This Famous Paid Subscription Service Is Thriving in an Era of Free Content

By ​Jonathan Duch

October 19, 2017

Scholastic is widely known for the children’s books it publishes, but it has a long history of selling subscriptions.

Founded in 1920, Scholastic’s very first product was a magazine called the “Western Pennsylvania Gazette.” The first CEO of the company realized that students didn’t have any news magazines that were appropriate and relevant to them. Hence, the inception of the company.

Now, Scholastic has 24 magazines, ranging from pre-k to grade 12 audiences. Those magazines are the core of Scholastic, their way of communicating with teachers, students, and parents about what’s going on in the world around them.

But, in today’s world, Scholastic isn’t just print: it’s digital as well. Kids learn in various ways, and videos only add to the tools a teacher can use to convey an idea.

We recently interviewed Danielle Mirsky, Vice President of Marketing at Scholastic, who shared how the company leverages trust in its well-established brand to achieve even greater growth.

Here are the highlights of that interview.

Competing Against Free Content

There are lots of other materials out there, particularly in education. Many of those materials are free. How does Scholastic compete against them?

What’s special about Scholastic versus other news content sites is that they focus on children at their particular age and grade. If you’re in second grade, you’re going to get news that’s appropriate for second grade.

“Both the content and reading level are perfectly calibrated to capture where the student is at,” Danielle said.

It also helps that Scholastic stands out among educational resource companies as a distinctly well-known and well-respected brand. They have been leveraging relationships with teachers for so many years that educators can be confident that the content has been vetted and is appropriate.

Danielle says that staying relevant means the company is very in tune with their customers, and they know exactly what’s going on in the classroom. Not just through classroom visits and teacher advisers, but also by using social media, they are able to learn what trends are on the rise and how they can help educators facilitate the growth of their students.

People know that when they’re paying for Scholastic content, they’re going to get results. That trust is and has been the foundation of the brand’s continued success in a market that is constantly evolving.

The Challenge of Merging a Competitor Into the Brand

During Danielle’s tenure, Scholastic has gone through at least one acquisition of a competitor. We asked her: How were you able to merge a whole new customer set with the Scholastic brand?

Scholastic News is their core brand for grades 1-5. In 2012, they acquired competitor Weekly Reader.While not a huge book distributor, Weekly Reader was well-known in the classroom magazine space. There was even some brand confusion, as customers often called Scholastic News by Weekly Reader, and vice versa.

Still, Weekly Reader customers were very loyal to the company and Danielle had to serve them with a product called Scholastic News. Obviously, this had the potential to be disruptive to the customer, but Danielle and her team crafted their communication carefully.

They reached out to customers to let them know that this was a partnership, that they were getting something even better by the brand alliance. Then they followed up through email and direct mail, and even phone calls, to make sure each customer got what they were expecting.

They also co-branded everything for customers who were originally part of the acquisition. Over the course of time, these customers forgot they were Weekly Reader customers and simply became Scholastic News readers.

Danielle also used a lot of various premiums, such as paperbacks, to sweeten the deal—which never hurts.

Gathering and Executing on Customer Feedback

There are so many ways to gather data. Scholastic uses  web analytics to discover where customers go first and what they’re looking at, but that isn’t their only tool: Scholastic does social listening, pays attention to its competitors, and figures out what’s going on in the marketplace. Conferences are great places to have one-on-one conversations about the market.

“We always have to be addressing their needs,” Danielle said, “and we always have to be flexible and changing.”

In addition to adapting based on customer feedback, brands in the education market must always be ready to respond to national changes in educational policy: for example, the curricular initiative known as  Common Core State Standards was introduced in 2010 and was adopted by most states soon after its release. It changed the type of reading that students were doing in the classroom from mostly fiction to half fiction, half non-fiction--a major switch in content requirements that could have thrown an unprepared business off track.

However, Scholastic recognized the change for what it was: as a huge market opportunity. They were able to deliver teachers the exact content they needed for the change, and they saw their business double as a result--something very hard to achieve in the world of magazines and paid content.

While Common Core is no longer as widely followed as it was upon its initially debut,  curricular standards for non-fiction continue to reflect those changes and Scholastic remains well-positioned to meet the corresponding demand.

Danielle and the team understand their customers needs deeply, and this has furnished them with a strong and lasting competitive advantage that keeps them nimble in a changing market.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Danielle Mirsky from Scholastic. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Marketing Executive.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.

Jonathan Duch is the Product Communication Czar for Monetate, where he oversees and directs cross-departmental product launches. Jonathan is a 10-year veteran of marketing technology software, and has pursued a career that has taken him from the US, to Europe, to Southeast Asia, and back again. He currently lives in the Washington, DC area with his wonderful wife, and can often be found running the local trails, or sailing in the Potomac River.

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