At Harvard Business Review, Paid Circulation Surges For a Second Straight Year
HBR's publisher and membership marketing manager walk us through the changing approach that's yielded a record-high subscriber base—despite a reduction in frequency.
After Harvard Business Review kicked off 2017 by reducing its print frequency to bimonthly—eliminating 40 percent of the issues offered in a $99 annual subscription—it was a combination of smart positioning, creative new digital benefits, and a heavier investment in the six print issues that remained, which allowed the magazine to end the year with 10-percent more subscribers than it began with.
The lack of subscriber outrage around the dramatic shift “was almost hurtful,” editor-in-chief Adi Ignatius quipped to Folio: last August.
Another year in, the century-old management magazine has upped its paid circulation by 15,000—according to the latest data from the Alliance for Audited Media—increasing a record-high that now sits at 319,631. Far more than an editorial pivot, the last two years have represented a fundamental, company-wide shift in the way the Harvard Business Review approaches its readers, both existing and prospective, as well as a redefining of what it means to be a subscriber.
Folio: sat down with SVP and group publisher Sarah McConville, as well as membership marketing manager Caty Trio, to learn more about the business sense behind HBR‘s ongoing growth story.
Sarah McConville: We certainly hoped for it, but in the magazine business you can never assume. I think there were a lot of things that we did leading up to the frequency change that helped position us for growth. We increased the price of print to $18.95 on the newsstand, which we think reflects the premium quality of the product. We thought really long and hard about how to position the frequency change to our current subscribers and continue to evolve the messaging as we brought more folks into the fold.
For us, the critical piece of it was conveying to our subscriber base that their relationship with the brand was anchored in print, but it is truly an integrated, print and digital experience. We’re in the market every single month with subscriber satisfaction surveys and other types of research, so we had a good sense of what people were finding interesting, useful, and valuable, and it was a matter of then amplifying those messages.
Folio: To your existing subscribers, the shift has almost seemed like a non-issue.
McConville: Yeah, in fact, Adi joked that it was almost hurtful that there was no real backlash. We did a lot of up-front communication with subscribers and took advantage of things that were available to us, like the fact that our subscribers can maintain libraries on HBR.org, and we were able to have the editors select content that we could drop with our compliments into their libraries—just to get them to start using those digital elements of their subscription, if they hadn’t been already.
Caty Trio: We also made a real shift with some of our messaging, not only with our current subscribers but also prospective ones. We’re putting a lot of value-add messaging first, talking a lot about what comes along with your subscription, beyond the print magazine. We’ve found over time that many of our subscribers didn’t know what they had access to in a subscription, and all of these benefits on our website that come along with a print subscription, such as our online libraries, access to HBR charts, customizable slide decks, things they could use to enhance their everyday work life. That’s been very successful.
Folio: What indicated that a good portion of your subscribers weren’t aware of or weren’t taking full advantage of their subscriptions?
McConville: It was a combination of things. Subscriber surveys were definitely important. We saw a spike in subscriber satisfaction starting last year after the frequency change, tracking net promoter scores, and one of the leading indicators was that the cohort with the highest satisfaction self-reported that they were using print and digital interchangeably. Looking at the data, we do also check recency and frequency of visits to the site, and whether subscribers are going to that subscriber-only content.
One thing that’s really challenging is that in order to get your subscription benefits, you have to be signed in. I’m sure we aren’t the only publisher that’s facing this, but when you have an audience that’s coming through multiple devices, and particularly through mobile, it’s not always convenient to sign in. That’s something we’re working on this year.
Caty and the folks on the marketing and product management side—and editorial, of course—are tracking that subscriber usage and setting KPI’s for the group to really focus on incentivizing subscribers to come back frequently and take advantage of benefits.
Folio: What are some of the ways you’re approaching that challenge?
Trio: One of the ways is by meeting our audience where they are, with the right messaging at the right time. Over the course of the last year, we’ve diversified our marketing efforts, both our acquisition and engagement tactics, to be far more digital-first. We do a lot in terms of email marketing, subscriber-specific email marketing, paid and organic social media posts with specific messaging, and lots of content marketing. We’re finding these avenues to be really scalable and able to personalize a lot more than our traditional marketing efforts.
Folio: That’s been a shift—that digital-first approach to marketing?
