Between the kids, the job, and perfecting what is arguably the hardest fake slap on television, Stephanie McMahon has her hands full.
As chief brand officer of WWE, McMahon has spent a lifetime in the trenches of professional wrestling both on and off camera, a business that her father Vince McMahon helped build into a billion-dollar enterprise.
And McMahon takes a lot after her father, both as a gifted heel and a shrewd business mind. Monday Night Raw, for example, is still one of the most-watched shows around, regularly grabbing the No. 1 spot on the weekly cable rankings with viewership in the 4 million range. Now with WWE’s premier event, Wrestlemania 31, coming up this Sunday, Fast Company spoke with McMahon by phone to talk about the business of WWE, Jon Stewart’s recent cameo, and how the world’s biggest soap opera manages to stay relevant in the age of social media.
Fast Company: I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but I read somewhere that your TV character has the hardest, meanest slap in the business. What’s the secret to doling out a good slap?
[Laughs] I’m aware that there is a perception about the strength of my slap. But let me just say, [WWE diva] Brie Bella can certainly give it back. It’s just all in the technique. I can’t give away my secret.
On an episode of Raw in January, you and your husband (WWE superstar Triple H) were caught on social media breaking character to console a young fan who started crying ringside. It was a powerful moment, I think. The story was picked up as this heartwarming thing by the media, eventually making it all the way to Good Morning America. What was going on in your mind when you made the decision to break character?
It’s not an unusual thing in terms of the little reactions that happens with fans ringside. There are any number of times that I’ll wink at somebody who’s really special in the crowd, or I’ll squeeze their hand as I walk by.
What happened was my husband was in character having a conversation with this little boy. He got scared and he started to cry. We felt so bad that we both just went right over to him. It was real quick and it wasn’t part of the show. But I think that WWE superstars and divas, the way we engage with our fans is to make them feel great about our show and to entertain them. When there’s a little kid in the audience who needs a little extra attention, we’re happy to give it.
You took him backstage after the show, right? What was his reaction like?
He was so cute. He was really excited. His dad was excited, too. We brought him back to meet a few of the superstars and to take pictures with us. He was just adorable.
So was this just one of those rare occasions where breaking character just happens to get caught on social media?
Were you surprised by all the pickup?
I was incredibly surprised that it blew up so much on social media, because again those little interactions happen all the time. WWE is about putting smiles on people’s faces. That’s our mission. We create memories that will last a lifetime. We do it all the time. To see it get so much pickup was a nice surprise.
I love that your Twitter bio says you play a bad guy on TV, because the WWE is now this crazy multi-platform thing: There’s the website, all the athletes on Twitter, Instagram. How much guidance does WWE give its athletes with it comes to navigating their own social accounts? How much leeway are they typically afforded?
It’s really important that our superstars and divas use media in their own voice. They need to be authentic and real. We offer them guidelines—anything you put out on social media, you should assume it has the reach of a national television program. My number one rule that I think is important for everyone is don’t drink and tweet.
Ha! Have you ever had to reprimand any WWE stars for drinking and tweeting?
Is there a superstar who’s especially savvy on social media?
Well, of course, me. [Laughs] I would say—and it might seem like an easy answer—but John Cena.
Cena believes in something similar that I do, and it’s about being inspirational and motivational on social. And if you look at his timeline, he really does try to bring out the best in people and send positive messages to people throughout the day. That’s something I subscribe to as well.
I noticed that. The “you” on TV is a totally different personality from the “you” on social media.
You’re exactly right. I play a character on TV—that’s my persona, that’s the villain personality. Stephanie McMahon, one half of The Authority.
In real life I’m very different than that! I am chief brand officer of WWE. I am a mom of three beautiful daughters. You know, I just I wear a lot of hats.
It’s interesting because when we first launched social for me, we weren’t sure what voice I should be using. In the beginning, I used a combination of my character voice and my personal voice, and we found it didn’t work. We found it confused the audience. So we strategically decided to put it in my personal voice. And that’s what we’ve been doing for some time now, and it’s been successful. We’ve had a large number of engagements.
Was sort of feedback on social were you guys looking at when you made that call?
