The Big Idea Behind Harvard Business Review’s Record Growth
How the 95-year-old magazine grew its circulation 10 percent despite reducing print frequency.
2017 has been a year of continued transformation in the mass-market magazine space, and 95-year-old, mission-driven publications whose readerships boast many of the world’s most influential figures are no exception.
With both readers and advertisers exhibiting a growing appetite for digital media products, Harvard Business Review began the year by adjusting its print magazine — which remains the brand’s “crown jewel,” according to editor-in-chief Adi Ignatius — reducing frequency from 10 issues per year down to six, and redesigning the look and feel of the book.
The goal of the redesign, says Ignatius, was the same as the goal behind all of HBR‘s offerings: to create a premium reading experience worthy of an annual subscription’s $99 price tag.
“The magazine is thicker, the quality of the paper is better, there are more pages. Print is very important to us and to our readers,” Ignatius tells Folio:. “We are declining in frequency, and increasing the number of digital articles, but we wanted to communicate that print is still a very important premium part of our offering.”
To help fill the gaps in a reduced publishing schedule, HBR launched “The Big Idea,” a digital series recurring six times per year — in the off-months between each print issue — consisting of articles and other features all centered around one topic (recent examples include generosity burnout, corporate inequality, and AI). Ignatius likens it to a kind of hybrid storytelling, both a digital expression of a print magazine but also something that takes advantage of its place in a multimedia environment.
Part of the idea behind The Big Idea was the recognition that HBR’s best customers are those that engage with both print and digital content — “they’re our biggest fans” — but Ignatius adds that it also represented a way to maintain an ongoing relationship with readers in those months in which a print issue does not arrive.
“Losing four issues per year, I wanted to make sure we had the opportunity to provoke conversation the way a good magazine cover story does,” says Ignatius. “Magazine covers still have that special power. That was the real reason, to make sure we could still do that more than six times per year in print.”
Ignatius admits he braced himself for pushback from the brand’s print loyalists. Preceding the shift was an outreach campaign to readers explaining the value and “the totality” of what constitutes an HBR subscription — in addition to the magazine, unlimited access to HBR‘s robust archives, including its top 50 articles, email newsletters, and customizable slide decks and infographics.
“We needed to communicate that you are getting more, even though we are reducing the number of print issues.”
Evidently, the message was communicated effectively. Ignatius says the team heard from fewer than a dozen total readers who cancelled as a result of the shift.
“It was almost hurtful,” he jokes.
Part of replicating that print experience online meant convincing HBR‘s contributors — most often academics — to write a digital-only article when they may prefer to write for print, but it’s also meant bringing in new voices, like former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, who contributed a nearly 4,000-word May piece on “the drone economy.”
That story was in line with Ignatius’s strategy of selecting topics for The Big Idea that are “close to core, but maybe extend from our core,” bringing in new readers — and, ultimately, new subscribers.
“We’ve always aimed our content at the C-suite, but we also learned that a lot of the content we produce is about managing yourself and managing your career.”
Ignatius says this appeals to younger professionals who are taking on managerial roles, a broader definition of HBR‘s audience than in years past, but something he says reflects a modern dynamic of people no longer working with one company for their entire careers.
Six months in, the pivot appears to be working. Harvard Business Review‘s paid circulation jumped 10.2 percent in the first half of 2017, eclipsing 300,000 subscribers for the first time, and the brand claims that both advertising and newsstand sales are up as well. But when it comes to readership, Ignatius says he values quality over quantity.
“We are up over 300,000 circ for the first time, and you want to grow it a little bit, but you don’t want to be too much more than that,” he adds. “I’ve learned that Harvard Business Review has a very engaged reader base. We’re paying a lot more attention to readers’ needs and finding new ways to interact with them. We’re honing the product in ways that are aimed at connecting with them more effectively.”