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Harvard Business School’s Content Strategy Is All About Storytelling

Founded in 1908, Harvard Business School (HBS) is one of the United States’ most prestigious business management schools. The main HBS website averages about 50,000 unique visitors per week. Meanwhile, Harvard Business Publishing — a wholly owned subsidiary of HBS — has more than half a million subscribers around the world.

Tens of thousands of pages of content are spread across the HBS site alone, with fresh content being added daily, using a content management system embedded in a SharePoint platform.

So, how does HBS manage this ever-growing mountain of content from website data to email newsletter and social media updates? And what can other content creators take from the HBS experience?

We spoke with Brian Kenny, chief marketing and communications officer at HBS, to find out.

Content Mountain

“The way to manage a diffused website like ours is to distribute responsibilities across the marketing function,” says Kenny. “So, creating web content is the collective responsibility of our marketing and communications team as they work to tell our story.”

In total, 15-20 people are involved in HBS’s content creation team, supported by school faculty.

“The faculty come up with the ideas. Then editors and writers take those ideas and help to shape them in a way that we know we can reuse and make relevant to different audiences including academics, practitioners, alumni, and other stakeholders,” explains Kenny.

“Our job is to animate the mission of the school through stories about the impact that our teachers, faculty, students, and alumni are having in the world. Sometimes that plays out in the form of developing content – the ‘content’ to my mind is really just a method of storytelling.”

Caring for Creators

Large, complex organizations looking to develop a content strategy should actively support and encourage content creators by supplying them with easy-to-use tools and providing clear content creation guidelines, says Kenny.

Towards this end, HBS has created a web council of people involved in managing the school’s digital content. The council — which has developed into a community of content creators — meets to share best practices and new ideas.

“We’ve found that it’s a very rich discussion every time they get together. They learn about what their peers are doing across the school and share ideas. And we benefit from a collective knowledge increase each time this group gets together.”

Write Once, Publish Often

One of HBS’s content strategies is to leverage one piece of content across many sites, says Kenny.

“Our ‘Working Knowledge‘ e-newsletter, for example, goes out once a week to about 150,000 subscribers. Its mission is to interview faculty about early stage research and emerging ideas. We leverage that content across every other area of the school from the Exec. Ed. Group and the alumni relations group through the MBA group and on our homepage.”

Similarly, articles from the print and digital editions of HBS’s alumni magazine can be found on the HBS homepage.

Broadcasting via Social Media

Despite being early adopters of Twitter and having a four-year Facebook presence, HBS uses social media platforms in what could be seen as a traditionally academic fashion, says Kenny.

“We’ve been pretty good at using those social media platforms as broadcast tools to push content, but we’ve been less good at using it as a social tool. If you look fundamentally at academia, we’re used to teaching people. Perhaps, we’re not so good at listening.”

However, taking inspiration from the way academics at HBS develop their ideas through dialog with colleagues and business leaders, Kenny wants to use social media as a tool for generating discussion and creativity.

“We need to engage people in discussions around some of the big ideas that are coming out of the school. Our publishing section has done this pretty successfully. They put their leaders directly in discussion with editors around big ideas. And their website hosts running discussions and dialogues back and forth between the readers and the editors.”

Targeting Business Goals

In line with HBS’s overall marketing strategy, Kenny’s team is using social media to target conversations around entrepreneurship.

“Even though the term ‘entrepreneurship’ was literally created at HBS and we have a history of entrepreneurship going back fifty years, we still are not thought of as a place for entrepreneurship. People typically think of MIT or Stanford instead. So, we have a challenge there and we’re trying to change people’s perceptions about us in this area,” explains Kenny.

Kenny’s team closely monitors conversations about entrepreneurship on social media platforms to develop new ways of injecting their presence into online discussions.

“Tracking social media helps us to understand whether or not our content is creating a spike in the social media realm, whether we’re starting to become more common to those conversations, and in fact, we’ve been able to crack an increase in our presence in what we consider to be the most influential dimensions of entrepreneurship on the social networks. It’s a great way for us to gauge whether or not we’re moving that needle.”

Image by Paul Bodine
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