This article contains eight stories. Each reveals how a digital media site has earned or spent brand capital. Those two phases of a digital publisher’s lifecycle—as well as others—are narrated by a single metric: content length.
To be clear, there is no causative relationship between content length and content quality. Nor does longer build a brand or shorter destroy it.
However, there is a correlation between content length and investment by its creator. That investment may be misplaced or even wasted (we’ve all endured the imprecision of an unedited blog post or the redundant torture of a Saturday Night Live skit turned feature film), but it is an investment nonetheless—a bet on achieving a higher-value end product.
This correlation has long framed reader expectations. If we want to learn about, say, processing coffee, we have lower expectations about what we’ll learn from a 900-word blog post versus a 250-page hardback book.
Search engines, still unable to appreciate the virtues of William Carlos Williams, reward length because it serves as a proxy for quality, because algorithms struggle to differentiate concise from superficial.
Rarely does the Internet lack breadth; depth is a far more common omission. This axiom defines the digital publishing lifecycle:
Building a digital media brand requires investment in research, writing, and editing. Opportunities lay in complex, involved investigations, and, as a result, yield longer content that offers readers unparalleled depth of knowledge.
The pressure reverses for established brands. Opportunities lay in breadth of topic and increased publishing frequency, which capitalize on the willing clicks of a loyal audience. This pressure gradually drives publishers—consciously or not—to shorten deadlines, decrease investment, and publish more in a smaller window.
There are outliers, too: The Huffington Post built a brand through content aggregation and analysis, then pivoted to become a platform for unpaid bloggers seeking to build their own digital empire.
Alone, each plotted point below reflects the decisions of a single writer, a single editor. Collectively, by the thousands, they disclose what digital publishers value, and how those values change over time.
Table of Contents
This is a multi-part series. Links will become active as new sections are added.
Part II: Pivoting To
Part III: Building Up
Part I: Cashing In
No one is cashing in as quickly as digital publishers who migrated an established offline brand to the Internet. These publishers continue to spend brand capital to monetize a captive audience.
This is illustrated most dramatically by the Harvard Business Review (HBR), which has transitioned from academic journal to blog, descending from its ivory tower to collect the money that blankets the castle grounds.
Harvard Business Review
“[HBR] is a magazine written by people who can’t write for people who won’t read.”
– Theodore Levitt, former editor of the HBR
Of all publishers studied for this article, HBR had the sharpest negative slope: –163.98. The chart reflects 5,407 articles published digitally, some decades after their original print publication, between September 1957 and August 2015.
The Harvard Business Review (HBR) was founded in 1922 and became business’s leading academic journal for much of the twentieth century. Its focus and style—academic, densely cited—remained constant until 1985, when marketing professor Theodore Levitt took over the journal.
Levitt pushed HBR into the mainstream, closing the gap among existing readers, business leaders seeking actionable solutions, and the journal’s academic producers. Levitt viewed the publication “as an underleveraged brand that he could manage like a consumer product.”
There were aesthetic changes, but also more substantive editorial ones. New editors covered a wider range of topics and sought out controversial ideas. (Levitt also doubled the price of subscriptions and increased full-page ad costs by more than 50%.) The paragon became the commercial magazine, not the academic journal. It was the editorial bridge to subsequent changes during the Internet era.
In the early 1990s, the publication disbanded its faculty editorial board, and, in 1994, HBR became a wholly owned subsidiary of Harvard University with looser connections to Harvard Business School. (HBR.org was registered as a domain in December 1996.) Whether one of the nation’s leading business schools should lend its name to a popular publication remains a point of contention inside the university.
Downward pressure on editorial investment continued into the early 2000s. The print version of HBR switched from six issues annually to monthly publication in 2001, shortening editorial timelines and increasing total content production. (As of 2016, the print version was published 10 times per year.)
Still, HBR.org refrained from the greatest temptation of the Internet age, with editors stating flatly that “HBR will not blog” as late as 2004.
