Why HBR can charge while you may be struggling to give away content for free


Founded in 1922 as a magazine for Harvard Business School, Harvard Business Review has over 250,000 paying subscribers to its English-language magazine, a solid base of subscribers for its eleven foreign-language editions, plus hordes of users accessing content on its website for free (5 articles per month or 15 articles per month for those willing to register). Despite placing pay and registration barriers in the path to consumption, and despite avoiding sector-specific topics (which we know from our research to be valued by senior executives), HBR is engaging your target audience. So what can we learn? Here are three things that stand out for me as I browse the HBR website and compare what I see to the consulting firm content that usually fills my screen.

  1. Titles matter. Every single HBR title, whether for a short article or a more substantial report, is easy to understand and interpret and suggests that the content will be helpful and actionable.  Furthermore, they often leave the reader intrigued. Whether seen as the outcome of a Google search or deposited in my inbox, I’m tempted to open up. Here are just five compelling titles picked randomly from today’s home page:
    • Changing collaboration with the fantasy sports model
    • Relearning the art of asking questions
    • The most productive way to develop as a leader
    • CEOs need mentors too
    • How to really motivate salespeople


  1. Write in the first person. HBR content is written in the first person, and that person often tells us something about themselves, the thought process behind the research, and even the emotions attached to what they found. This approach has two significant benefits. Firstly, the use of “I” almost always leads to a more engaging read than the bland third-person approach. And secondly, when I, the reader, begin to feel a connection with you, the writer, I’m keen to know more about what else you’ve done – I might even be tempted to get in touch.


  1. Refine the visuals. Whether it’s a summary of the key messages or a chart explaining data, HBR visuals are deceivingly simple and very effective. Each one works well as a standalone element: the user can make sense of it without referring to the text and, equally important, gets value from what they see.  Sounds obvious, but take a look at most consulting firm reports, and you’ll realise that it’s not. Furthermore, each visual is cited back to the main report, so that even if you see one used out of context, it will lead you back to the original material.



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