Harvard Business Review (HBR) has been a respected name in business thought leadership for the past 100 years. A magazine published by a subsidiary of Harvard University, it has a wide following among seasoned executives at the height of their careers.

Research has also shown, however, that a significant portion of the Harvard Business Review’s readers consists of ambitious young business people who are either new to management or just beginning their careers. The publishers saw a distinct opportunity in this data.

What if they created a separate website targeting young professionals by pulling relevant articles from the magazine’s main website (HBR.org) and featuring them alongside original content?

This is how the idea for HBR Ascend was born—a skill enhancement website designed for the world’s future business leaders. Rohit Tuteja was named Head of Product Management for the new platform, and he turned to Net Solutions to create it.

For Ascend, with the parent brand being Harvard Business Review, the quality of the product had to be top notch. We analyzed a number of proposals, and we ultimately went with Net Solutions. It was a great decision.

Rohit Tuteja

Rohit Tuteja

Head of Product Management hbr

The Challenge: Designing and Building a Platform that Drives Subscriptions, Engagement, and Social Media Sharing

The pricing and growth model for HBR Ascend matched that of their parent company and other online magazines. They wanted readers to have access to a few articles for free to give them a taste of what the magazine had to offer. They believed that once readers saw value in the publication, a significant portion of them would sign up for a monthly or quarterly subscription.

In order to be successful, they needed to create a well-designed platform that was true to the Harvard Business Review brand—featuring valuable, relevant content alongside a seamless user experience. Specifically, they aimed to provide not only articles, but podcasts, videos, infographics, and interactive tools. They needed to offer content that would engage hardworking millennials and inspire them to share it.

First India. Then the World.

The team decided to market the product to India first, since the world’s largest democracy had a huge population of young professionals who could benefit from developing their soft-skills for business. The plan was to expand the target audience globally if the Indian market proved receptive.

“This is the first time that HBR is developing an offering primarily for early career professionals anywhere in the world,” Vivek Chachra, Country Manager at Harvard Business Publishing India, told TheBetterIndia.com. “This is also the first time that HBP is developing a product specifically contextualized to a particular market, that is, India."

Needless to say, the stakes were high.

Did it Make Sense to Step Outside the Major Tech Hubs and Work with a Company in Chandigarh, India?

Choosing an outsourcing partner to design and build an entire platform is a make-or-break decision for a fledgling business unit or a startup. Traditionally, development work had always been done within US, but since HBR India was leading the charge, they decided to hire a company within India.

This was the first time HBR would hire a development company outside the US. They had to choose a partner that would not let them down. After several extensive meetings and one site visit to Net Solutions’ headquarters, the new HBR Ascend team knew they were dealing with professionals.

We were initially unsure about Net Solutions as they are not based out of a major metro or one of the big IT hubs. However, speaking to their employees and visiting the campus reassured us of their quality and processes.

Rohit Tuteja

Rohit Tuteja

Head of Product Management hbr

Building HBR Ascend from the Ground up

Net Solutions worked extensively with Rohit and his team to design an experience that would keep their target audience coming back. They also created a user-friendly administrative interface, enabling the HBR Ascend team to painlessly manage content and community discussions.

Following a successful launch, Net Solutions worked hand-in-hand with HBR Ascend to enhance the platform and add new features based on Voice-of-the-Customer feedback. This increased the platform’s relevance to millennials in a world where everyone is competing for their attention.

