May 04, 2006
Case Study

Boosting B-to-B Newsletter Subscriptions: How NHI Breaks From the Ranks & Succeeds By Using Free Trials

SUMMARY: Free trial subscriptions may be uncommon among healthcare industry newsletters, but they're working for National Health Information LLC.

Read on for a look at how NHI uses sales of ancillary products, including books and audioconferences, to increase overall revenues and drive acceptance of its free newsletter trials. The good news: 10% to 15% of NHI's free trial users become subscribers.

In the late 1990s, National Health Information LLC was in the same boat as other B-to-B newsletter publishers: Subscriptions had leveled off, making it hard to grow revenue.

“The answer was: We have to sell ancillaries,” says David Schwartz, President NHI, so the company began repurposing existing editorial into books, manuals and annual reports. Schwartz also sought an opportunity to market audioconferences, although he didn’t want to produce them in-house.

But ancillary success or no, a bigger question loomed: Could these ancillary product buyers be convinced to subscribe to newsletters, providing a no-cost way to enlarge the subscriber base? To answer that question, NHI bucked the conventional wisdom of its peers, a decision that’s still paying off.



Here are the three steps Schwartz focused on.

Step 1. Emphasize Free Trials

Once NHI got its line of ancillary products up and running, it decided to offer every ancillary product buyer a free trial offer for one or two of its 13 newsletters.

Most of its newsletters cost $300 to $400 annually, with a blend of monthly and weekly publishing schedules and serving an audience that includes healthcare, biotech and insurance executives, as well as medical and managed-care professionals.

“Free trial is unusual in our category,” Schwartz says because of the high subscription prices, noting that few of his main publishing competitors, companies like Atlantic Information Services and HCPro, try it.

As one would expect, NHI decides which newsletter to offer a free trial based on relevancy to the purchased ancillary products. (Visitors to its Web site also can sign up for a free trial to any of its 13 newsletters.)

--Schwartz takes a no-bells-or-whistles creative approach with the ancillary product buyers and in his other email marketing efforts. This includes plain text emails, never HTML, with a two- to three-paragraph description of the newsletter product, followed up with an order offer paragraph.

“It’s more communication than an ad, and we try to keep it short,” he says. The company sends this and other email offers Tuesday through Thursday, following classic timing advice.

--A former healthcare journalist, Schwartz also prefers a straightforward approach to the subject lines instead of clever or unusual marketing-speak. A typical example: “2006 Disease Management Directory & Guidebook Now Available.”

Schwartz didn’t test the email subject lines or the duration on the free trial subs. “I’m much more of a ‘feel’ person than a tester.”

Step 2. Forge Smart Partnerships

To increase the reach of its ancillary products program, NHI sought partnerships with other companies, especially in the conference arena. This also lets NHI market audioconferences produced by the partner companies.

Simultaneously, NHI bolstered its email marketing efforts by bartering list swaps with these and other partners. This helped NHI grow its email list in a low-cost way and begin further promoting the ancillary products and free trial offers.

“A lot of companies are skittish about list swaps, but they’ve worked well for NHI,” Schwartz says.

As for volume, Schwartz increased the number of NHI’s email marketing messages gradually, starting with about two emails a week to its main list, then ramping up to seven or eight emails a week. The offers pitch the company’s newsletters, audioconferences, books and “savings club” (weekly specials).

“We’re probably at the max of what we can send,” Schwartz says.

This kind of volume only works if he’s frequently refreshing his product line, so the company does several series items and annual reports as well as using its partnerships to offer new items.

Step 3. Try New Ways to Lower Costs

B-to-B newsletter publishers shouldn’t be afraid to look for new ways to lower their newsletter costs. While NHI had traditionally used forced free trials and some direct mail marketing, Schwartz wanted to find a different tactic to debut a higher-cost newsletter in July 2003.

“It was getting so hard to launch something,” he says. “We were getting a lot of singles but no home runs. I wanted to take out a lot of the cost and launch a needed publication.”


Schwartz’s experiment: He launched a $995 weekly pub, 'NanoBiotech News,' relying solely on email to market and deliver it and offering readers a four-week free trial. The newsletter is delivered in PDF format: Free trial readers see an order offer at the bottom of the email and at the bottom of the PDF. After the trial period, they receive two more order offer notices via email.

“The only cost we have is the editorial,” says Schwartz, who keeps costs low using a network of contractors rather than full-time journalists to create the editorial.


--Ancillary products, from books to audioconferences, now represent 25% to 30% of NHI’s overall business.

--10% to 15% of those who sign up for free newsletter trials go on to subscribe. “It’s been a great way to keep circ on the newsletters growing and makes the ancillary efforts more valuable,” Schwartz says.

--10% to 20% of NHI’s newsletter subscriptions now come via offers sent through swapped email lists and to the ancillary buyers. The company’s other marketing efforts are primarily forced free trials and some direct mail.

--Email list swaps continue to bear fruit. In a recent example, emails promoting one of the company’s key annual products, the Disease Management Directory, resulted in 100 paid directory orders, $30,000 in revenue and 140 new free trial newsletter subscribers.

--Since starting the audio conferences with strategic partners in 2002, NHI has conducted 204 of them as a marketing partner, attracting 1,616 attendees and bringing in more than $400,000 in revenue for NHI.

--The final verdict on the NanoBiotech newsletter is still out. “We’ve kind of done it by the seat of our pants,” says Schwartz, declining to provide the total number of subscribers, which he says is “super small.” “If we get five or six subscribers out of a few thousand names, that would be fine,” he says, noting the newsletter’s high cost and the fact that his only cost is editorial.


Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from National Health Information LLC

National Health Information LLC

Registration for May 16 NEPA (Newsletter & Electronic Publishers Association) Audioconference, “Aggressive E-mail Marketing,” during which David Schwartz will discuss his lessons learned at NHI


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