McConville: Yes, and it’s now digital-only. We challenged ourselves to get off of direct mail as our primary marketing vehicle. It was expensive, it was one-size-fits-all, and we just didn’t feel that it was aligned with the story that we felt that we could tell, but also the way we were trying to manage our marketing spend. This has allowed us to widen the funnel quite a bit and to be a lot more nimble. We’re in-market continuously, constantly testing and taking the learning from successful campaigns and applying it to different marketing channels and customer segments. We just couldn’t be that agile when we were doing direct mail.
Folio: What about acquisition? Where and how are you finding new readers?
Trio: One of the things that we’ve had success with is in targeting people who have already begun to engage with the brand, but haven’t quite hit the point of subscribing—people who are visiting HBR.org, registered on our site already, lookalike audiences who are similar to people who are on our website. We’ve been able to target these people in a more sophisticated way. We’re still in the testing and learning phase as far as audience segmentation goes, but we’ve made great strides this year.
McConville: I’d add that we really do lean heavily on editorial innovation here. I’ve been here a very long time and I have not seen this level of editorial innovation and experimentation in forever. It’s really impressive what Adi and his team are doing. The “Big Idea” was a really important first step in terms of long-form digital content in between those print issues of the magazine.
We’re also reaching new audiences with the expansion of our podcasting. We launched “Women at Work” last year, and now it’s back for a second season because it was so wildly popular. Now we’re launching groups and guides to go along with the podcasts, so you can talk about the issues with your team. We launched a podcast called “Dear HBR,” where readers can send questions in, a lot of it is interpersonal issues at work, personal effectiveness issues, and they can ask the editors or we will bring in an expert. We’re also experimenting with Snapchat, so that’s an area where we are pushing into new editorial development on social channels, where the demographic is skewing a lot younger than our current audience.
Trio: It’s really been about targeting people at different places where they are already engaging with us, so looking at people who are engaging on our site, following us on social channels already, who interact with the content we are posting but might not already be followers. It’s more about finding the semi-warm leads and bringing them into the fold to engage more with the brand, so that when we present them with a subscription offer, they’re familiar and ready to convert.
Folio: What are you doing with all the content marketing you mentioned?
Trio: We’re doing more with putting our content out on channels like social media to attract people who may not already be engaging with the brand. Using paid social media activity as a way to reach prospect audiences and drive traffic back to our website and get them to regularly engage with us.
Folio: What are some ways you determine or justify the effectiveness of that paid social promotion?
Trio: We began experimenting with paid social about a year and a half ago, mostly to see what kind of traction we could get. Over time, one of the KPI’s we really used as our main point of success was cost-per-acquisition. We’ve been able to use that as a benchmark of success across our traditional marketing efforts, like direct mail, and we were able to see pretty quickly that our cost-per-acquisition was fairly lower on social than on a lot of those other forms. We used that to justify our reason to push more through paid social. That’s how we got to the point where we are today, 100 percent digital-first in our thinking.
Folio: You mentioned you increased the newsstand price, but maintained the $99-per-year subscription. What is the strategy there?
McConville: The one area where we have instituted a price increase on subscriptions was in instituting a monthly payment option. For the convenience of being able to pay monthly and cancel, we charge a bit of an increase. But it’s interesting, because there’s fairly high click-through on email offers around the monthly and annual subscription together. People get attracted to the monthly, but when they see that it’s actually a better deal to sign up for the year, we’re seeing a pretty nice uptick in the annual subscription as well. So we figure that one way or another, it benefits the subscriber, and we’re seeing pretty good retention rates.
Folio: Is there a similar line of thinking behind increasing the newsstand price—setting up that entry point for an annual subscription?
McConville: With the newsstand, it’s a little bit tougher to get point-of-sale data on your customers. But anecdotally, even subscribers who choose to let their subscription lapse still perceive themselves as having a continuous relationship with the brand, because they will buy us on the newsstand a few times a year, and then come back on the file. It’s this career-long relationship that we hear about over and over again.
We really strongly believe that we are putting out one of the most premium products on the newsstand. We didn’t want to back away from print; we wanted to defend the value of the print that we are offering. But if you pick us up a couple times on the newsstand in a year, and then you do the math and you realize you get access to all of these other subscriber benefits, it’s actually a pretty good deal to subscribe at $99.
Folio: Where will you be focusing your efforts in the year ahead?
McConville: I can’t go into a lot of details just yet, but we’re going to be really focused on curation, because that’s something that’s very important to our audience—helping them find the solution they’re looking for quickly and efficiently. Our teams have been spending a lot of time and energy thinking through different levels of curation with different types of products.