Key features that Net Solutions designed and delivered include:

Key Features that Net Solutions Designed and Delivered Include:

  • Varied Content Distribution: Net Solutions and HBR Ascend chose to use WordPress as its Content Management System (CMS) since it’s easy for administrators to use, but this required them to extend the capabilities of WordPress to handle a variety of content types, including: videos, podcast, infographics, presentations, and interactive tools.
  • Seamless Import from Harvard Business Review: When HBR Ascend launched, they initially seeded their platform exclusively with articles and tools taken directly from Harvard Business Review’s website. Net Solutions built a tool that allowed the HBR Ascend team to identify relevant content and easily copy it to the portal.
  • Harvard Business Review Feed Manager: As HBR.org (the main website for Harvard Business review) continued to post new content, HBR Ascend editors could monitor a feed to review the content and select relevant pieces for import into their niche portal.
  • Superior User Experience (UX): Net Solutions took special care to build an intuitive UX that separates content into logical categories. It also brings up relevant, user-targeted content based on the user’s activities (and other metrics).
  • Comprehensive, Helpful User Dashboard: Once users sign into the platform, they can visit their dashboard to access things like: viewing history, a list of previously liked content, subscription management, and comments management.
  • Optimized Video Streaming: Net Solutions integrated Brightcove video streaming to optimize streaming requirements based on user bandwidth and other factors. This ensured that video content was accessible to all HBR Ascend users.
  • Podcast Management: The system allows for subject-specific podcast filtering, which also includes standard features like podcasts subscription signups and new podcast alerts—available under the subscription plan menu.
  • Membership Management: Net Solutions built a membership manager allowing admins to set the rules for things like the amount of content users can view for free and what they can access at various subscription levels. This allows HBR Ascend to continually test and optimize different pricing strategies to maximize ROI.
  • Learning Assessment: A quiz module allows HBR Ascend to create quizzes so users can feel more engaged and see how much they have learned from a given piece of content.
  • WhatsApp Integration for Social Sharing: Like most magazines, the platform allows sharing on the most common social media platforms, but HBR Ascend wanted to take it a step further by integrating WhatsApp sharing. This allows users to share content with a different circle of friends through the popular messaging platform.
  • EBSCO Integration: EBSCO is a massive digital library available to students, researchers, and the general public. Net Solutions designed an integration that linked EBSCO’s library and datalocker services to the HBR Ascend platform—providing seamless access to HBR Ascend content for EBSCO users.
  • Monetization via Google’s DFP System: Google’s Doubleclick for Publishers (DFP) is a system that streamlines advertising content for websites. By incorporating DFP, Net Solutions added an additional monetization channel that took advantage of HBR Asccend’s high volume of visitors.
  • Enhanced Security: HBR Ascend expected cyberattacks by malicious agents based on HBR.org’s history, so Net Solutions equipped them with enhanced security through Sucuri, a globally trusted name in WordPress security.
  • High Traffic Optimizations: Since HBR is a popular brand with business professionals, they anticipated high usage. After a Google AMP integration, Net Solutions conducted rigorous testing to ensure the site was optimized for use on various devices and different bandwidth levels for hundreds of concurrent users.

The Result: A Popular, Profitable Platform

HBR Ascend penetrated its target market, growing like wildfire among young managers thanks to social media sharing and promotions. Research showed that subscribers found the site useful and intuitive, and they shared it widely throughout their social- and business circles.

Most users consumed content during the day, in bite-sized packets on their mobile devices, as predicted during the design phase. As such, Net Solutions focused on optimizing the system for daytime mobile use—an effort that proved successful as it resulted in close to zero support calls or bug reports.

Use of the site remained high after work hours, as many visitors shifted to their desktop devices for longer sessions. The planning for high concurrent desktop usage worked well to handle high loads in the evenings.

Once the site had carved out its place as a favorite destination among young business professionals, the main Harvard Business Review website began linking to HBR Ascend from its website.

UX Improvement

Based on feedback, Net Solutions continued to upgrade the platform regularly to add new features and improve existing features. Those improvements included: infinite scroll, reading time estimates for articles, a progress bar, links to related content, the ability to highlight and quote content, polls, and much more.

Net Solutions came in as an able partner with competent people and a structured approach. There was always someone to lend a ear, including their leadership, when we faced challenges.

Rohit Tuteja

Rohit Tuteja

Head of Product Management hbr

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