Growth Lessons From Head of Hearst Digital Resonate for All Publishers

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"Today, media is participatory, so you have to think, not just in terms of content creation, but reaction. It's very personal now. The audiences are big, but the relationships are personal. I encourage our editors to cultivate these relationships. If you look at the Facebook feed for Cosmo, you'll see the editors are in the comments all the time, listening and interacting with readers. When you do that properly, you refine your sense of who that person is that you're editing for."

That quote came Friday from Troy Young, president of Hearst Magazines Digital Media, in an article on the site The Business of Fashion. He joined Hearst in 2013 and moved quickly to integrate the different groups, breaking down silos and encouraging data and content sharing. Digital traffic rose 25% in 2016 with 176 million monthly unique visitors across its many brands, leading to 31% revenue growth.  

Of course, this is a huge scale, but lessons can be gleaned for smaller-scaled publishers as well:

Create a culture where engineers want to be. It doesn't exactly have to be engineers, but Young's message is simple. "You have to make a real commitment to the value of technology that is consistent with the companies who are competing with you for talent." Look for multi-dimensional people. And enable them in your company. "Everybody needs to be an expert and everybody needs to collaborate."

The business and editorial sides must continue to work together. Young emphasized how collaboration has worked for their native advertising. "We judge the native content on the same standards that we judge any content we create," he said. "Did it delight [our audience]? There is a lot of dialogue between our brand and content team and our editorial team, for the simple reason that it makes everything better." And in an interesting twist, he added, It makes "us more relevant to our customers."

It's all about leveraging your talent. Last week Condé Nast unveiled a major reorganization that traded the term "publishers" for multibrand "chief business officers" and category-specific "chief industry officers." "We're modernizing our revenue teams to simplify the way we work with our partners and better leverage the extraordinary talent in our company," Jim Norton, chief business officer and president of revenue, emailed to staff. Translation, no more silos.

Encourage relationships between staff and audience/readers. Funny, sports radio has been doing this for years—hi, this is Stu from Queens or Howie from Massapequa—a big audience but personal stories. Reporters are also heartily encouraged now to take to the airwaves or social media to better connect with readers. Another example would be when recruiting for awards judges. The overall audience may be fairly large, but recruitment works much better person-to-person. 

Build a unified platform. Again, this is about connecting their various teams, to share knowledge and data. What one person or team learns about their audience can prove useful to another team. Whit Shaw, president and CEO of American City Business Journals, also told me this last year. "...there's a communications group in the company whose responsibility is to spread the word, set up business journal reports to the executive VPs or group publishers that oversee day-to-day contact. 'This worked in Orlando—you should do it in Tampa.'" Again, it's a big company but smaller companies also must have formal channels to share successes.

Think efficiency. You want to create content that can carry across different audiences, with slight changes, Young said, rather than rewriting a number of times. I find this to be a challenge, but incredibly important. It might take me an extra 30-45 minutes on the front end thinking about the best way to write something. But if I can make it effective for multiple audiences, it's such an advantage.

Work with Facebook. "The way we look at it, it's about yield," said Young. "How do you refactor your content for as many distribution end points as possible? But critically, how do you make money in these environments? " He looks at Facebook as an opportunity not a threat. I can't tell you how many people I meet who get their news from Facebook/social media. Also keep in mind Facebook Live which I wrote about recently. 

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…