In spite of many new challenges publishers face since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, some have found opportunities to better serve their audience, as well as redefine what their brand mission is. This is certainly true for Harvard Business Review.
Although the publication faces many of the same uncertainties that keep a lot of publishers up at night, it has also been proactive in mitigating the impact of the crisis for its own business, while trying to help its audience do the same. Even though its print advertising is down, its other channels are over-performing and will keep HBR’s ad revenue goals on target this fiscal year (ending June 30). That’s partially due to its flexibility to respond to the crisis. It pivoted its content strategy and launched new digital initiatives to strengthen its brand and find new ways to serve its readers, listeners and viewers across platforms.
We wanted to hear more about how HBR is weathering the storm and ensuring its audience is served, while it also forges ahead in a new, difficult climate. So we sat down (virtually) with editor-in-chief, Adi Ignatius, to find out.
Folio: COVID-19 is as much an economic crisis as it is a public health crisis, so as a business publication how have you responded to the situation editorially?
Adi Ignatius: Everything has changed. We’ve really started to develop the metabolism of a newsroom. We’ve always tried to be timely, but we knew we needed to do that more and produce several articles a day related to COVID, or working at home or coping with the crisis. We had a lot to say. Almost overnight we developed a newsroom mentality. It felt absolutely right. We put our COVID coverage free in front of the paywall. And we ramped up the volume, as well as the way we deliver content.
Most recently we launched a LinkedIn TV show [“HBR Quarantined”], and we approach it that way, with a musical lead-ins and a new guests every week. It grew out of the the realization that our followers are in lockdown and are hungry for insights. We try to present these topics the way you would discuss them with friends and family. The response has been incredible.
Folio: Is this a concept you will continue to explore post-quarantine?
Ignatius: We launched it as a six-week series. We’re in week five and decided to extend it to eight. Companies are not going back to work any time soon and, in some cases, never. So our expectations is the need for this will continue. At some point we will return [to offices] but we don’t know if it will be mandatory. So the rationale for this show means we should keep doing it. We have people reaching out asking to do the show and we think we can get sponsorship eventually.
Folio: Why did you choose LinkedIn as the platform?
Ignatius: There are a lot of good social media options, but the people who follow us on LinkedIn are aligned with what we care about. We have over 10-million followers there, so we realized we could get a large audience relatively easily.
Folio: What other new projects have you launched during the crisis?
Ignatius: Another thing we launched that is very much of the moment is focused on anxiety. We do several podcasts and have our podcast network. So one of the shows we brought in was the Anxious Achiever. It’s a very interesting topic right now. We’re all feeling it. So it’s helpful to talk to people going through this and how they cope with it.
Folio: Counter intuitive to your LinkedIn strategy is your presence on TikTok. How did you end up there. Or better yet, why?
Ignatius: We launched on TikTok in January and we had people who thought it was a terrible idea. But it’s really interesting to extend the brand into a platform that’s completely different. It’s helped us project a sense of what we want to be, and how to build a workplace attuned into diversity and the new ways to interact and be effective in an office environment with younger professionals. It trickles up to management and senior management.
Folio: Most publishers have seen a significant uptick in engagement since stay-at-home orders began, is that true for Harvard Business Review? If so, how do you leverage that momentum as things start to return to “normal?”
Ignatius: Yes. Some of this is unexpected. We flooded the zone with timely stories, but we are all struggling [as an industry] with how to monetize that or if it’s even okay to. Publishers feel like we are doing content that’s important but we don’t want to exploit it. We are doing coverage of a pandemic, the economic and social fallout, and that somehow has to be part of the business model now.
There was a time when HBR didn’t do timely. Over the last decade we realized we need to be part of the zeitgeist. But now it’s more than just that. This probably isn’t the last crisis we will live through, so it’s important when there’s a moment like this that we think about what our contribution is.
Folio: As a business publication you will certainly have your work cut out for you helping you’re readership stabilize and grow in a post-pandemic world. Have you started to map out what this strategy looks like?
Ignatius: We think there are two areas that have been upended. One is with reaching a younger cohort. This moment has given us the direction of what we want to do for a generation of new mentors.
The other is in the nexus of media and learning. We want to create opportunities to learn skills and move up the ladder. We think we can do that with a media sensibility.
Folio: Digital media allows for more flexibility and experimentation, but print is much different in that regard. How has this crisis impacted your print strategy and where does the magazine fit within all these other products you offer?
Ignatius: People still value the print edition of the magazine. As an editor I can say it’s okay if they didn’t. We can do everything on the web, but print is still a preferred medium and the most premium expression of what we do. So it’s very important.
What the pandemic has done to that preference and habit? I don’t know. We will have to wait and see. Subscriptions are up. And they are just as much about print as they are digital. That’s exciting, but there hasn’t been a lot of newsstand traffic lately. We have to watch that piece of our circ. If it’s broken, will it pick up again when people start flying or taking the train?
Print advertising is down, I can’t imagine anyone has escaped that. I hope that recovers. I tend to believe after a period of crisis recovery, we get back to a sense of who we are, but there’s no guarantee of that.
Folio: So what will be some of Harvard Business Review’s biggest challenges in the coming months and years?
Ignatius: I feel like our role in some way is sort of clear. We were created for a moment like this. This is a place to go to for information that’s real, on how to lead and how to manage and work with teams. All of that is teed up for us. What we need to figure out is how much of it is a public service and how much is a business model.
There are things we will need to figure out. What platforms make the most sense? We have excelled in podcasts and video how-tos. But we can’t do everything we do, the best we can, on every single platform, so we will have to make some decisions on where we focus.
We are surviving and haven’t laid anybody off or had to furlough anyone. We think we can wait it out, but we are now all competing for investments.
Folio: To end on a more positive note, obviously this has been a difficult time in America that will continue to stay with us for more than a generation, but what inspires you or makes you hopeful?
Ignatius: The fact that there are people who are dying to get back to work, and that it is something we say and also live for. To hear people say they miss being there and the unplanned interactions they have at work, that’s what we’re about. We’re trying to make work places better, not just in terms of profit margin but how we interact.