Digital is "Huge Opportunity" to Engage Readers and Grow Brand on All Platforms: Q&A with Josh Macht and Eric Hellweg of Harvard Business Review
Josh Macht, Executive Vice President and Publisher, and Eric Hellweg, Managing Director, Digital Strategy and Editorial Director, of Harvard Business Review (HBR), have been instrumental in strengthening the HBR brand through the use of digital. Interestingly, deeper engagement through digital tools and experiences has helped grow HBR on all platforms, including print. We interviewed them to get some insights into how they achieved this and what advice they have for publishers. Josh and Eric will be delving more deeply into this at the Digital Innovators’ Summit in March in Berlin. But for now, enjoy their thoughtful responses and valuable insights in this interview.
What have been the major challenges and lessons learned during HBR’s journey to become more digital?
For us, the challenge lies in figuring out how to create real and lasting value for our readers and contributors when the digital arena can often feel ephemeral, faddish and constantly in flux. It sounds like a cliché, but there’s just so much noise out there that can easily distract any media company — staying focused upon what’s meaningful for our readers is tricky.
But we’ve had some solid successes. We maintain a healthy internal dialogue about our strategic choices -- where we want to play and how we want to win. At our core, we offer management ideas for leaders who want to grow their operations and trounce the competition. But we’ve learned that the ideas alone are not enough. We need to enhance our ideas with a digital experience that helps you to apply our ideas and manage our content.
This means we need to have our ears open at all times to understand what our customers really need from us. Our entire team, across commercial and editorial, works with a shared understanding of our readers and their needs. Our new website, HBR.org, is at the heart of the brand experience: It allows our readers to create a personalized view of HBR; it makes it easier to save and share your own library of HBR content; plus, it provides resources and new tools to help our readers put our ideas into practice. And we’re already getting positive feedback from our visitors, but the site has only been live for a few weeks.
How do you approach the development of new products and associated business models?
The HBR Group has been on a steady growth trajectory for the past 5 years, and it’s been due to a combination of reinvented core products (magazine, books, website) along with totally new offerings.
A big part of our recent success is that we’ve designed our best new products by iterating version after version with our customers. And we haven’t been afraid to make mistakes along the way. Every successful new offering has grown out many, many tweaks along the way.
Our branded lines of HBR books are good example. These are collections of Harvard Business Review articles that our editors have curated and organized by essential topics for leaders: Strategy, Innovation, Leadership, Managing Yourself, etc. Rather than taking these collections directly into the retail channel untested, we reinvented our process by identifying popular topics from our online article archive and creating digital bundles that we could test with HBR.org customers first. Once we’ve seen that a collection is getting traction, we are ready to make the investment in turning the collection into a paperback book series and merchandising those series at retail and e-tail stores such as WH Smith and Amazon, where they’ve had great success. And recently we’ve found that we can often add tools to these collections, such as our branded Guide to Persuasive Presentations plus a video case study sold exclusively on HBR.org and increase the customer’s willingness to pay substantially. In addition to adding video supplements, an ebook like our HBR Guide to Business Plan Writing now comes with the tools to create your business plan — models, case studies and even spreadsheets that you can customize to your needs.
The new website itself has grown out of countless hours with our community; we met with people every week—subscribers, social media followers—and teased out their interests and collected their feedback on early designs and concepts. These feedback loops were invaluable and gave us a lot more confidence in our launch. Our new site delivers the tools our readers told us they needed to manage, share and use our content more effectively in their work lives. Plus, the more you use the site, the better we become at suggesting content and tools that might help you every day at work.
We’ve also discovered entirely new ways to reach our audience with our ideas, whether it’s a live webinar or new interactive graphics or our new assessment platform that allows us to create self-guided tests to complement important ideas in leadership or innovation, just as an example. These approaches are meant to deepen the relationship with our customers, and they also open up new advertising opportunity, which has been hugely helpful in offsetting declines in our print advertising, which has seen the same softness as our peers.
With the importance of social media, how does HBR engage and nurture the community? How does it manage and use the input coming from the community?
