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Harvard Business Review’s data journey, explained

Sarah McConville, vice president of marketing at Harvard Business Review (HBR) Group and publisher of Harvard Business Review Press spoke to Jon Watkins about how data and analytics are driving the evolution of the HBR brand.

At HBR you talk about your evolution from highly respected ‘academic’ publisher to modern media brand. What role have data and analytics played in helping you make that journey? 

They’re absolutely core. Looking specifically at subscribers and product purchasers, data and analytics have been integral to our goal of lowering the cost of acquisition while increasing retention. We view our subscriber file as just as crucial to the sustainability and growth of the business as our content archive. And the two really do go hand in hand. We want to understand what motivates our audiences and what they are looking for, and the evolution of the audience - from someone who comes in anonymously to someone who registers and then subscribes. We then want to focus on retention, of course. It is essential that we think about the life cycle of our audience all the way through so that we continue to deliver what our subscribers find valuable which in turn, increases the lifetime value of our subscribers. This would be impossible without data and analytics. 

In the modern content world, we talk a lot about delivering the right content for the right audiences in the way they want to receive it. Presumably, data is the key to that? 

For sure. When we talk about segmentation here, we think about what we know about our audiences and how we can tailor what we serve up next for them - to create a really valuable digital experience. We look at the different journeys of both our anonymous visitors and our subscribers and the content they access. 

Another thing we have done is to carry out a needs-based segmentation. It has been very interesting to see how our audience sits along the spectrum of content, specifically around the desire for hands-on, skills-based content. There are a lot of characteristics that indicate when someone particularly wants that type of content, and what they do with it. 

We did the segmentation all the way up to c-suite executives and what we found is that although they are interested in the same topics, there are big differences in the way they consume and apply that content compared with those in the earlier stages of their careers - a group we call the 'ambitious learners'. The c-suite’s context is more outwardly focused on being able to set an agenda for their organisation and for their industry. They are really thinking about the shareholders and about their employees at a macro level. They want content that will help them be more effective with big picture issues, curated and tailored for them. 

We also identified a group in between the c-suite and the ambitious learners – a group called strategy implementers. These are the people working directly under the c-suite. They have got to apply the content but they also have to think strategically about it. They have different needs again. 

Based on the data we hold, we have been able to identify which of those categories our subscribers are most likely to fall into. We are not only able to recognise you in terms of your relationship with us –whether you are a subscriber or not – but also your psychographic. That is where data is helping us ensure the experience is as good as it can be. 

That middle group of strategy implementers is an interesting audience. Does it provide a new route to today’s c-suite while at the same time building a relationship with the senior executives of tomorrow? 

Completely. That's what we're finding. This group has significant influence over the very senior strategic choices that are made in an organisation. They are usually brought in to those conversations early, because they have the role of evaluating what that brand is saying but also in the practicalities of applying or using products and services. They are a very interesting group to get to know in terms of what they need from content and how they want to use content. In our case, they are very much in learning mode. They are focused on a successful outcome in their work. They are usually competing with someone for their next step up, and so they want content that can help them achieve that. 

Does the fact that you have such a strong brand and good customer loyalty give you an advantage in that you are able to measure trends over a long period of time? 

That is true. We do have a really nice retention level. What’s also interesting, though, is that when people do leave us, we go into our files to try to understand why and we often find that although they have left us as a subscriber they still view themselves as aligned to the brand. In many cases, they are still buying on the news-stand and they are buying products. The thing that makes us slightly different is that we sell branded content on our site, and that gives us a deeper insight into our audience’s behaviour - because we can see how they are buying products in relation to specific needs, such as where they are in their careers. What they say to us is that having that brand continuity and the content continuity is very important to them. They expect a certain caliber of content from us. So data helps us in terms of retention but it also helps us understand those people who come to us but go away for a short period of time. 

When did you embark on your data gathering and analysis journey? 

We started doing it seriously about three years ago and we made a pretty substantial investment in a customer database and other tools to measure and report back to the editorial and advertising teams. That was when we started using data to bring together the product sales and subscription marketing parts of our business. We knew there was a lot more we could do to make our interaction with customers a richer experience. At the end of the day, that’s really what it’s all about. Since then, we have used data across the business, including during the launch of our new site – to make sure the content we are surfacing for customers is relevant and appropriate to their needs. Three years in, we have a much more holistic view of the customer.

How do you ensure you are measuring the right things and using the results effectively? 

We do a lot of measuring along the way and we look at a range of indicators, such as whether we are growing year-on-year, whether we are getting more subscribers and whether we are retaining subscribers. We do a lot of analysis around traffic coming to the site and when we do product development we check with customers at key points, so that when we get to launch date we have a really good sense of what’s working. 

What would your one piece of advice be to other media brands looking to embark on a similar journey? 

The one thing I would say is make sure you don’t rely solely on the tools. Make sure you also have the right people in place to use the tools, conduct the analysis, share the insights, and to act on the data. Bringing the right people to the table will help you get the most out of your investment and get you to a better place. It may be a different place to what you imagined, but it will be a better place.

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