Harvard Business Review Tests Edgier Prospecting

Aiming to dispel what it considers to be misperceptions among prospects that it is stodgy, academic and only for corporate CEOs, Harvard Business Review has gone right for the gut with two edgy test packages in its latest prospecting drop.

While both test packages are unusually visceral for Harvard Business Review, the creative approaches of the two could hardly be more different.

“On her last day, a disgruntled worker e-mailed employee salaries to the entire company. You've called a staff meeting in 10 minutes. What should you say?” reads the outer-envelope copy for one test cell.

The outer envelope of the second test package features a man perched on a swing in business dress from the middle of his chest down who has just been hoisted out of a vat of chocolate. “Dripping with insight,” reads the teaser copy.

The two packages and a voucher are the three tests in the publication's typical quarterly 2.1 million-piece prospecting effort that dropped in mid-July. They are going up against an 8-year-old control package — a plain white closed-face No. 10 envelope, a four-page letter, a buckslip promoting a premium, a brochure and an order form — that has begun to show signs of fatigue.

The test cells are 50,000 pieces each. They also will be part of an international effort sometime after Labor Day.

The teaser copy for the disgruntled-worker campaign comes from an article that ran in Harvard Business Review in the spring.

“It's a terrific publication and once people get their noses in it, they tend to stay there. So one of the things we wanted to do with this campaign was bring their content into the advertising itself,” said Kevin Lynch, a partner at Hadrian's Wall, the Chicago agency that created the piece.

Inside the package is a four-page letter that begins: “So what would you do? I'll let you in on a secret. There is no right answer.” The package also contains a buckslip offering “Business Classics: 15 Key Concepts for Managerial Success” as a subscription incentive. A brochure repeats the envelope copy on its cover. Inside, it features a graphic of a shifty-eyed disgruntled employee at her computer and four experts' answers to the tease. Most recommend establishing an open salary structure.

Meanwhile, the dripping-man campaign's outer envelope relies more on visual impact.

“You know it's from Harvard Business Review, but you have no idea who [the dripping man] is or why he is there,” said David Luhn, senior writer at Passaic Parc, the Wellesley, MA, agency that created the campaign.

Inside, prospects get a full picture of the dripping man holding a copy of Harvard Business Review. They learn that he is subscriber Dan Cunningham, CEO or “Chief Chokolada” of Dan's Chocolates — a choice consistent with Harvard Business Review's goal of appealing to executives at smaller businesses.

A buckslip promotes the premium, and a 10-panel brochure uses testimonial from Cunningham, among other things, to tout the benefits of subscribing.

“We wanted to find a subscriber who would counter the [stodgy] perception,” Luhn said. “It would surprise no one to find out the CEO of IBM reads Harvard Business Review. It might, however, surprise a prospect to find out that a young entrepreneur reads it.”

The two packages are a drastic departure from traditional Harvard Business Review prospecting, according to Arthur Cohen, circulation and promotion manager at Harvard Business Review, Boston.

“This is probably one of the most exciting, visceral and out-of-the-box campaigns that Harvard Business Review has done,” he said.

In contrast, the control “appeals to a higher self,” Cohen said. Its copy leads with “Your career isn't just about money, is it?” Ideally, he said, Harvard Business Review will end up with rotating control packages.

“With the glut of mail and a tighter economy, we feel we need to be fresh,” he said.

If any of the three tests show promise, Harvard Business Review will test them again, upping their quantity to between 100,000 and 150,000 pieces. Cohen would not specify how well a given piece would have to do to make a second round of tests. “It's not that it's proprietary,” he said. “It just has to do enough to beat the control and cover its costs.”

Of the three, Cohen said he is least optimistic about the voucher.

“Conventional wisdom about vouchers” — that they generally work only for very well-known publications — “seems to be holding true. As much as we will be soon, we are not a household name like The Wall Street Journal,” he said.

The campaign also comes at a time when Harvard Business Review has upped its frequency from six to 12 times a year. The magazine's circulation is 250,000.

Cohen would not give the lifetime value of Harvard Business Review subscribers other than to say its retention rate is “one of the highest in the business.” The median age of its readership is 44.

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