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Harvard Business Review exec on the anatomy of high-quality content

Few brands are more synonymous with high-quality, high-value content than Harvard Business Review. Katherine Bell, editor of HBR.org, talks us through the principles that keep the brand true to its promise – sharing how the brand has adapted to the web and how a piece of HBR digital content is pulled together.

In the new world order, where anybody can be a publisher, how important is high-quality and high-value content to separating your brand from the competition and ensuring you are successful?

That’s very important for us and it’s at the heart of the overall HBR strategy. We know that our brand is a huge part of who we are and it’s very much why people come to us. So it’s critical that we never betray that. The promise we give people is that we will select for you the ideas coming out of business schools and other forward-thinking places that we think will be most useful to you, and we will explain those in a way that makes sense. 

So people come to us for the selection and for the translation – and both things are really important. They both depend on our audience being able to trust us. Part of that is down to the experts we work with. Pretty much all of the best management experts in the world work with us. We have high quality because those people work with us, but we work with those people because we have high quality. If we ever allow that to erode, we lose our authors. If we lose our authors, we lose everything.

The increasingly competitive marketplace is a threat to publishers, but is it also a benefit to HBR because it allows you to capitalise on your strong and trusted brand and to stand out?

I think that’s true, yes. And it’s interesting from the authors’ perspective, too. We have authors who work in different places, with different brands. Many of those publications will make very few changes to their material. The process is easy. But we find that our authors tend to come back to us because they know we work really hard with them on their work to make sure the content is understood. That’s a better result in the end and, although it can be painful, they see the value of that.

How have you adapted to the demand for content to be available more quickly and more easily?

So we’ve sped up our process massively for the web compared with the magazine. The magazine is published ten times a year and the planning and the work that goes into that is enormous. We have had to find ways to work much more quickly for the web. But compared with many of our competitors, our processes are still more complex. We have more rounds of edits and we still have a top editor look at everything. 

It’s refreshing that those traditional print-based principles of high-quality content, accuracy and standards are transferred to the work you do on the web, when for many those things have been eroded by the view that digital has to happen quicker and cheaper…

Yes I agree, and it’s something that means a lot to me. And things have changed over time. When we first started doing digital-only content through our blog network in 2008, the focus was on doing things really quickly and differently from the magazine, because we wanted to prove to ourselves and the readers that we could do daily, short and digestible content that was different to what they got in print. Because of that, and because we had a much smaller digital staff, we couldn’t put the same effort into every digital piece as we can now. We have increased the level of effort we put into every piece in part because we realized that’s what our audience wants. They want content that is the same level of quality. even if it is shorter or covering a topic in a different way than the magazine would. We have achieved that in part by focusing a lot of our digital work on new research. We can cover brand-new ideas a lot earlier online than we can in the magazine. 

Can you walk us through the editorial process of producing digital content at HBR, to give a flavour of how a piece comes together?

Well that’s another thing that has changed as audience demands have changed. Previously, we had a network of contributors who would send us stuff; we would edit it and post it. We’ve become a lot more focused on planning and that again is a result of having more digital resources and what we are learning from our audiences. We’re not a news organisation with a daily news cycle, so we don’t have a daily meeting, but we now have two meetings a week where editors meet to discuss the ideas we want to cover over the coming few days. That meeting includes some magazine editors as well as digital editors, and we look very closely at the pipeline of research. We’ll consider the research that has come in since the last meeting, talk about what’s happening in the world – company news and other relevant issues with a management angle – and we look for things that are relevant for our readers.

From there, we assign pieces to editors and they will go away and commission pieces from an author or work on them themselves. We are doing more staff pieces than we used to, and that’s because we have a much faster pipeline of ideas these days. It used to be that we could only cover ideas when the right author had the interest and the time. Now, we have the option of interviewing the experts or looking at the data visually, so the researcher doesn’t necessarily have to do all of the work anymore.

We’re also doing more organised series of content. Our insight centres, for example, are a month-long series of content on a very specific and often-more-technical issue. Another is our ‘You and your team’ series, which looks at management relationships and teams. Those encourage us to be more active in commissioning around those subjects.

The rest of what we publish is the result of individual editors’ relationships with authors and working out what’s on their minds on an ongoing basis. A lot of those authors also work on magazine articles and books, so that’s where we can really produce content across platforms.

How is the team structured to ensure you are creating high-quality, high-value content?

We have a pretty focused team of digital editors who carry out a lot of the roles outlined above. We also have a developer and an audio producer in that team. But all of the editors who work on the magazine and the books also contribute to the web – so they are also part of our team and part of our success.

What’s your own background and how did you come to be an HBR editor?

My own background is pretty varied. I started my career in academic book publishing but, living in the Bay area in the ‘90s, it was almost impossible not to end up working with a start-up. I did that for a while but then moved to the UK, where I ran chef Delia Smith’s website. Following that, I took some time off to write fiction and worked on some other food websites. Then I joined HBR and, although I didn’t have the subject matter background, I had worked in places where management was a huge issue and I was interested in that as a result.

Does that suggest the approach to hiring at HBR is focused on finding people dedicated to high-quality content, accuracy and rigour – and that, while important, deep knowledge of the subject matter is a bonus?

I think we look for both if we can, but it’s fair to say that we look hard for people with the principles of good journalism. We have a mix of people here. We have editors who are very specialized in different aspects of management and have been studying those things for years. But we also have editors who are really flexible and can do things in lots of subject areas within management and have other skills in terms of telling stories. 

How do you measure whether all of these approaches are working and delivering for you? What’s the approach to measurement and analytics at HBR?

I could talk about analytics for hours! We are very focused on measuring the performance of our content. A good example is measurement around social. Social media has been very important for us, and it accounts for almost half of our traffic. While the brand is very strong, that can sometimes be a hindrance in reaching new readers. Some people feel like HBR isn’t for them, but through social we are able to get them to the content before the brand and show them that it is useful and it is relevant to them. So we do a lot of measurement around who we are reaching with social. Another really important measure is the frequency of visits to our site. That is still the best measure of how we are doing editorially. We are seeing more people returning more frequently, and that is what tells me we are heading in the right direction.

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