Harvard Business Review: Online…and on the right track

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You were HBR’s first online hire back in 2006. What was the world of HBR like then?

It was very different from today, that’s for sure – and through most lenses. When I came in, HBR.org was getting about 150,000 people per month. The only content available was behind a paywall – it wasn’t digital publishing as we know it today. I was brought in to be a senior editor, but the role quickly became more about reshaping the technology infrastructure to make real digital publishing possible, facilitating culture change, and then experimenting with new content forms to find the ones that were right for bringing us into the digital world in the appropriate ways.

How difficult was it to get buy-in for some of the things you wanted to do back then, given that many of them were in unchartered waters? Or was your appointment in itself buy-in from the board?

That’s a great question. I heard a brilliant quote this weekend – “Pioneers get the arrows in the back and settlers get the gold”. Look, any change of this type is a difficult one, especially in an organisation that has been and continues to be successful – and there certainly were challenges. But one of the key things that has led HBR to its current digital success is that the CEO, David Wan, was supportive from the beginning and was able to make some pretty big organisational changes to help move things along – such as extracting me from HBR and partnering me with Josh Macht to create a separate digital group within the company. That gave us a critical bit of latitude that allowed us to find our early successes.  So we’re not dealing with those kinds of challenges now but it’s not like we’re doing victory laps. We’re now grappling with higher-order challenges – the right role for UX in the organisation, and redefining the nature of a subscription. So buy-in isn’t much of an issue now, because everybody is active in digital today and it is a completely different time. But it was important back then.

How pivotal has your digital work been to HBR’s transition from an academic brand to a stand-alone media brand?

Well I hope digital has played a major role but, if it has, I certainly didn’t achieve that alone. I might have been the first in the door here but I was able to find some allies quickly and build up a very good, albeit small, team early on. Now, we have a much larger team, of course. It’s funny – I remember when I first engaged with the HBR brand, long before I ever joined the staff. It was in 1997 and I was out on the West Coast and was co-founding the magazine Business 2.0. I remember reading it on the newsstand and identifying almost immediately how much untapped value there was inside the pages. But that was mostly unrealised because it was in print, encased in these long articles. When HBR offered me the job almost 10 years later, I thought back to that first encounter and took the job, in part, because I wanted to find ways to extract that value and to get those ideas out into different formats. Digital was the way to do that, obviously. That was my passion for the role. And pretty quickly we proved that there was a growing and global audience that was really interested in the ideas that HBR presented, but they wanted them in new, digital ways. 

The world has changed an awful lot since you joined took that role. Can you give us a sense of what the HBR digital strategy looks like today?

It’s obviously a very, very different situation today than it was back then. Back then, the strategy was about early experimentation to explore opportunities for quick wins and indicators of success – and a lot of the strategy was focused on reshaping the internal culture. Now, with a lot of the success we’ve seen in the past nine years and a lot of the tools we’ve developed – most notably our customer database and the revamped website that we went live with seven months ago – it’s a far more mature and frankly more exciting strategy that is about understanding who the users are, their needs, and the jobs that they are hiring us to do. We feel pretty confident that we have the tools to help us meet those needs.

How much of what you do is centered on using digital to deepen audience engagement, enhance the user journey and, ultimately, sell more products?

That’s essentially my job description! Or a big part of it, anyway. We have three core revenue lines. We have subscriptions, with recurring revenues, primarily centered on the magazine. We have an advertising business. And the third is product sales. So we have a lot of revenue lines to balance there but the heart of it is about trying to find new ways to engage users. One of the things we’re focused on now is how we can take audiences much deeper into the ideas that we cover. It’s no longer just about presenting the idea. It’s about also giving them the tools to implement the idea with their teams, for example, to better understand it and to better disseminate it. You see some of this effort in the new My Library space on HBR.org, where you can follow topics of interest and create folders to share with your team. Or the week-old Visual Library, where subscribers have access to over 100 (and growing) infographics and a dozen PowerPoint slide presentations we’ve put together based on ideas from the magazine. It’s very much about getting people to continue their journey with us – whether that’s the next one step or the next ten steps. And with our diversified revenue streams, we can capture value whether they simply keep visiting the site or if they decide to purchase a book or a subscription. We’re working to identify the best paths, and the first step is understanding the users’ needs. 

