The publishing industry in the digital age is a lawless frontier of fluctuating business models, content strategy experimentation, and conflict between time-tested practices and new expectations from consumers. Titans like the Hearst Corporation, founded in 1887, have the advantage of reach and brand power, but face the industry-wide challenge of how to profit from something other than paper.
In May, Hearst brought in Say Media's Troy Young as president of Hearst Digital to rebuild the company's online operation from the ground up. Now, the changes he's made are showing signs of success: according to Young, flagship site Cosmopolitan.com has doubled its traffic in his seven months at the helm, and reached a high of 17 million unique visits in November. Beginning with Cosmo, Young is taking expected steps like redesigning the sites and developing a new company-wide content management system. But he's also remaking digital teams with marquee names from new media—BuzzFeed's Amy Odell and Fashionista's Leah Chernikoff were hired as editors of Comopolitan.com and Elle.com, respectively—and giving them unprecedented independence from their print guardians to create digital-first products.
Fast Company talked to Young about what kind of content works, how to balance legacy with progress, and how to find the "unicorns" who will lead your brand where it needs to go.
FAST COMPANY: What was the first thing you identified that needed to be changed about the digital business at Hearst?
TROY YOUNG: When I arrived there had been a lot achieved—there was decent traffic on a handful of properties, and a lot of progress had been made both programmatically and with the beginnings of content marketing solutions for brands. But the change I've been focused on first is realigning all the teams around the user. That includes creating a focused technology team working on our platforms, as well as a team that's powered by a really really good product organization, which never existed previously.
The other change is that the products needed to be as good as anything in the market, and the defining shift there is reimagining all our brands around moments, instead of months, and thinking about the next generation of editorial talent that is going to take us there. Part of that is focusing early on where the highest return opportunities are, meaning our biggest brands including Cosmo, Esquire, Elle, and Good Housekeeping. Those are the starting points.
Many publications swing on a pendulum between the integration and separation of print and digital teams, and few have found the perfect balance. Your strategy is to build up Hearst's digital operations as their own organizations. Why do you feel this is the way to go?
I think there's lots of different ways of going at it in terms of how you situate people and structure groups. But if you can't fundamentally create a focused group of people who are creating content by the second, then you can't win. If you're thinking about a feature that's planned for a magazine issue three months out, and then bouncing between that and the interpretation of a piece of news that's flying by your desk this second, and how to make that relevant to a Cosmo reader, I think that's really hard to get people to do. What's important is if our products are going to compete, they have to compete by the moment. And I have to set up teams that enable that. I do think you might have to create a little bit of distance around the team to really drive that message home.
However, I want to be really clear, because for example Cosmo has an editor, and has a really big team, and has a product initiative going on and will get more and more resources, but that doesn't mean that Amy Odell, [Cosmopolitan magazine editor-in-chief] Joanna Coles, and myself don't spend a lot of time thinking about what it can be and what the franchise means. We educate one another, but the product is independent.
With this structure, the sites will likely not as closely reflect their parent magazines as they have in the past. What does that do to brand equity?
All media evolves; it's in a constant state of evolution. The evolution required in digital is that it's not a single voice. Magazines have never been a single voice because you have columnists, etc., but more than ever the web is personal, the web is voicey, the web is a place where people want to hear what other people think. Cosmopolitan.com becomes more a collection of voices and less singular than the magazine.
But Cosmo as a content thesis that was born some 50-plus years ago with Helen Gurley Brown is a transcendent thesis around empowering women and letting them be their best in lots of different ways. It was a very, very, very powerful idea then, and it created the biggest women's magazine in the world. I still think that open, honest conversation about issues that affect young women are what we trade in, with a real focus on relationships. But the way that comes out through the digital product is very different. And I expect that there will be some people that will just notionally understand that, but what I care about is that people fall in love with both products. It may not be something that people are conscious of, and it certainly can't be "this is an extension of the magazine in this way," but it's just like are you satisfied with this, are we looking at data, are we listening to what people are saying? And when we do that it grows, and it's growing like mad.