Social media is critical for audience development. We get about 30-40 percent of our traffic through our fans and followers at Twitter and Facebook. And LinkedIn has consistently been a source of devout readers on HBR.org. One recent study showed that while HBR.org might not have the same daily volume of content as a WSJ or even Quartz, when you look at the amount of times each story is shared and compare us to our competitive-set, we’re leading the pack.
Our content is far more viral than I think we even imagined and that’s really important to us because our mission is about expanding the reach and impact of these ideas around the world. Social has been key. But it’s also important to the business model because so much of that social activity sparks a deeper interest in the brand. In addition, we find that our social visitors are repeat customers to webinars and we hear from them anecdotally that they are newsstand buyers, which has also been at an all time high. For us, social isn’t a nice to have; it’s a business driver across e-commerce, print sales, and advertising.
How did HBR approach free and paid content and what are keys to converting free users to paid?
Early on, we made an important decision to continue with paid content at the heart of our business model. But that doesn’t mean that we haven’t opened ourselves up to social media and free content—the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
After experimenting with different models, we’re now working with a metered paywall similar to many publishers. On our new site, you can get five pieces of content per month before you need to register. After you register you get 15 pieces of content per month, and we give you the ability to create your own personal library and create topic-based feeds of content that are of interest to you.
To some people, that may seem overly generous, but the goal is to build a relationship with you and to get to know your needs by understanding your behavior on our site. Whether it ends up being 15 page views or 5, well, that’s not really the point. The point is that we’re willing to give up content as a means to open people up to the idea that HBR should be a key ingredient in your daily media diet — that we can help you and your company to become more competitive and more fit in a tougher and tougher business environment. It’s not always apparent to people how HBR can help them or their company, but once you start using the site and reading the magazine, it becomes addictive.
Given your experience, what key advice you would give media leaders who want to build solid digital media businesses?
We’ve both lived through the initial dot-com boom in the late-90s and the subsequent bubble bursting. For so many folks in traditional media, the Internet has felt like one long car crash. And that might be the biggest barrier to success: The mindset. Yes, digital media overturned so much of what was once a solid print business model. But it also opened up massive opportunities.
For HBR, digital has been a huge opportunity to extend the brand around the world and get millions of leaders exposed to our ideas. And it’s helped to boost our print as well, which has never reached so many newsstand buyers or subscribers– we’re at our highest print circulation ever, while visits to our website continue to rise. Plus, we’re finding ways to add even more value to what we do via the website.
So the first thing we’d say is that you need to build genuine excitement among everyone in the organization and give everyone a chance to see the power of digital for your brand. Long gone are the days of the digital divide inside of many traditional media corporations. But now we need to work on bringing back the sense of fun and excitement to what we do online and off. And that typically begins when everyone starts to see the power of enhancing the content digitally and extending the reach of it at the same time. People want to grow and they want to be part of a growing organization with significant prospects for tomorrow.
Second, we’d recommend promoting data and analytics as a key tool throughout the organization. Editors as well as the tech and commercial teams should know and understand the key metrics for the business and have support in developing insights drawn from the data. It reveals so much about the audience; we couldn’t imagine a digital publishing strategy without it. And it’s incredibly rewarding for the team to have deeper understanding of the audience that’s coming to engage with the content you’re publishing. Our editors are very close to our digital and newsstand data, and insights from audience research. It doesn’t rule us or over-rule editorial judgment, but it’s important for everyone to understand what measurements matter for our mission and our margin.
Lastly, more traditional media companies are waking up to the value of and the need for a true product management function within their companies. Product management is old hat at more pure play digital companies in and out of media, but it’s a relatively new area within traditional media. For us, product management focuses on three things: What does the user need, what are the business goals, and what can our tech team create? Product managers must work across edit and commercial lines and this naturally creates some tension within media organizations, but we see it as a critical role for media companies in the future.
Ultimately though, it’s up to leaders inside media and publishing companies to help show that there can be a bright digital future and that there’s a plan for how you can use your company’s unique attributes online. We need to continue to challenge ourselves and everyone in the organization to shape a vision of what success looks like for the company. Couple all of this with a genuine sense of curiosity and a willingness to experiment, along with a “no fear” attitude when it comes to making mistakes and growing by getting a grip on what makes your content unique, and we think that your prospects as a digital business are strong.
Easier said than done for sure. But there’s no excuse for not at least giving it a try.