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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How HBR uses case studies and ebooks to sell premium subscriptions

May 20, 2021 | By Meena Thiruvengadam – Independent Media Reporter@Meena_Thiru

When looking for ways to add value for premium subscribers, Harvard Business Review dug decades into the past. As Nini Diana, HBR’s director of consumer marketing put it, “Our archive is gold.” 

For 100 years, Harvard Business School has created case studies that bring real-world business dilemmas to life for students, entrepreneurs, and professionals around the world. These case studies dissect real-life situations in which managers have to make key decisions. Often, they must do so despite having incomplete information, conflicting priorities, or the pressure of ticking clocks. 

Harvard’s case studies often make their way into college lesson plans. Educators can access course packets to use in their teaching. “It’s an entire collection of solutions to almost any type of business problem,” Diana said. 

Turns out that Harvard’s 640 ebooks and thousands of case studies provide such a valuable selling point that one in five subscribers opts to pay 50% more to access them. “Despite being written eight or 10 years ago, they still have relevance,” Diana said. “A superuser of our content can benefit from any of them.” And HBR has found it wise to focus on the needs of the superuser. 

A valuable collection

Individually, most Harvard case studies sell for $8.95 per PDF and $15.05 for a printed copy. Ebooks are typically priced at$19.95 each. A five-ebook series on effective management — with titles including Getting The Right Work Done and Making Every Meeting Matter — sells for $90.

Certainly, some users are looking to solve a single issue, or for a very specific topic. However, HBR audiences generally face a wide range of business challenges and are interested in learning more. So, for just  $18 a month or $180 a year, 20% opt for HBR’s highest-priced subscription tier. It’s the only one  that includes access to a curated collection of case studies and ebooks. That price also includes HBR’s print magazine, full digital access, and full access to HBR.org’s archives.

Compare that to HBR’s entry level “digital” subscription, which offers access to HBR.org and its archive for $12 a month or $99 a year. For $12 a month or $120 a year, subscribers get full digital access to HBR.org along with six issues of the print magazine — but no case studies or ebooks. 

The premium tier offers a superior value for the type of audience that has the greatest affinity for HBR. In fact, Diana said the offer has been appealing enough to convince 20% of new subscribers to ante up for more. The offer has been particularly effective for driving subscriptions outside of North America, according to Diana. 

“As an institutional philosophy, we value print a great deal,” Diana said. Still, consumers who start with lower-priced digital-only subscriptions tend to skip the mid-tier offering when upgrading their plans demonstrating that it’s not print that’s the selling point. Rather, it is those case studies and ebook collections. 

Updates and value building

While premium subscribers don’t get access to every Harvard Business School case study and ebook, editors regularly update the selection that is available to reflect current corporate conversations. Recent topics of focus have included Blockchain, Black business leadership, and building workforces for the future. 

A new ebook is made available to premium subscribers each quarter. Premium users are able to access each title for a full year or until their subscription runs out. 

Subscribers currently can’t choose their own ebooks. However, that is a potential change user feedback has put on the team’s radar. “We’re always trying to rethink the product mix without upsetting the customer experience,” Diana said. 

HBR  learned how much its audience values ebooks and case studies through extensive user research, Diana said. Case study and ebook access were the two benefits users said would be most valuable to them — and most likely to convince them to pay more for an HBR subscription. 

They are “that thing Harvard can offer that no one else can,” Diana said. 

About the author

Meena Thiruvengadam is an independent journalist and editorial consultant. You can find her on Twitter @Meena_Thiru.

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