Why this digital publisher launched a twice-yearly print magazine

Innovation Leader used its print magazine to forge a deeper relationship with its subscribers.

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If you launch a new publication today, chances are it’ll be online only. Print has its advantages, but it can be extremely expensive to produce, and digital publications tend to have much lower overhead.

And so when Innovation Leader, a $695-a-year subscription publisher focused on corporate innovation, launched in 2013, it went the digital-only route. But then in 2015, it changed course, launching a twice-yearly print magazine that it sent out to its already-existing subscribers and a list of prospects.

I interviewed the publication’s co-founder Scott Kirsner about why he went the print route, the role the magazine plays in reducing subscriber churn, and how he adapted the magazine for a pandemic era when most of his subscribers no longer commute to their offices.

So how long after you launched Innovation Leader did you roll out a print magazine?

We launched Innovation Leader in 2013. We did a prototype magazine issue in 2015, then launched it as a "regularly-scheduled" part of our membership offering in 2016.

So walk me through your thinking in 2015/2016. A print magazine is expensive and logistically difficult. You had a digital subscription publication, which has much lower overhead. Why did launching a print magazine make sense from a strategic point of view?

In the late 90s and early 2000s, I had a great experience writing for magazines like Wired and Fast Company. Both of those created a kind of "campfire" that people could gather around. We wanted to do something similar with Innovation Leader. We felt like seeing photos of your peers in a print magazine, and reading about what they were doing, in a 100+ page package, was a different thing from clicking into one article every time we sent out an email newsletter.

We also heard anecdotally that people who got the email newsletter wished they had more time to pay attention to it, and that they did pay attention to print products (like the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, etc.) So that led us to build out print as part of our membership offering. It was a tangible thing that members would get in the mail, or would pick up for free at our live events, or live events run by other organizations — and potentially turn them into paying members.

You eventually started sending out a print mag twice a year, right?

Yep. There have been a few years where we did three issues (spring/summer/fall) but it felt a little too overwhelming for our fairly small staff.

Did you just send it to paying subscribers?

No, we've always had a list that's a mix of paying subscribers and people who aren't yet subscribers (people who just get our free email address, or occasionally testing lists of people with the right titles for us — heads of digital, emerging technology, digital at large companies.)

That latter group, we cycle on and off the list — they may get one, two, or three issues as a way to encourage them to learn more about Innovation Leader, and either participate in our events or pay for a membership.

So tell me about how you put together each issue. How do you design it as a different offering than what you put out on your website every week?

Initially, with the prototype issue in 2015 and the first few issues in 2016, we didn't — and it was a problem. Stories written for the web tended to be short, and sometimes list or bullet-oriented, and often we didn't have the right photos or illustrations to accompany them. So we needed to address that. 

It felt like a website on paper. But we started building up a network of freelance writers around the country who could actually go out and visit places like the headquarters of Southwest Airlines, or Ford's Silicon Valley R&D center, and write deeper pieces with more texture. We also sent some of our staffers to report stories in person, in places like Miami and San Francisco. That made it easier to spend more time with story subjects, see the places they work, and make the magazine feel like it was giving you more of an insider look than the more succinct stuff we write for the web.

Were the print stories longer?

Yes, it did lead to longer print stories. We started to feel like we wanted to do more six, eight, or 10-page spreads, so we had to put more work into that. For example, a "CEOs & Innovation" package where we landed interviews with CEOs at companies like Google, Staples, UPS, and Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

Did you sell any ads in the magazine? Or was this purely a subscriber benefit?

Initially we thought that ads would be a major part of it, and so we did create packages that blended online visibility with print. But a lot of our advertising clients (consulting firms, software vendors, etc.) often didn't have full-page ads sitting around, so it was a big ask to try to get them to create them. And for a controlled-circ publication like ours, there wasn't significant demand for print ads alone.

