How Harvard Business Review is using a new social-first vertical to reach a younger audience

The header image shows an illustration of two women looking at their mobile phones.

Harvard Business Review’s brand hasn’t always been associated with robust digital content, but the publication is looking to change that.

The timing is critical: over the past few years, a slew of publishers from Morning Brew to Yahoo have strategized around reaching a young professional audience — finding those readers highly engaged and attractive to advertisers. This past year only re-emphasized the need to teach that demographic about professional development as the world worked in crisis.

Harvard Business Review inadvertently got ahead of the curve when it launched its Ascend vertical in November 2016 to focus specifically on modern, global young professionals, defined by the publication as postgraduate individuals who are just starting out in their careers.

Coverage for the vertical was populated out of India using a freelancer network of writers to give it a more global scope but was relaunched in November 2020 and moved to the U.S. headquarters to grow the brand more earnestly online, said HBR’s editor-in-chief Adi Ignatius.

To continue growing the vertical, the brand promoted Paige Cohen as Ascend’s editor-in-chief who is tasked with reaching this audience on rapidly emerging platforms, like TikTok.

Subscribers and advertisers have responded in kind with HBR’s overall subscriptions growing by 15% and advertising business growing by 12%, between June 30 2020 and June 30 2021, execs said without providing specific growth figures.

The pressure isn’t entirely dependent on Ascend for this revenue uptick, and leadership is focused on the vertical breaking even in this growth period, Ignatius said. But the vertical has already closed three sponsorship deals with Microsoft, Atlassian, and The UK-based University of Durham. Each were supposedly in the six-figure range, but Ignatius would not disclose hard numbers.

The Ascend content is free and is not behind a paywall. But the strategy depends on Ascend readers discovering and engaging with HBR through this vertical, remaining loyal to HBR — and eventually pay for the coverage — throughout their careers. It’s a similar model that large media conglomerates, like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, have established with their discounted student subscription packages.

A look at Ascend’s audience

-Publishes about one story per day; Reaches 800,000 views per month; Newsletters have more than 30K subscribers; TikTok channel has 137K followers; Instagram channel has almost 19K followers

“We introduce younger people to the brand, help them build better habits, help them make better career decisions. And when the day comes that they’re more in the middle of their careers instead of the beginning, they will turn to the HBR content,” Cohen said. A HBR subscription currently costs $120 per year or $150 for a premium subscription.

The Ascend vertical currently lives in the navigation bar on the HBR website and as channels on TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms. Cohen said collectively all of Ascend’s articles — which are published at a frequency of about one story per day — received about 800,000 views last month, with the majority of its audience coming from social media and search. The vertical’s newsletters have more than 30,000 subscribers, its TikTok channel has 137,000 followers, and its Instagram page has 18,500 followers.

Harvard Business Review’s audience sees 11 million unique visitors every month; paid magazine circulation of more than 340,000. The HBR YouTube channel (which Ascend shares) has 369,000 followers; Across all social channels, it has 28 million followers

Most Ascend readers still access its coverage from the website, but the social platforms are seen as ways to experiment with new content forms, Cohen said. She, along with another U.S. editor, and two editors in India, create and manage the social posts. Content for the website is written by the editors and a freelancer network. The editors are also the faces that audiences see on TikTok and give those videos more personality and connection to the brand — a strategy that Cohen said was inspired by the Washington Post’s TikTok channel.

HBR is a legacy publication that will hit its 100th anniversary next year, so being able to modernize and show up on places like TikTok and actually grow a legitimate following there is attractive to advertisers, according to Barry Lowenthal, CEO of media agency MediaKitchen.

“The best brands are really elastic and can stretch into different media channels, and [HBR] is demonstrating that,” said Lowenthal.

One worry that a buyer might have, however, is seeing a vertical like Ascend distancing itself too much from its more well known title on some of these newer platforms, he said.

“The HBR brand could easily live on TikTok. Harvard [comprises] of 18- to 19-year-old students who are on TikTok all the time. I don’t know why the Review couldn’t be on those channels too,” he said. Harvard Business Review “is where the real authority is [and] from what I know, HBR is worth more than Ascend.”

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