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How HBR pivoted “almost overnight” to find the right balance between covering a crisis and making money while doing it

“We were created for a moment like this.”

That’s what Harvard Business Review’s Adi Ignatius says about the current climate in the business world. And in this moment, they are undergoing a profound transition that aligns beautifully with their purpose.

“Everything has changed,” Ignatius said in an interview with Folio:’s Casey Welton. “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.”

In spite of the challenges all publishers are facing now with diminished ad sales, distracted readers and uncertainty everywhere, HBR sees its channel strategy working overtime, keeping the title’s revenue on track to meet their year-end goals.

“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,” Ignatius continues.

One of those new channels is their LinkedIn TV show, HBR Quarantined.

“It grew out of the realization that our followers are in lockdown and are hungry for insights,” Ignatius explained. “We try to present these topics the way you would discuss them with friends and family. The response has been incredible.”

What’s impressive here is how the publication was able to pivot to deliver the kind of immediate information their audience wanted; rather than piling onto the mainstream dialog, they dug deep to understand the issues their readers were facing and deliver real-life solutions and support. Thanks to their success with the show so far, Ignatius is expecting to gain sponsorship support to make this an ongoing series.

“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,” he noted, explaining why they choose LinkedIn a platform for their show.

They are also running podcasts around anxiety, especially as it relates to high achieving professionals.  And perhaps most surprisingly, they are now on TikTok, an initiative they launched pre-pandemic at the beginning of the year.

“We launched on TikTok in January and we had people who thought it was a terrible idea,” Ignatius said. “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.”

All of this is quite a change for the publication, which up until the last decade or so eschewed timely. Yet as their audience skews younger, they realized their future lies in being “part of the zeitgeist.”

As to what this all means for the print magazine, Ignatius is cautiously optimistic about its future.

“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,” he notes.

For the moment, it’s less about channel and more about the message. In 2013, HBR noted its best circulation ever … even as the magazine industry, in general, was evolving rapidly. In 2014 they passionately claimed there was never a better time for publishers.  In 2016 they received kudos for their coverage of the workplace of the future (including their brilliant throwback cover). Now, they continue to nail their purpose with content that speaks directly to their audience and offers the kind of in-depth coverage only a trusted name can provide.

“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,” Ignatius says. “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.”

The bottom line for Ignatius? It’s about people and finding the right balance between covering a crisis and making money while doing it.

“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,” he tells Welton. “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.”

It’s fascinating to see a publisher dive into its pandemic coverage backed by a true sense of fulfilling their organization’s mission. This is the type of editorial initiative that raises the bar for the entire industry.

David Pilcher
VP of Sales & Marketing, Freeport Press

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