What we found more successful was selling two-page advertorial spreads, where an advertiser would either write an essay related to innovation, or repurpose something they'd already written for their blog. It showcased their ideas — more than just a slogan and their logo. So we continue to do a lot of those "thought leadership" programs with companies like IDEO, KPMG, Planbox, Innosight, etc.

Have the ads become a major part of your annual revenue? Or do they just mainly cover the printing and mailing costs?

Not print ads alone, but those print advertorials combined with visibility online — definitely a major part of our annual revenue. (The math gets a little complex because we don't typically break down our sponsorship contracts between print value and digital value.)

So once you had a few issues under your belt, what did you see in terms of how the print magazine was reducing churn and increasing the number of paid subscribers?

We saw both those metrics improving, and also got some nice anecdotal evidence — we regularly get emails from people who learn about us by getting a copy of the print magazine and say, basically, "I'm so glad I found you — this is the world I live in!" So it's cool to see more people discovering our little campfire over time.

This year has been a tougher year for membership renewals — just because we've seen some people in our community laid off, or operating under budget freezes. But we've been working hard on that, and also working to expand the size of memberships we have in some of these huge Fortune 500 companies or big government agencies — going from three or five members to a 25-person or even unlimited enterprise-scale membership.

So let's talk about how you adapted the print magazine during the pandemic. Why did you suddenly face problems in terms of delivering the print mag to subscribers?

Starting in mid-March, nobody was in their offices any more. And that's typically the mailing address we had.

Even now, I'd estimate that only about 10-15% of our members are back in the office at least some of the time. 

So how did you adapt to that scenario? 

Well, in March, we threw out the editorial outline we'd created for the spring 2020 issue, and put everything on pause. The first thing we really needed to do was figure out how to transition our in-person events calendar to online. 

Then, we developed a plan to try to collect home mailing addresses from our members in the US and around the world (just over 20% of our members are outside the US.) 

But let's be honest — everyone is overwhelmed with email right now, and so we didn't get the full database updated with new addresses, even after a few months of trying. 

So our Plan B was to come up with an entirely new editorial plan for the issue. We focused on why innovation and a clear plan for the future matters even more (not less) in tumultuous times like these. Rather than having our staff try to write it, we sought contributions from people on the front lines — people doing innovation and R&D work at companies like UPS, Amazon, Lucasfilm, and NASA. We came up with a new look and feel that made this issue feel a little more book-like and special. (Our usual issue size is 7x10", and this one is 6x9".)  

And we also made it available on Amazon as a Kindle e-book and a print-on-demand paperback, for members who wanted to get it that way; for contributors and sponsors who wanted to buy extra copies; and for people who had never heard of Innovation Leader but discovered us through Amazon.

How did you market the ebook version?

We've been promoting it to our email list, doing some paid social and search advertising, and are now considering doing some promotion on Amazon as well. (Using their advertising tools.) All of the ebook's 25 contributors have also been helping promote it to their followings on social.

Since you're actually selling the ebook, is it contributing meaningfully to revenue?

Well, every dollar of revenue in 2020 is meaningful... but I wouldn't say it's contributing significantly. Surprisingly, the print-on-demand paperback edition is outselling the Kindle e-book. Our audience of execs at big companies seem to still like paper!

What's your strategy once everyone returns to their offices? Will you revert to the previous approach, or is the ebook and POD book here to stay?

I think our strategy will be to continue creating print products that we can mail to people, or distribute at in-person events, but I don't know what form that will take in 2021. I'm not sure yet if we'll go back to something that feels like a magazine, something (like our most recent issue) that feels more like a book, or something different. We've talked in the past about creating an innovation-related board game and mailing that out, or maybe a  vintage-looking printed newspaper covering some of the great innovations of the past 100 years. I think whatever we do, the challenge right now is to get people's attention, communicate value, and definitely to make them feel part of a community after a stretch of time when everyone has been really isolated. 

That's what media can do — whether print or digital — and since we have innovation in our brand, we feel it gives us permission to experiment with lots of different ways to connect with our audience.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.