Harvard Business Review successfully adapts to the digital age
Adi Ignatius knew something was wrong when he was applying for the editor-in-chief’s job at Harvard Business Review in 2008, during the teeth of the Great Recession.
Business honchos regularly consult the publication, considered a bible for management advice. But the business review still hadn’t published a word about the recession, as Ignatius recalls. The reason? There was a six-month gestation time for many articles.
After he got the job, Ignatius and group publisher Josh Macht set out to drag this nearly 100-year-old publication into the new century. For the two Time magazine alumni, that meant beefing up the website and ensuring it offered the executives who log on extra management tools for their $99 annual, all-inclusive subscription.
The result has been a trend-defying 21 percent surge in paid circulation from 2010 — the year Ignatius and Macht first embarked on their digital strategy — to the magazine’s approximately 286,000 subscribers in 2015. That’s the highest level in its history.
“In the past, we were just acquiring and editing long-form features,” for the 10 print issues each year, Ignatius said. “We still do that, but now we’re shifting the content mix and creating a lot of digital content that didn’t even exist [back then].”
Print advertising has slumped at the Watertown-based Harvard Business Review, like it has at most other publications, Ignatius said. But unlike most other publications, he said, digital sales have more than made up for the loss. Executives say they regularly post an annual operating surplus that then goes to Harvard Business School, which is affiliated with the publication.
Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, noted that publications like HBR have an advantage over mainstream media outlets, in part because those subscriptions can often be charged as a business expense.
“The value proposition of the Harvard Business Review is that if you put some time into reading it, you’re going to find some things that will make you a smarter business person, a smarter manager,” Edmonds said.
But check out HBR.org now and you might have a hard time finding those long-form features from the last print edition. Instead, you’re greeted by a steady stream of quirky headlines that promise to change how you approach your job or your career. Think “How to Read a Book a Week” or “Hire the Best People, and Let Them Work from Wherever They Are” or maybe “4 Things That Sink New Executives, and How to Overcome Them.”
Some are posted by HBR editors. But many of them are written by unpaid contributors, academics and executives interested in using the site as a springboard to showcase their ideas.
Part of what Karen Firestone enjoys about the site is its sense of community. The chief executive at Aureus Asset Management in Boston writes a piece every six weeks or so, and she feels like she knows many of the people who comment on her columns.
“My feeling is that there are people all over the world who look at HBR every day and stay connected to it, and to each other through that,” Firestone said. “While it’s an academic institution in that it has ties to Harvard Business School, it also has a very broad readership that likes its accessible site.”
Ignatius and Macht oversaw a big website redesign in November 2014, in part to make it easier to read on people’s phones and to make it easier for readers to save and organize articles. Since that time, HBR has added a popular new feature called “My Library” that allows readers to download photos and graphics from stories that they can incorporate into their own presentations. And earlier this year, HBR started testing a new “tools library” featuring tip sheets, ranging from pricing a company’s services to running a meeting.
Back in 2010, Ignatius and Macht also redesigned the print edition, adding more references in the magazine to the website, and using more striking visual presentations, among other changes.
Harvard University owns HBR as part of its Harvard Business Publishing group, run by chief executive David Wan. The broader group’s 350-plus employees who now work in Watertown plan to relocate to Brighton later this month.
Harvard doesn’t make public HBR’s annual surplus that goes to the business school. But Harvard Business School’s 2014 annual report shows that overall revenue at Harvard Business Publishing rose to $194 million from $180 million. And its 2015 annual report will show another increase, to $203 million.
Athenahealth chief executive Jonathan Bush is one of the Harvard Business Review believers. He’s a regular print and online reader, and is part of a judging panel for the HBR McKinsey Awards, which recognizes the best articles published each year by the magazine.
“It covers smart topics that people care about or don’t yet know they care about,” Bush, whose health IT company is based in Watertown, said in an e-mail. “I’ve read it as long as I’ve been lucky enough to bump into it on a coffee table, in my mailbox, at an airport. . . . It brings a leadership lens to pragmatic issues.”