How Harvard Business Review beats bigger rivals on social media

The phrase “clickable content” is unlikely to bring to mind thrilling headlines from the Harvard Business Review. Despite a redesign four years ago, the niche business publication has fought a reputation of being an academic journal for the business elite, with recent headlines like “The Five Competitive Forces that Shape Strategy,” “Where to Look for Insight” and “With Big Data Comes Big Responsibility.”

This is, after all, a heady periodical that goes for $17 an issue at the newsstand. And yet, its social statistics are through the roof. Its social shares per story dwarf the others, according to numbers compiled by NewsWhip. In September, Harvard Business Review, with 1.3 million multiplatform monthly uniques, according to comScore, got 405 shares per story on Facebook. The next biggest was Business Insider (30 million monthly uniques), with 147 shares per story. On Twitter, Harvard Business Review got an even greater 724 tweets per story that month. Next was Forbes at a distant 163.

Since the site has a small online audience, social networks are especially important to amplifying its content, shares being a “critical point for engagement,” said Eric Hellweg, HBR’s managing director of digital strategy. Social is “an enormously powerful way to expose people to our brand that might not see it.”

Aside from the snappy headlines and how-to content, Harvard Business Review also benefits from its emphasis on evergreen content, which tends to perform well in social, said Liam Corcoran, social media editor for NewsWhip.

Showing that social media can be an effective channel for targeted publishers, some sites with the highest average share counts per story are niche publishers with low story outputs, he said.

At a time when publishers are scrambling to figure out how to game the social platforms that they’re increasingly dependent on for traffic, the numbers are impressive, given Harvard Business Review doesn’t trade in the sort of viral content found on some of its bigger competitors. Take its most-shared story in September — with 13,656 shares across Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn — titled, perhaps inauspiciously, “The Best Leaders are Insatiable Learners.”

The article didn’t have a Harvard Business Review byline, though. It was by Bill Taylor, identified as co-founder of Fast Company, and a member of Harvard Business Review’s extensive blog network. Like a growing number of publishers, Harvard Business Review has increased its reliance on outside contributors to populate its website. Started seven years ago, the network has some 40 regular contributors who produce 90 percent of the site’s content.

The blog network model serves not only to populate the site with content but to cultivate its reputation as a place for experts to bring their best work, said Adi Ignatius, editor in chief. “For HBR to be as successful as it’s been, we need people to think of it as an outlet for their best ideas,” he said.

It doesn’t hurt that the content is then amplified by a dozen employees who work across editorial and circulation.

To be sure, the contributor model puts Harvard Business Review in the company of Forbes, The Huffington Post and Yahoo Finance, which also draw from outside bloggers for free content. But as some like Gawker Media and Forbes have found, there are risks to loosening the access to one’s site. Gawker briefly shut down parts of its platform in response to violent pornography posts, and Forbes fired a contributor after he published the post “Drunk Female Guests Are the Gravest Threat to Fraternities.”

Harvard Business Review has been more conservative in choosing whom to publish and in carefully editing them, though, because while its ad revenue is meaningful, it gets the majority of its revenue from circulation. That means selling subscriptions, not scaling an audience, are the top priority. That’s why a few years ago, the publisher went from having regular contributors to evaluating posts on a case-by-case basis in order to raise the quality bar.

“The fact that the majority of our revenue comes from subscribers is very rare,” said Hellweg. “If your revenue is exclusively based on advertising, then you do crazy Forbes stuff. But that’s not the case with us. We have a balanced situation.”