"Defining engagement is really difficult – there's not one definition for any publisher or company, you have to do some work to figure it out for your publisher," said Maureen Hoch, editor, Harvard Business Review, speaking at the Digital Innovators' Summit in Berlin today (19 March).
Over the last few years, the publisher has carried out different experiments with emerging platforms and technology in order to get closer to their audience of subscribers and potential subscribers.
For example, in its Facebook Live 'Whiteboard Sessions', which Hoch describes as 'classroom style', HBR put a reporter or expert in front of a whiteboard to talk through various topics, ranging from how to think like an entrepreneur to the three myths of collaboration.
"When you're starting something new, we learned that you should bring in people that are true believers in the platform with a ton of energy," she said, noting that their team has carried out over 100 live streams to date, getting more advanced and comfortable with it over time.
"We started out by winging it. We shot the live stream on a phone without 'professional' equipment, but our reporter, Evan Baehr, was really connecting with the audience.
"It now has over 100,000 views and 500 shares – you have to come up with the right combination of expert, audience and topic to do it."
Six times a year, HBR publishes 'the Big Idea', a digital package exploring the business of management.
One year ago, the publisher published a piece on inequality among both their companies and their employees, and the editors wanted to try using Slack to get readers to connect with the author.
"We created a Slack channel, invited people to come, and had more than 150 people join the channel – but no one was participating and asking questions," she said.
"My guess is that it would have been intimidating for people to ask questions on such a weighty topic, especially if no one has started asking – so this experiment didn't work to engage the audience in the way we had hoped."
This helped the team realise that "news organisations have to test their assumptions constantly, and know what emerging platforms do best and how they fit into their strategy".
Bots and messaging have also featured in the publisher's experiments. In September 2017, they launched a Facebook Messenger bot to deliver the most recent digital articles to audiences.
"There were so many reasons we wanted to try this – we had a big audience on Facebook, and we wanted to tap into the huge global reach that the platform has," she said.
However, the team has not seen remarkable levels of audience engagement with the bot, and is still looking to see how this technology develops and how the organisation might want to invest in it in the future.
"We learned that you need to ask yourself if you're reaching a new market with bots, or whether you're using it to engage your existing audience more deeply.
"We built a bot for Slack to give readers a piece of management advice once a day, and we've had feedback that people want more functionality and find the things they're most interested in.
"From a survey, we found that half of them already followed us on social, and fifteen per cent were subscribers."
Harvard Business Review has also expanded its audio presence, having just launched two new podcasts over the last two months – Women at Work, aimed to a female listenership, and Dear HBR, an advice podcast for all readers to send in questions.
"We are excited about voice as a place where we want to do more experimentation. The implications for it, in terms of how people are going to interact with your content and how they are going to search for it, are enormous – we are watching this space very carefully," she said, noting HBR's interest in machine learning and content discovery.
Moving forward, the news organisation is going to take a closer look at visual stories on Snapchat and Instagram, new forms of curation and the role of community in audience engagement. To kick off, HBR has created a Facebook group which has been carefully crafted to ensure specific pockets of people are involved.
"It only has 6,000 members at the moment – but bigger isn't always better. It is a learning curve, but we have found the people in this group have been more likely to save, share, and follow topics. So for us, this demonstrates a commitment to our content," she said.
"With all our experiments, we have learned that it is imperative to know which audience you are trying to reach – a new audience, existing subscribers or maybe newsletter readers – and you also need to know how long you're going to keep it going for. Sometimes you need to make tough decisions.
"As an editor, it is always tough to turn something off, but I think the audience is forgiving and want only your best work.
"Try to do one thing well and get people to build a habit around it. There's a tendency to do more and more, but that's not going to be great if you can't maintain it."
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