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Q&A with Sarah McConville, VP of Marketing, HBR & Publisher HBR Press on Subscription Models

February 3, 2014 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

This Q&A is part of OPA’s “Three on Three” series where we ask three industry executives the same three questions on a topic to uncover actionable insights… If you want to learn more, keep an eye out on our site for more interviews. Today’s Three on Three is with Sarah McConville, the Vice President of Marketing for Harvard Business Review Group and Publisher of Harvard Business Review Press.

Sarah McConville HeadshotQ: When conceiving of a subscription-based model, initiative or product, where should you begin strategically?

A: At Harvard Business Review, we always start with the audience. Whether it’s a strategic initiative, a new product concept or our overall subscription model, we ask the questions: For whom are we developing this? What job are they hiring Harvard Business Review to do? What’s the context in which they will be using this offering? What are we bringing to it that is of distinctive value for the audience? What can we give them that is far and away better than they could get anywhere else?

And, just as importantly, we work to ensure that all parts of our business – editorial, marketing, advertising, product development – are in sync when beginning a new strategic effort or offering.

In the past year we’ve been following the framework of a book we recently published calledPlaying to Win. It’s been an incredibly helpful focusing mechanism at all levels of our business.Playing to Winputs you through the paces of asking: What is our winning aspiration? What does winning, not just competing, look like? Where will we play? Specifically, which segments, which markets, which channels, which products? How will we win? So that we get at what our strategic advantage is in achieving our winning aspiration, what capabilities must be in place? How must we be prepared as an organization and as individuals to achieve our aspiration? And finally, what management systems are required? In other words, how are we going to support our behaviors and track our progress? It’s helped us to align and cascade our efforts from an HBR group-level down to individual units and teams.

HBR_All_AccessQ: Please describe one of your subscription-based initiatives and the way in which you feel it is particularly innovative.

A: In the past year we’ve made a significant change to our subscription model by offering “All Access” as our primary offer to subscribers. “All Access” is just that: You can access your Harvard Business Review subscription in print, online, and via your iPad, and you have access to the current issue as well as our online archive of 50+ years of HBR articles. We made the move to “All Access” after hearing from subscribers that this offer represented a greater value for them than just print or print and website alone. And I have to say that we were really pleased to see that, in a time when many media brands are cutting subscription price and offering more content for free as a way of maintaining circulation levels, with “All Access” we’ve been able to add more subscribers, and increase the price with this subscription. Harvard Business Review’s 1H13 AAM Publisher’s Statement was the highest paid circulation level in HBR’s history at 260K.

Based on the success of “All Access” we’re in the process of engaging with our audience to explore other ways of adding value to a Harvard Business Review subscription at a premium level so that we can build on our success to deliver an even better experience for our readers in the future.

Q: What advice would you give in terms of approaching subscription models creatively? Are there any best practices, processes, tips or resources that you would suggest?

A: I think it’s important to listen closely to your subscribers and to understand their most important needs today, but also have an eye on the future and a sense of how you think you can grow your business. Finding this balance of today and tomorrow is critically important. Engage in ongoing audience research, follow best practices from other media brands, but have a strong point of view about what you think makes your offering unique and what you can capitalize on to deliver more value.

When considering new models or offerings, work hard to align the editorial and commercial stakeholders in a shared understanding of how you’re serving subscribers and what you want to deliver to them. But also bring in the skeptics, listen, take them seriously. They will help you gain a different perspective on what you’re trying to do and push you to think more rigorously about the solution you want to offer and the audience segments and channels in which you want to play.

Work to create value for everyone – subscribers and customers, the editorial team and contributors, advertisers, employees. It’s important that everyone involved is contributing and feels they are being well served by the outcome.

Continually check your assumptions. What is true today is sure to change in the future. Evolving your subscription model is an ongoing practice that requires you to constantly test, try new things, learn from the feedback, refine − and sometimes, take a step in a new direction. Innovation is a dynamic process.


Sarah McConville is the Vice President of Marketing for Harvard Business Review Group and Publisher of Harvard Business Review Press. In her role as Publisher, McConville leads the commercial aspects of Harvard Business Review Press, including strategic partnerships, marketing and communications, licensing, and global sales. With Harvard Business Review Group’s executive team led by Group Publisher Joshua Macht and Editor-in-Chief Adi Ignatius, McConville is helping to shape the transformation of Harvard Business Review into a multi-platform digital media brand.


Note: This Q&A is part of OPA’s “Three on Three” series where we ask three industry executives the same three questions on a topic to uncover actionable insights.

Also in this series:

Q&A with Rob Grimshaw, Managing Director, FT.com on Subscription Model Success

Q&A with Michael Crosby, Chief Operating Officer, The Deal on Subscription Model Success

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