitors had “thriving” digital subscription businesses

How does this relate to me?

You see, there is a general rule for paywall success. And this very same rule holds for arguably any other type of content or audience monetization. And the rule is this: if you want your audience to support you financially, you must not forget to

Just ask!

‘Just ask’ is the most important mechanism for launching sustainable membership programs for journalism, finds this report. “Whether it’s subscriptions, memberships or just asking for donations, you have to be explicit about the ask. It needs to be in the readers face”, reasons Jacob Cohen Donnelly in his A media Operator newsletter when writing about Vox’s contribution program.


"Whether it’s subscriptions, memberships or just asking for donations, you have to be explicit about the ask. It needs to be in the readers face"

‘Just ask’ also is the single most important advice to any creator who publishes whatever kind of content, be it on YouTube, Twitch, WordPress or any podcasting platform. It is probably the only commonality I found between Jerry, Jack, Daniel and Katharina. Inevitably, in all of my interviews with these creators, there came a point where they told me, that they have optimized their plea (being more explicit, focusing on the ask for donations instead of asking for good reviews or visits to the merch store or sending feedback or donating or paying) or put it into a more prominent place. And that it was a good idea to do so.

Hence, whatever your publishing project is, don’t forget to be explicit about this: you need the support of your audience. No matter if you actually ‘sell’ access to your content, if you ask for donations or if you want to monetize your stream with bits, stars or stickers – ask your audience to support you by making use of your monetization mechanism.

Don’t be too shy about this. Sometimes, it might feel awkward to ask for money. But without, you will earn way less than you deserve.

Just be sensible with the frequency and tonality. You don’t want to be a Twitch beggar baiting his audience.