How do you work on a practical level to ensure all aspects of the HBR brand are joined up?

We’ve come a long way, but we’re still finding our way there. But, having said that, we’re in a pretty good place. Prior to Adi Ignatius joining as Editor in Chief of the HBR Group in 2010, there were three separate divisions – one for the magazine, one for digital, one for books. It’s all one group now, so there’s a lot of coordination and collaboration, which is great. And we’re getting better at helping the editorial and commercial sides to realise that they share a common denominator: They both want to understand the users so they can better serve them. For the redesign of the website, which was a project that took about a year and a half, I took advantage of those situations. I put together a working group of people from all across the organisation. It included editors, technology people, advertising people and ecommerce people. That group of around 12 people met every week, sometimes every day, during the course of that project. The project showed everyone on the team the value of working collaboratively and bringing together people from across all of our lines. That kind of collaboration is pretty rare in publishing shops, especially the jump between editorial and commercial people – so that proved to be critical and, although the site went live around seven months ago, that group continues to meet every couple of weeks to have collaborative conversations, to share some of the data we are seeing and to understand how we can stitch all of the pieces together more effectively. We’re still relatively early in identifying those paths but as they come into view, we will have the right people at the table to create change.

I understand you use social channels to get HBR content to audiences that may in the past not have considered the brand relevant to them. How else are you using the two fast-growing areas of mobile and social right now?

Our content is our best sales person. And we see time and again that if we can get our content and ideas into people’s hands, then we see a moment where they say “oh, wow, this is actually relevant to me”. If we flash back to a time when digital wasn’t such a big part of what we do, the only way people could consume our content was through long-form, in-depth print features in an issue that cost US$17 on the newsstand. That maybe reinforced some people’s views that the content wasn’t for them. As we have found new ways to dive into the different angles of an idea or give people tools to connect the dots between a theory and practice, we have become much more successful at opening the door for the brand. As far as the role that social is playing, now that we have those content capabilities, social is arguably the best way to disseminate those ideas. For a relatively niche publication, we like to think we punch above our weight in the social realm. We have more than two million followers on Twitter, we are up near two million for Facebook and we have the single-biggest branded group on LinkedIn. So we’re really well positioned there and what we’re trying to do now is continue to grow our understanding of the value that each of those social platforms can provide to us. That’s where the customer database comes in.

And mobile…?

We built the new site in a responsive format and as soon as it went live, we saw our mobile consumption go through the roof. A good amount of that was driven through Facebook, which obviously rewards brands that have a strong mobile site. You hear people talking about ‘mobile first’, but I think during the redesign project, we probably achieved ‘mobile parity.’ The desktop can still play a pretty central role for us – it’s where people go to manage their libraries, etc. Now we have seen the explosion in mobile usage since the launch, we’re approaching things in a ‘mobile-first’ way. And that obviously presents challenges, when you’re looking to drive deeper levels of engagement, with different monetisation options. That’s really challenging, especially with social being such a conduit for mobile usage – because people have a very different relationship with content in that context. We are seeing some really interesting tactics among publishers right now – such as inserting “Read More” buttons a couple paragraphs down in mobile. Right now we’re looking to identify the best ways to drive deeper engagement in the mobile realm.

You now have more than five million unique visitors each month – but what does future success look like and what are the truly valuable metrics of success?

Unique visitors are an important metric for us, but it’s not the most important. We’ve seen a lot of news in online media recently where some players have had to exit because they were caught in the “murky middle” from a unique visitors standpoint, where they weren’t the size of a Buzzfeed and they weren’t the super-small premium brand. I guess by those measures, you could say we’re in that place too, but we have a fundamentally different value proposition and revenue model. The nature of our relationship with visitors isn’t about news. It’s about insights of lasting value – so the important metrics for us become about how we can get people to come back more often and go deeper into the site. So we need to think about what we can create that is of compelling enough value to make that happen. Those are the metrics we are focused on for next year. It’s an incredibly exciting time. I never thought I would be here as long as I have but new challenges keep appearing and so do opportunities. And with the customer database now in place and the new site and the organisational buy-in, I really think the best is still to come.

Follow Eric Hellweg on Twitter.

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