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What Publishers Can Learn From Harvard's Digital Success

Harvard Business School

In 2010, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) was an academic journal full of unrelated long-form articles. Then editor-in-chief Adi Ignatius took over and transformed it into a multi-platform resource for almost 286,000 subscribers. That's an increase of 21 percent since 2010.

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So what's the secret? Why are so many people willing to pay the HBR's $99.00 annual subscription? It's not just because the publication offers quality content. Here are a few reasons why HBR has been so successful.

Understanding Readers

The Harvard Business Review looks at its relationship with subscribers as an ongoing conversation. Through surveys, analytics, online interaction, and face-to-face interaction HBR connects with its community to find out what needs it might be able to fulfill.

A great example of this is the Visual Library, launched in June of 2015. After data showed that many subscribers were relying on infographics and charts from HBR for presentations, the publication made it easier to access these assets. HBR announced this new resource to its database of 5 million people, and that day, the Visual Library became the second most trafficked page on the website. The announcement also triggered subscription renewals and new subscribers (at an increased price, no less).

HBR Focuses on Subscription

Many companies that are considering transitioning to a subscription model think they might be able to maintain their ad-based model as well. The Harvard Business Review does not do this, and it makes sense why not. A dual focus on ads and subscriptions is difficult to maintain, because the models have different goals. Advertising revenue is generated by clicks. It's all about getting people to read every article you publish. With a subscription model, the focus is on building a relationship with your readers. They need to feel that connection, that the business is speaking to them and listening to how they respond. HBR does that exceedingly well, in part because it is not trying to build a relationship while simultaneously generating clicks.

Additional Resources

Another result of the ongoing conversation is the additional content HBR offers. There are digital tools like the Visual Library and tip sheets to help subscribers with presentations and work life, as well as in-person events that allow readers to network and voice their opinions directly to people who work at the publication. The print edition is now more of a magazine format with an emphasis on visuals, and the blog is constantly being updated with quick hits like "How to Read a Book a Week" or "A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email." With resources like these, subscribers have come to rely on HBR for content and tools they can't get anywhere else.

HBR is Constantly Evolving

Yes, HBR has seen enormous success, but that doesn't mean it stops evolving. In 2014, the publication completely redesigned its website, making mobile reading easier and adding new organizational and digital tools, including the Visual Library.

There is also a new freemium model, which allows non-subscribers to read up to four articles a month for free. If a person registers, that number increases to eight. Then the reader is in the database and HBR can begin a new conversation.

What Publishers Can Learn from HBR's Digital Success

The Harvard Business Review offers quality content in an easily accessible format. HBR listens to its readers and offers them a unique way to make their lives both better and easier. And it keeps finding new ways to do so. Publishers who make that same effort to understand their readers, focus in on what they're trying to accomplish, and maintain an ongoing connection with the audience could see results like those at HBR. When one considers the impact that finding a job through your publication could have on converting that person to a life-long and loyal reader and subscriber, the HBR example further illustrates the importance of building a relationship with your readers, not just seeking clicks.

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