What are some demonstrable results of the changes you've made to Cosmopolitan's site?
We've doubled traffic in seven months. In the last three months, we've grown by probably 4 million uniques. This month Cosmopolitan.com will hit 17 million uniques. I would say that's what's most exciting, is that we're seeing the parallel growth in our communities on Facebook and Twitter, which of course are really important to the attention we earn every day. We also create hits far more consistently, where we push content into the community and it explodes, which is so exciting. I really measure a couple things—I obviously measure the number of people visiting the property, but I'm really interested in loyalty, so return visits, and I'm really interested in engagement, today primarily measured by social activity and comments.
How do you plan to monetize the sites and make them profitable?
First and foremost, we have a very engaged, scaled audience. And one way or another, brands are going to need to have us help them connect with that audience. The stronger our engagement, and the stronger the bonds between us and those people, the more effectively we can invite brands into that. I think that the mechanisms for monetization are all pretty well traversed in the industry, which is that when advertisers want to be part of the content experience, native becomes really important. To the extent that they're using display, it needs to be far more engaging, and interactive, and bold.
We're doing a lot of platform work right now, which is a design system that we can use across all of the Hearst properties that enables us to deliver content and advertising in a very effective way across any device. Also, we have a lot of data, we have a core audience, and our ability to segment our audience really effectively, dividing that audience up in a way that makes sense to advertisers, is really important, so the data products are important. And then everyone is going to be really focused on how you start to build video opportunities. That one, I need to get the velocity up, get through this first change around creating a quality product, and then we're going to be spending a lot more time on video.
What are the guiding principles behind Cosmo's redesign and the new publishing system that you're working on?
The new system has a lot of new ideas in it around pathing the user, integration of comments, and packaging of collections of content—those are really the three hallmarks of the new system. "Pathing" meaning what happens as you move through an article, how do you cross with other content. The packaging piece is, how do you go beyond reverse chronology as a way of presenting content? So those ideas are being developed and those will essentially become our paper. Meaning, our new system is the system that we'll use everywhere. If we innovate once, we innovate everywhere.
How does mobile fit into the development of the new system?
On Cosmo in particular, mobile is such a huge part of our traffic, so everything we're doing around our new design system is mobile first.
One of the biggest topics in digital entertainment right now is the balance between human curation of content versus automation. For example, on the homepage there are all those modules that feature particular stories—is someone programming those or do the slots fill in automatically somehow?
We are programming a lot of it by hand today, but have in development something we call the audience engine. What it does is starts to look at a bunch of data around user behavior, and program certain modules automatically. I think that there's a curatorial piece that will always be human driven, but my hope is that we can systematize a lot of it.
What do you consider the biggest question or challenge in the evolution of digital content creation?
One of the hallmarks of digital is that we have an unlimited amount of shelf space, but we still in some ways have a limited amount of shelf space because we have a finite screen, or several screens to deliver interesting things to consumers to get them to spend time with us. The contributor model stuff, which is how you make space on the site for the community, is really interesting to me. Because a lot of people want to have a conversation around the things that we're talking about, and want to participate in the Cosmo brand. How do we let them in in a way that doesn't dilute that special time that we have to offer them things that we're creating? Determining the right balance for this brand, and how to make that work experientially, is a big part of what we're thinking about.
In a recent interview with Ad Age, you said that when recruiting staff, you're "really focused on finding the freaks, the unicorns, the people who can bridge disciplines." Why do you feel these qualities lead to success, and where do you find them?
I go to the Unicorn Farm. No—it's the kind of people who don't always give you the standard answers. They come from a place of passion, they talk about things in a kind of personal way that to me always feels like they're craftspeople first, they really care about what they're doing. You look at maybe a nontraditional career trajectory, what they decided to do from an educational perspective, and you just kind of understand the person. If you get the DNA right, if you get the core, really passionate people who want to build things, it tends to grow from that and they reject anything that doesn't fit. It's really important that the core is right, and that we reward people for really caring about the craft and the product.