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“I Feel Seen”: How HBR connects with Gen Z through video

November 4, 2021 | By Kelsey Alpaio, Associate Editor – Harvard Business Review @KelseyAlpaio and
Christine Liu, Innovation Editor – Harvard Business Publishing @liuliuliu

“What side of TikTok are you on?” 

The contents of your TikTok “For You” page, a stream of videos curated by the near-omniscient algorithm, says a lot about what you stand for, who you are, and what you like. It’s part of what draws audiences to the platform. When you open the app, you know what to expect. And, better yet, you know you’ll like it. 

This type of personal experience is what digitally native audiences have come to not just enjoy, but expect, from the content they consume. If it isn’t authentic, vulnerable, and personal, they don’t want it. 

So, when it came time to reimagine what video content would look like for Ascend, Harvard Business Review’s brand for young professionals, we knew we’d have to make it real. We knew we’d have to take a host-driven approach. And we knew we’d have to meet our audience where they are. On TikTok, yes, but also on YouTube, Instagram, and whatever comes next. 

Appearing as on-camera hosts, being authentic in front of an audience of millions, and making sure that audience feels engaged — this is all easier said than done. Here’s how we make it work at HBR, and some tips on how to make it work for you and your audiences.

Authenticity and vulnerability are necessities.

Obviously, neither video nor social media was new for HBR in 2020. But that was the year Christine vs. Work marked the first show that we designed specifically and primarily for YouTube. This meant leaning into a host’s personality (in addition to credibility), embracing mistakes that make us human (the word “flawesome” is often applied), and creating a dialogue with our audience. 

In each episode, I (Christine) address a real work dilemma, seek advice from experts, and then put that advice into practice (with varying levels of awkwardness). Although I feel like I “should” know the answers to my biggest career questions by this point in my path as a manager, I often don’t — or I’m not confident about them. In Christine vs. Work, I’m honest about that. It’s that vulnerability, which many can relate to, that earns the trust of our audience.

The same goes for Career Crush, another host-driven, YouTube-first series we launched in 2021. In this show, I (Kelsey) interview people with my “dream” careers to get to the bottom of what their jobs are really like. I dive into how much money they make, misconceptions about their roles, and whether they actually enjoy what they do for a living. Most of the time, I have no idea what it takes to get a job like theirs, and I don’t pretend that I do. After all, I’m not an expert in software engineering, or Twitch streaming, or photography. I’m still in my early career, too. So, the questions I ask and the ideas I uncover are based on things I’m genuinely curious about. That curiosity is crucial to creating a connection with our viewers. 

A key element to making this work is to remember that you can’t manufacture “realness” and “authenticity.” We film in our own homes as much as the office (a necessity during lockdown), process complex emotions on camera, and are transparent about ourselves in front of a virtual global audience. It’s not always easy for us as hosts, but the human connection that forms from sharing our vulnerability is a lasting one. That’s particularly important for bridging the HBR brand to Gen Z audiences and reassuring them that we’re here for them in a world where it’s harder than ever to determine what is real and who to trust.

More voices, more perspectives.

We’ve learned, as individual hosts bringing our authentic selves to the fore, we’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. That’s precisely the point: We want our audience to connect with whoever they vibe with most. And, when it comes to host-driven content, that means diversifying the personalities, voices, and perspectives on our channels.

We put great care in our guest selection to fulfill that mission. In Christine vs. Work, we feature practitioners in addition to academics and thought leaders from around the world. In Career Crush, there’s no substitute for hearing first-person accounts of what it’s like working in a specific role or industry. 

We also think carefully about the “faces” of Ascend. By design, our TikTok channel isn’t led by any single content creator. Although there are recurring familiar faces that deliver a regular dose of work advice and office humor, we encourage each presenting editor to lean into their distinct and authentic storytelling style. Plus, anyone in the company who wants to pitch, write, shoot, or star in a TikTok is welcome to join the party (a.k.a our weekly brainstorm). Who knows whose video will go viral next?

Lastly, we recently launched a pilot called HBR Presents on our video platforms. In this initiative, we partner with and feature talented external creators to share their expertise on topics like personal finance, early career, and email etiquette. The vision is to thoughtfully grow this creator network, expanding our offerings for an audience hungry for helpful and engaging content delivered in a relatable way.

To put it simply: You can’t have authenticity without hosts who are willing to be vulnerable. Expand your pool of hosts, make it diverse in every sense of the word, and never pair a host with a video or topic that doesn’t resonate with them. Audiences can spot an uniterested host from a mile away.

We’re listening. You matter.

What’s most exciting about our roles as hosts and producers is that we’re able to forge a connection, through our own voices, with our audience. Whatever platform or channel, we commit to reading the comments, replying as ourselves, and responding to questions and stories that others have shared with empathy and insight. We take viewer requests and incorporate them into future episodes. In addition to performance analytics and audience data, we’re able to synthesize viewer feedback to inform Ascend editorial projects across the board. With host-driven video, audiences keep coming back not just for the content, but for the hosts themselves. So creating that engagement — that direct connection — matters.

Long story short, we’re listeners, not lecturers. This philosophy defines our commitment as editors. We also represent a piece of Harvard, for an audience that demands — and deserves — a brand they can trust.

And if you find us on TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, or Ascend, our goal is that you’ll feel like this content is delightfully “for you.”

About the authors

Kelsey Alpaio is an Associate Editor at Harvard Business Review.

Christine Liu is the innovation editor at Harvard Business Publishing’s product incubator.

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