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NRF 2018: How Hearst Magazines adapted for the digital revolution

At NRF 2018 in NYC, Michael Clinton, president marketing and publishing director, and Joanna Coles, chief content officer, at Hearst Magazines, took to the stage to discuss how the Hearst publishing empire not only survived, but flourished, in a new digital world.

“A decade ago, it was thought print was dead, retail was dead...of course that wasn’t true. But we did need to take a deep dive into who we were, what we wanted to become and how we’d manage our way through digital disruption,” said Clinton.

The strategy Hearst developed was referred to as “unbound”. And at the heart of its strategy were Hearst’s core principles; high-quality content and the brand.

“It stood for being bold, making the first move, testing, learning and giving ourselves permission to fail and permission to win,” she said.

Hearst made large acquisitions, it launched print products in what was perceived to be a dead market, it continuously evolved to develop its digital platforms and it dared to fail. With only one or two exceptions, however, it very much succeeded.

Coles explained that they needed to find a solution to creating a digital business that “could let our brands live in a different way”. When Hearst Magazine titles first went online, they were serving up the same content in print and on the website.

“It was getting no traction or interest. We hired digital natives to teach us and lead us online,” she said, explain how they taught the Hearst team how to thrive in the digital space. “We got our digital act together. Less than 10% of our online content is replicable to what is in print.”

Realising that its print and online audiences were different with different needs, Hearst implemented two completely separate teams to produce content in print and online.

Coles also explained how they published digital call-to-actions in their print magazines. One issue of Seventeen Magazine, for example, had a Snapchat call to action on every page. Hearst is now the leading publisher on Snapchat.

When the social media world exploded, Heart found that its audiences were finding content less through search engines and more through various social media platforms. “It was another disruption and we had to jump in head-first with our unbound strategy,” remembered Clinton. “We hired experts to teach us how to deliver uniquely produced content for each platform. We had separate teams working on digital, on social and on print. We had to have the very best team for each development.”

Many Hearst titles are now multi-platform. Coles describes Cosmopolitan as a “Universe”.

“Readers can get to us through any platform, and we don’t care which one they choose. We just want to give them great content.”

Today, Hearst Magazines are now live on every single platform in the US, including a launch into the TV and video space. “Whatever platform emerges, we have to be on it. We have to be there and we have to test the waters,” said Coles, adding “more isn’t better though…only better is better.”

Ultimately, concluded Coles, the key to unlocking engagement and prospering in a digital world was to reconsider our core competency – high-quality content – and deliver that as a hugely profitable multi-platform digital business. 

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