Smithsonian Magazine: Transforming a Beloved Magazine into a Multiplatform Experience

Smithsonian: Transforming a Beloved Magazine into a Multiplatform Experience

An inside look at how the magazine used data and research to transform their business model and better serve generations of readers

First published in 1970, Smithsonian magazine has expanded beyond the original glossy magazine filled with beautiful photos and unique content. Through a series of incremental changes, the magazine has taken the subscription product that millions of readers know and love and transformed it into a feature- and content-rich, multiplatform experience that appeals to readers across generations.

We first heard about the magazine’s recent transformation during a riveting session between Rob Ristagno, CEO of Sterling Woods, and Amy P. Wilkins, chief revenue officer, at Smithsonian magazine, at Subscription Show 2021 in New York last month. After the show, we had the opportunity to catch up with Wilkins to get the inside story.

The genesis

Good subscription products are always evolving, and Smithsonian magazine wanted to explore new revenue and retention opportunities and ways to better serve their readers in the digital age. After talking about a transformation for a long time, things finally came together in 2020 when the magazine brought down the silos between print and digital to focus as a team on the greatest opportunities moving forward.

The guide

To kick off their transformational efforts, Wilkins wanted solid data and market research to help inform their decision making.

“What we needed was to have someone guide us through that process and help us discover what was possible,” Wilkins said.

The magazine put out a request for proposal and selected Sterling Woods as their consultant because the company didn’t have a specific technology solution to “sell” them. Rather, they were experienced data scientists who tailor proven tools, frameworks, processes and models to the businesses with whom they work. Wilkins felt this was a good fit for their organization

With a goal of identifying possible opportunities for transformation and growth, Sterling Woods’ research included 14 in-depth, direct phone interviews and a digital survey completed by 19,000 respondents. The research yielded a significant amount of data that revealed six unique audience segments:

  1. Studious wanderer
  2. Everyday docent (go deep into certain topics and share)
  3. Lifelong learner (go deep in more of a university setting; they compare themselves to other learners)
  4. Civic head of household (younger with children, seeking out information and sharing it)
  5. Silver ambassador (wants the magazine)
  6. Discerning adapter (youngest group, didn’t want the magazine; scan it, see it and share it)

“We knew an older segment would emerge, but we found five other segments, and all six segments wanted the same thing,” Wilkins said. “That surprised us. We thought, ‘it can’t be that easy.’ We expected it to be harder.”

Most of the segments were multiplatform, and some people fit into more than one category. For example, some silver ambassadors were an older group of readers who wanted the magazine, but they also considered themselves to be lifelong learners.

“We didn’t have to build six different products to satisfy six different segments. That was exciting!” Wilkins said. “What all of them wanted was exactly the same but for different reasons and in a different order.”

Something else from the research that surprised Wilkins and her team was that people were less interested in being a community. Instead, they were more interested in engaging with the Smithsonian and Smithsonian experts and leaders in their respective fields.

“Members want to manage their own journey,” said Wilkins.

This doesn’t mean that the audience segments aren’t part of similar communities; they just aren’t looking to Smithsonian magazine to provide that for them. The philanthropic side of the Smithsonian has more communities and like-minded people, but they are moving through the sales funnel in a different way.

“Everything we saw that people wanted was content, including the print magazine, archives, classes taught by Smithsonian-endorsed experts, virtual events and the Smithsonian channel,” Wilkins said.

Quick wins

Since the audience segments all wanted the same thing, Wilkins’ team wanted to test new products and services.

“Let’s get some quick wins under our belt,” Wilkins said. “Look at how we perform with some of the products they said they wanted.”

Virtual events

One of the first new products they tested was virtual events.

“Let’s test this and find out if we’re onto something,” said Wilkins.

Ultimately, the goal was to discover if there was a revenue opportunity with virtual events, so they tested the value of them. While not intended to be a huge revenue driver, the hope was that the events could be tied to a membership upsell.

In January 2021, Smithsonian magazine launched virtual events with at least one per month. Wilkins said they did really well. Members were willing to pay $25 for topics that interested them. Attendance averaged 500 per virtual event. Sometimes an event would draw 800 people, while others drew 300, but 500 was the average. After each virtual event, they did surveys and 100% of participants paid when they signed up, and 82% of those who signed up actually attended. When asked if they would come again, 98% said yes. People also said they would attend four to six more events. These results were consistent after each virtual event, even when new people attended the events.

“It was really exciting that they said they wanted virtual events and then they came,” Wilkins said. “The value for the money was there for them. Even when they had criticisms, they were still rooting for us to succeed.”

Perhaps even more exciting is that approximately 60% of virtual event attendees were already members, and 40% were not. For those 40%, virtual events could be a potential lead in, an opportunity for an upsell. For example, if they became a member for $XX a year, they could get unlimited access to events.

Bringing down the silos

With the magazine, there are two separate sides – a print silo and a digital silo – who don’t always talk to each other. Bringing down the silos bridged an important gap, starting in the fall of 2020. They started with pop-ups on the website, encouraging website visitors to become members. The magazine saw a huge increase in membership as a result.

“This is a product that a lot of people gift to others,” explained Wilkins, “So this was a huge win for us.”

Another quick win was using email marketing as part of the sales funnel. Initially, a prospective member signs up to receive content for a basic level of engagement. When people did that and valued the content, they then wanted a different level of engagement. This was a way to present both new and archived content to deepen the relationship.

“Archived content was something people wanted,” Wilkins said. “I was shocked by that, and it was intriguing.”

Organic search is the #1 way people find Smithsonian magazine, and email is #2, whether it is forwarded to a prospective member from someone else, or they sign up directly for a free newsletter. Email acquisition continues to be a significant way for Smithsonian magazine to engage with audiences. It also helps the magazine promote virtual events. Email acquisition was solely organic growth, and it was a way to begin talking to people who were digital-first.

What’s next

These quick wins were a great start, and they have motivated the team to continue to try new things. For example, they are working on a membership plan with their counterparts at the Smithsonian Institute on the philanthropic side. The magazine is also working with a new fulfillment company to sell bundles (e.g., print or digital only or print and digital) and offer different tiers.

Smithsonian magazine has recently updated and relaunched their website, and they’ll be rolling out new offers to members and prospects. In terms of future projects in the magazine’s transformation, Wilkins said they will focus on things they can accomplish, even if there are minor roadblocks.

“We’ve had to manage our thinking around what we could do, knowing this is the future,” Wilkins said. “We will not ever finish this project.”

But then the very best subscription and membership companies are never content to stop evolving. They are always looking to improve the customer journey and experience, while exploring new ways to grow and change their business to capitalize on new opportunities.

Advice for other subscription companies

Wilkins offered the following advice for other subscription companies who want to evolve and explore opportunities for growth.

  • If you have some assumptions about your audience and what they want, question those assumptions to see if what you believe to be true actually is.
  • Prioritize audience segments and modify messaging slightly for different audiences.
  • Bring somebody in like Sterling Woods to support and guide you. It is less about proving what you already believe and more about seeing where the data leads you. Wilkins said they couldn’t have done this without Rob (Ristagno).
  • Be willing to be surprised.
  • Get started with quick wins. Don’t invest in the research, and let it wither on the vine.

Wilkins’ top tip – “Don’t wait for all conditions to be perfect to get going. When is anything ever ideal? Start trying new things!”

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