Tracking the numbers. Certainly the response rate. When I would try to put out something positive, it wasn’t received well because some people wanted to engage with me in my character. But it was a much smaller group that fans that wanted my character versus the bigger opportunity, which again is why it was a strategic decision for me to be in my personal voice.
When I was a kid, one of the big guest cameos I remember was when the NFL’s Lawrence Taylor wrestled (and beat!) Bam Bam Bigelow. The crossover stuff is so fascinating to me. More recently, there was the feud between Jon Stewart and Seth Rollins. Did The Daily Show approach you first? How did that whole storyline come about?
I think a lot of the most successful integrations are organic. That’s the beauty of digital and social space. We had Seth Rollins on Monday Night Raw, and he claimed that he could do a better job of hosting The Daily Show than Jon Stewart.
Jon Stewart decided he wanted to retort because Jon is a fan of our show, which he did on a native video on Facebook. It garnered like 1.4 million views. Then we started talking to Jon Stewart and we came up with the plan to then have Seth Rollins appear on The Daily Show—which he did—and then challenge Jon Stewart to come to Monday Night Raw, which he did in a much bigger way.
I’m not sure if you saw the footage or not. But it’s awesome. Jon Stewart is so funny. He understands how to engage the audience. He’s so clever. And the result for was 71 million media impressions, and 345 million potential impressions on Twitter.
That’s . . . a lot. How did you guys prep Stewart for his confrontation with Seth? Did he need to be taught how to kick?
We told him to just do what comes naturally and haul up and kick Seth Rollins as hard as he could.
It’s one of the strategies that WWE has always employed, to bring pop culture into our programming. You referenced L.T. But social media didn’t exist back then. Now this opportunity comes about with Seth Rollins, and we can use all of these different platforms to tell the story in different ways. That’s what we were able to do. It’s amazing how many entertainers are actually fans of WWE.
I’m never surprised. When you think about it, everyone you meet has a WWE story at some point in time in their life. That’s a pretty powerful message when you really think about it.
In the last few years, Vince started relaxing his stance on “kayfabe,” or the idea that everything that happens in the ring is real. Can you talk a little bit about why the strategy shift might have been necessary, considering the move toward digital?
I’m not sure whether it was the chicken or the egg. But as [Steve] Austin and Triple H were talking about on the podcast on the WWE Network, I do believe that social media has opened the door for a more informed conversation. We are entertainment. There’s no doubt about it. What happens in the ring is an incredible athletic performance, but it’s absolutely a performance. It’s a story. What happens in the ring is the action in the ring itself, the psychology that goes into it, the ability to take the audience on a ride that makes them want to cheer to see you win, or boo to see you lose, or makes you throw your hands to the side of your face in shock and awe, and jump up in excitement when something is gonna happen. That is an incredible art form to be able to deliver.
Obviously, Raw and Smackdown are still ratings monsters. But the WWE Network (the company’s subscription-based platform that launched in 2014), has drawn its share of criticism for reportedly underperforming. Where can the WWE grow next?
We established the WWE Network because our fans wanted it. We evaluated a number of different models, and when we found that our fans consume five times the U.S. average of digital video content, we realized that there was a significant opportunity in the direct to consumer space. So we created the WWE Network.
We reached over a million subscribers in just 11 months after our launch. That’s a significant achievement. We actually became the fastest digital subscription service. In terms of our fans who watch the network, we constantly do research because we listen to our fanbase. We have a 90% satisfaction rate on the WWE Network. They are enjoying the content.
What they were not happy about, and what we listened to, was the six-month [subscription] commitment. Many of them cited that as a barrier to entry for them. So we changed that model. Now it’s $9.99 a month, cancel anytime.
It’s important to give our fans what they want. Given our subscriber base now, I would say that has been very successful.
Now HBO is jumping onboard with an a la carte offering. Is this standalone model where TV is headed?
In terms of WWE, we’re platform agnostic. In terms of our distribution model, we believe we need to be everywhere that people are watching content, whether that’s digitally or on traditional TV or on traditional cable. Who knows where it’s gonna go? Our goal is to be on as many devices and platforms as we possibly can so our fans can enjoy a creative experience that’s worthy of their passion.
Last question, and it’s one that I’ve always wanted to ask. What’s the secret to selling a Stone Cold Stunner?
My secret is to just go with the flow.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.