April 01, 2009
Case Study

How to Transition from Print to Electronic Thought-Leadership Content: 6 Steps to Triple Subscribers

SUMMARY: Establishing your firm as an industry thought-leader is a vital lead-generation strategy. But the technique requires you to have content that reaches the right prospects and creates relationships with them.

See how a boutique consulting firm transitioned one of their primary content vehicles from a paid print-based newsletter to a free electronic one. The four-month process included a communication strategy to alert existing subscribers of the change, a new editorial strategy, and integration with Web 2.0 channels. The venture paid off by tripling subscriber base, generating valuable links, and saving the firm $20,000 a year.
As the Director of Marketing for a boutique consultancy that helps Fortune 100 companies create innovation and growth strategies, Gretchen Rice’s primary asset is her firm’s people and ideas. Her goal is to generate speaking opportunities for consultants, such as co-founder, Clayton Christensen, author of ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma,’ and to produce editorial content for syndication and publication in the firm’s own newsletters.

“Our objective from a marketing perspective is primarily to get our thought leadership and intellectual property into the hands of as many people as possible,” says Rice.

The trouble was, one of the team’s flagship products was a print-based, subscription-only newsletter that cost $150 a year. Rice and Editor Renee Callahan realized that the Strategy & Innovation newsletter’s premium print-based content wasn’t reaching as many prospects as they would have liked. Those articles also couldn’t generate links from other online sources, or provide bloggers with content to reference.

The team needed that content to reach a larger pool of prospects and introduce them to the firm’s consulting methodology and key personnel.


In spring 2008, the company created a new website that simplified the process of publishing content online. As the team debated how to handle archives for the bi-monthly Strategy & Innovation newsletter, they decided to transition the entire newsletter from a paid and primarily print-based product to a free email publication that required prospects to register.

They created a plan to transition existing customers from print subscriptions to an email delivery process. They also revamped the newsletter’s editorial strategy, design and publishing schedule to provide more timely information.

Here are the 6 steps they took in the process:

Step #1. Get approval from executive team for print-to-online transition

Rice and Callahan first needed approval from the firm’s partners -- a group of consultants who acted as the firm’s management team. The partners wanted answers to two key questions:

- What was the firm’s total liability for existing paid subscribers?

Switching from paid newsletter to a free digital product might cause some subscribers to demand a refund. The team anticipated few objections and planned to offer an incentive for existing subscribers to offset their pre-paid subscription fees.

Still, they still calculated the “worst-case scenario” -- refunding fees to all subscribers. The management team determined it was a cost the firm could bear.

- How will the team manage the transition?

Rice and Callahan created a complete transition plan for migrating to an electronic newsletter format. They shared with management a timetable for major tasks, including:
o Creating a new newsletter template and editorial strategy
o Communicating the change with subscribers
o Shifting from print delivery to electronic distribution without a lag between issues

Step #2. Communicate impending format change to paid subscribers

The first phase of the four-month transition plan was dedicated to communicating the change to existing subscribers. Because the newsletter was primarily a print product (with an option to receive a PDF by email), they developed a multichannel communication strategy to announce the end of the print version and encourage subscribers to sign up for the electronic version. “The biggest critical point, from my perspective, was making sure the communication plan was locked down,” says Rice.

- Four months before the email newsletter launch, the team began placing notices in the print newsletter that announced the upcoming format change.

The notices outlined the reasons for the change, such as the ability to offer more content in a timely manner, and provided instructions for registering to receive the electronic newsletter.

- Two months before the email newsletter launch, the team sent a personalized letter to each subscriber, signed by Editor Renee Callahan. The letter provided more information about the upcoming format change, instructions for registering for the email newsletter, and the date of the final print newsletter delivery.

The letter also offered subscribers a retention benefit -- complimentary access to a webinar with one of the company’s top consultants, a $99 value.

- The team had email addresses on file for just over 70% of print subscribers who chose to receive a PDF version of the print publication. Those subscribers also received email notices announcing the change and providing a link to the online registration form.

