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Hearst’s President of Digital on How to Win the New Media Wars

Troy Young, president of Hearst Magazines Digital Media, identifies seven principles for building a successful media business for the internet age.
Troy Young, president of Hearst Magazines Digital Media | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Vikram Alexei Kansara

NEW YORK, United States — "I think my mandate is to make this business digital. I think my mandate is to evolve these great brands," said Troy Young, president of Hearst Magazines Digital Media. The Canadian-born, Brooklyn-dwelling executive oversees the digital content, product, technology, revenue and business development strategies for 21 of the storied media conglomerate's brands, including fashion and lifestyle titles Cosmopolitan, Elle and Harper's Bazaar.

It’s no small task. In recent years, the internet has completely rewired the way media is created and consumed, birthing a universe of new digital content creators and distribution points; sending print revenues into decline; giving rise to new competitors like Vice and Refinery29; and forcing legacy publishers like Hearst, Condé Nast and Time Inc to restructure their businesses to better fight a growing new media war. But Young, a former digital advertising executive who was president of Say Media before joining Hearst Magazines in 2013, was unafraid — and empowered — to hit the reboot button, upending the company’s existing digital strategy and fundamentally rethinking its approach to digital content, platform and monetisation.

"I think I was really lucky from a timing perspective, because a lot had been tried," he said. "By the time I arrived, the organisation was ready for change. To have the support of David Carey [president of Hearst Magazines] in everything I was doing was absolutely essential."

Acting swiftly, Young replaced top digital editors at publications like Cosmopolitan and Elle, and, in a contrarian move, uprooted the company’s online teams from their homes at individual titles to form a new multi-brand group, accelerating the organisation’s digital evolution and encouraging content and data sharing across brands. Indeed, under the new strategy, he reimagined Hearst’s digital portfolio as a vast, multi-brand ecosystem. Underpinning the approach was MediaOS, a unified content management, ad sales and data analytics platform. Along the way, Young also placed new emphasis on native advertising and launched new digital-only brands like Sweet, a joint venture between Hearst and Snapchat, an increasingly important partner for the company.

The results speak for themselves. Hearst Magazines Digital Media reported record-breaking traffic in 2016 with 176 million monthly unique visitors across its portfolio of brands, up 25 percent year-over-year, leading to 31 percent revenue growth. But some brands are further ahead than others.

Cosmopolitan was the first title to be revamped under Young and perhaps best reflects the approach Hearst plans to cascade to other properties. Today, Cosmopolitan.com attracts about 33 million unique visitors per month, up 213 percent since Young joined the company, while the brand's Snapchat Discover channel draws over 42 million unique visitors per month. "Cosmo is really well-suited to the internet. It's fun, sexy and funny. It's something you want to share. There is also great leadership. Amy Odell has built an amazing team — and we created a construct where that team could kick ass," said Young.

“I don’t think strategy is the hard part. I think organisational change and execution is the hard part. But I don’t think you can do it without a few components,” he continued. “You have to make amazing content and listen to consumers. You have to have a tactical substrate to the business that makes it manageable. You have to have all the service pieces around that to create value for advertisers.”

BoF sat down with Troy Young to unpack his approach and identify seven key principles for building a successful media business for the digital age.

1. MOMENTS, NOT MONTHS

Most fashion magazines operate on a monthly cycle. But online, you must be relevant in the moment. That means putting currency and conversation first.

“Organisations are about rhythm. The monthly rhythm was about a piece of copy being edited four times. It was about a kind of detached perspective on what was important in the world versus being in the conversation and being personal and talking about what the internet wants. Today, currency and conversation are more important than perfection. And when you’re working in the news cycle, your mix of content by necessity changes. Celebrity becomes more important. Things like the election are now the province of lifestyle magazines. That’s a really big departure. The right talent; the technology you set up to enable them to live by the moment; a culture where responding to what consumers are reading is important — if you work backwards from ‘We’re going to be great in the moment’ a lot of things change.”

2. EMBRACE EFFICIENCY

Today, media is abundant but more challenging to monetise. Embracing efficiency is a prerequisite for success.

“There is an efficiency imperative in media today. We’re expected to produce so much, so quickly for so many environments where it’s hard to monetise media. Efficiency for me is a starting point. And if you get it right, it means you can invest intelligently. There are only so many ways to interpret the “Taylor Swift gets a haircut” story. If I write that story nine times that’s inefficient. If I write it once and make it work across nine different environments that allows me to write a feature because I just saved a lot of money. I think modern media asks us to be efficient.”

3. CREATE WITH THE COMMUNITY

In a world where media is participatory and consumers have a voice, editors must learn to listen and interact with their audience to refine their output.

“This is about the mindset of a modern editor. 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.”

4. BUILD A GLOBAL PLATFORM

Many large media businesses are fragmented across brand and geography. Operating your portfolio as a single platform can unlock tremendous value.

“One of the key decisions we made was to embrace platform thinking, connecting journalistic teams across the company with a single platform: MediaOS. Everyone in the media business talks about CMS and one piece of this is managing content creation, but we’re also interested in other pieces. How do you syndicate content? How do you get data back to editors? How do you manage performance? How do you think about the front-end? What that means is, if I make an improvement to Elle, Cosmo also benefits. We are now deriving benefits from scale, whereas previously our efforts were fragmented. You can’t effectively manage a multi-brand, multi-geography business without a real commitment to platform.”

5. DON’T FEAR FACEBOOK, BUT FOCUS ON MAKING MONEY

Today’s distributed media reality, where people increasingly consume content on third-party tech platforms, is an opportunity, not a threat.

“There has always been a kind of productive tension between the two essential pieces of media: content and distribution. Facebook is a distributor. We’re content creators. We need each other. They enable us to tap a bigger audience. And we enable them to be more relevant to their platform customer. The question underneath this is: how do we share the spoils? The way we look at it, it’s about yield. How do you refactor your content for as many distribution end points as possible? But critically, how do you make money in these environments? And can you manage yield, so that across all your distribution points you’re making more money than you would on a singular, smaller distribution point? For us, the answer has been: yes, we can make more. Increasingly, we are this new kind of distributed entertainment company. A couple of things have enabled that. One is native advertising. These platforms have become distribution for native content, making us more relevant to our customers. Second, the platforms now understand that they need to manage yield for us. They are becoming more serious about the role of content and how content is compensated. Platforms used to create value for content. Now, content is creating value for the platforms. I mean, look at Snapchat. You swipe left for personal communication and right for content.”

6. RETHINK ‘CHURCH AND STATE’

In the age of native advertising, a new set of norms must free branded content teams to interface — if not integrate — with editorial.

“The rise of native was very much a function of the new distribution environment. As the distribution end points became very different, you saw pressure on publishers to make content as opposed to advertising. Of course, the challenge with native is how you meet the needs of advertisers, while simultaneously meeting the needs of the reader. How can an advertiser help us make something important for the consumer? We judge the native content on the same standards that we judge any content we create. Did it delight consumers? 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.”

7. EMPOWER PRODUCT AND TECH

Breaking down the traditional organisational duopoly of editorial and publishing, and enabling the rise of product and tech is essential to online success.

“Media companies haven’t historically been tech companies. Their technology teams largely grew out of IT departments. They weren’t product and tech teams in the sense of Facebook or Google. It takes time, but the way we’ve been changing this is, first of all, creating a culture where engineers want to be. 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. I am constantly reminding the company that everybody isn’t two dimensional anymore — either on the editorial team or the publishing team. Today, it’s multi-dimensional: product, tech, audience, editorial — everybody needs to be an expert and everybody needs to collaborate.”

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