Theodore Levitt committed HBR to the magazine model, slowly distancing the publication from its academic roots. HBR‘s historical reputation sustains the brand even as commercial considerations have become the primary editorial driver.
HBR finally gave in to consumer trends in 2007, when it unveiled the “HBR Blog Network” on a subdomain, blogs.harvardbusiness.org. The experiment lasted until 2014, when HBR migrated the blog to the core domain.
“We’ve stopped calling the pieces we publish every day ‘blog posts,’” editors explained, “because we think the word ‘articles’ more accurately describes their length and variety and the amount of time we put into editing and polishing them.”
The blog’s seamless integration with HBR.org reflected a larger editorial concession than the creation of the HBR Blog Network. In 2007 blog posts were an acknowledged tangent held at arm’s length from the HBR brand; by 2014 they were an indistinguishable centerpiece.
Few changes affected the contemporary publication as much as the hiring of Adi Ignatius in 2009, then Time magazine’s deputy managing editor. Ignatius was critical of HBR’s failure to capture “the zeitgeist that our readers are living in.” In other words, the HBR was missing out on real-time, newsworthy topics.
In the late 2000s, for example, HBR neglected the financial crisis. Of 481 articles published on HBR.org during 2007–09, only three mentioned the crisis in the title. “There was a sense, in the past, that HBR should not be timely,” Ignatius noted. “It was the idea that research is ready when research is ready.”
Editorial deadlines could not serve two masters—academic rigor and commercial publishing demands—and Ignatius further committed HBR to the latter. Ignatius framed his perspective succinctly: “I think we’ve kind of insulted our readers’ intelligence with the assumption that everything has to be serious, everything has to be long form.”
The statement cut to the fundamental question about the relationship between content length and content quality. Is longer always better? Is it ever better? Is it worse? Ignatius’s argument was defensible, and convenient.
Digital publishing pressures decreased average content length during the mid-2000s, with Ignatius continuing the trend after taking over in 2009. Connection to one of the world’s foremost universities inoculates the publication from brand dilution.
Shorter has proven more profitable, with Ignatius’s changes bringing financial success. Between 2009 and 2013, HBR increased ad revenue by 32% in print and digital versions. Between 2010 and 2015, paid circulation increased to a record-level 286,000 subscribers.
HBR.org has also opened for submissions from non-academic writers, who enjoy exposure without financial compensation. While content has become less memorable, headlines have not. Some of the most shared articles over the past year include BuzzFeed-worthy topics like “Make Yourself Immune to Secondhand Stress,” and “5 Strategy Questions Every Leader Should Make Time For.”
Between 2014 and 2015, site traffic effectively doubled, reaching 2.4 million monthly unique visitors by September 2015, according to comScore. Social media traffic, the primary driver of increases, grew 79% during that same period, accounting for about one-third of total traffic to the site.
A 2015 report from Shareaholic confirmed the growing power of social media as an acquisition source: 31.2% of all traffic to media sites came from eight social media platforms in Q4 2014. Still, HBR.org outpaced its competitors, which averaged a 37.4% increase in social media traffic, roughly half the growth experienced by HBR.org.
At the same time, the number of people who visited at least three times per month grew 30%, and HBR.org’s registered user volume grew 20%. Those registered users, according to HBR.org editor Katherine Bell, are the most likely to turn into paying customers.
HBR.org offers four free monthly articles to unregistered users. Those articles have become the site’s content marketing arm—free samples, in effect—to encourage online registration, which provides eight free monthly articles. Attracting new users means covering more topics; bringing back users requires greater publishing frequency.
If key metrics remain readership and profitability, HBR has little incentive to revive the editorial processes of the pre-digital era.
More than any other digital publisher, HBR has the opportunity to continue to cash in, perhaps indefinitely. Even as it spends brand capital, that stock is continually replenished by its university namesake, and HBR does not threaten the academic credibility of Harvard Business School.
For Harvard University, the relationship is complex: intellectually parasitic, financially symbiotic.
Next Up: Forbes