They also planned to fold an existing email newsletter into the new electronic version of Strategy & Innovation. Subscribers of that email newsletter also received notices of the impending change.

Like the direct-mail letter, the emails were delivered from Renee Callahan’s address.

- Callahan and Rice were responsible for answering all questions related to the transition process. That way, subscribers who called or emailed with concerns about their subscription would receive a response from a team member intimately involved with the process.

Step #3. Communicate transition plan to subscription management companies

The five-year-old newsletter had been picked up by several subscription management companies, such as EBSCO and McGraw-Hill. That meant the team also had to communicate the upcoming change to each firm that managed subscriptions for the newsletter.

- They identified subscription management companies that included the newsletter in their database. Some were well-known to the team, because they received regular reports from them. Others, such as smaller subscription management companies and overseas databases, were more difficult to track down.

- They sent letters to those companies informing them they were no longer charging for subscriptions to the newsletter, and that, if the company handled subscriptions only for paid publications, to remove the title from their database.

- The team also responded to inbound queries from subscription management companies with news about the format change.

Step #4. Develop new content strategy for digital publication

The team needed a new content strategy for the digital version of Strategy & Innovation. Callahan created a plan that would allow their new bi-weekly electronic format to follow the same standards and publish the same amount of content as they did in the bi-monthly print newsletter.

- Callahan analyzed the content in each print issue of the newsletter. She then divided the total amount of content and mix of features into a new plan for shorter bi-weekly digital newsletters.

Each newsletter would feature a rotation of the features found in the print publication, such as:
o “Voices of Disruption,” a Q&A interview with an innovation expert
o “Innovators’ Insights,” a how-to article on specific topics
o “Disrupt-o-Meter,” a short feature on a company’s innovation projects

- After planning an editorial calendar for the first few electronic issues, Callahan adopted a more flexible publishing schedule that allowed her to develop new features or highlight timely subjects based on news and emerging trends.

Step #5. Promote launch and subsequent electronic issues in multiple channels

During the transition process, the team’s focus was on transitioning existing customers to the digital format, upholding the quality of content, and maintaining response rates for their existing email products. (The team averaged open rates and clickthrough rates of more than 35% for its email messaging.)

For those reasons, they did not proactively recruit new subscribers for the digital newsletter prior to launch. The only public mention of the new format was a notice on the company website inviting visitors to register for the new free version of the publication.

With the launch of the electronic version, however, the team began promoting the free publication in multiple channels:

- They announced the launch on the company blog, and included a link to the online registration form.

- When participating in industry events, the team captured new registrations from booth visitors.

- They sent email promotions to contact lists they had acquired from participation and sponsorship in prior events.

- Links from blog reviews of a new book by one of their consultants, and Q&As with the author drove traffic back to the Innosight website. There, visitors were invited to sign up for the newsletter.

For subsequent issues of the digital newsletter, the team continued promoting its contents around the Web. Tactics included:
o Mentions of new issues of the newsletter, or content highlights on the company blog
o Twitter messages about new online articles from the newsletters
o A content-sharing agreement with Forbes.com

Step #6. Incorporate links to promote consulting services

The new, digital format also created opportunities to link readers directly to information about the firm’s consultants and methodology.

Rather than being directly promotional in the newsletters, the team looked for non-intrusive ways to supplement newsletter content with relevant links, such as:
o Notices of upcoming speaking appearances by partners
o New books written by partners or third-party articles featuring partner interviews
o Educational content on the company website describing the key innovation and growth theories discussed in feature articles and interviews

The transition was a huge success. The new digital format is reaching far more prospects than the print newsletter:
o Total subscription base has tripled
o Open rates and CTR have remained 35%+
o The company is saving $20,000 a year in printing and mailing costs

Even better, the newsletter content is being picked up by far more blogs and other third-party media outlets than ever before. That’s helping create relationships with new prospects, and maintain relationships with existing clients.

“The partners have always been really focused on making sure they have assets they can take to their clients,” says Rice. “Having all this written analysis and content picked up by other sources -- that all benefits them.”

Useful links related to this article

Creative Samples from the Innosight newsletter transition project


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