The Harvard Business Review, synonymous with the business case study, has lately become a model of sustainable media itself, due in large part to a burgeoning digital subscriptions business and an increasingly diversified revenue stream.
The publisher, which marked its 100th anniversary in October, has capitalized on the economic uncertainty of the last few years by parlaying its reputation as a source of business insights into an uptick in paying readers.
Since launching a digital paywall in 2019, the 116-person outlet has accumulated roughly 116,000 digital subscribers, more than one-third of its total subscriber base of 328,000 paying readers, according to Sarah McConville, the executive vice president, group publisher at HBR.
“We tend to do well, as a business, during economic downturns,” McConville said. “During Covid, we saw our readership rise because there is a flight to quality. If you are a business leader or someone focused on managing through uncertainty, you want to spend your time with someone giving you trusted advice.”
Combined with an editorial expansion that includes investing in new channels, reaching new audiences through social media and growing supplemental lines of business, HBR has increased its overall revenue 3% year over year and 25% compared to 2018. The publisher wouldn’t share specific figures.
Owned by Harvard University but a commercially successful nonprofit on its own, HBR’s value derives less from original reporting and more from its analysis. As a result, in periods of economic distress, the utility of the publication only swells, while its professional audience lets it court luxury advertisers.
Growing digital subscribers through timely, and timeless, analysis
As part of its transition into a digital publisher, HBR has placed more emphasis on analysis that responds to the mood of the moment, said editor in chief Adi Ignatius, a transformation that required the publisher to increase its volume of output without jeopardizing its quality.
Covering issues such as the return to office and managing through a recession have drawn in readers looking to navigate those issues in their own career, and the three-year-old paywall has helped convert frequent readers into subscribers.
“We are not trying to do news—we are nobody’s first-read,” Ignatius said. “That means we have to provide very actionable advice.”
Despite the traction its digital subscription business has seen, HBR still offers a robust print magazine, which releases six issues per year.
Currently, two-thirds of its total subscriber base—roughly 220,000 people—pay for the combined print and digital offering, which costs $12 per month, the same as the digital-only package. A third, premium tier, which costs $15 per month, includes access to select content studies and books.
In total, the publisher has seen a 6.5% growth in subscribers this year, according to McConville.
Expanding the audience through new channels
To draw more readers into its subscription funnel, as well as offer more vehicles for advertising, HBR has broadened its audience by investing in channels like newsletters, podcasts, social media and editorial initiatives aimed at specific groups.
The publisher has developed a newsletter stable of more than 20 email products that reach 1.1 million subscribers, and its fleet of podcasts generate 2.5 million downloads per month, according to McConville.
On social media, HBR has staked its claim on LinkedIn, where it is one of the ten most-followed brands on the platform. The publisher has also made a substantial foray into TikTok, where it has 148,000 followers.
On TikTok, the publisher posts primarily from its Ascend franchise, an editorial series for younger audiences, creating videos that help them navigate the new professional environment, such as advice on what kind of questions to ask at the end of a job interview.
An audio franchise, called Women at Work, which also extends into written content and events, explores issues such as dealing with body shaming or pushing your company for policy changes, Ignatius said.
Monetizing readership through direct ads and services
These audience growth efforts mean HBR now reaches an average of 11 million readers per month, according to Comscore.
On the advertising side, HBR uses a mix of direct-sold advertising, custom content, webinars and other ad products. Its affluent audience also attracts non-endemic advertisers, such as fashion brands like Hermes and automakers like Lexus.
In line with its penchant for monetizing with custom content, HBR is more regularly using its HBR Analytics Services product, an independent commercial research unit that conducts proprietary research for clients. HBR-AS, which first launched in 2009, has grown by double digits this year, McConville said.
Overall, in the last year advertising revenue at HBR has risen 2%, or 43% compared to 2018, according to McConville.
“Clients who advertise with us want to reach our audience, people with spending power both personally and professionally,” she said. “We are always thinking about creative ways to help them do that.”