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Hearst’s Duncan Edwards: Why it’s one of the most exciting times ever to be a content publisher

Duncan Edwards, president and CEO of Hearst Magazines International, talks to us ahead of the FIPP World Congress about growing a successful global digital business, implementing the firm’s ‘months to moments’ strategy and what reality TV shows can teach us about relevant content…

The FIPP World Congress takes place from 13-15 October 2015 in Toronto, Canada. Duncan and some 80 speakers from around the world will speak at the event (register here to join them, if you haven’t yet).

  • See the provisional programme here
  • See more speakers here
  • See companies that have already registered to be there, here

You’ve been overseeing the international roll-out of the business’s ‘months to moments’ strategy, which is aimed at moving away from magazine publishing cycles to always-on content. Tell us a bit about that…

I’ll give you an example of why moving from months to moments is very important for us and how it’s driven much of our thinking in digital. Simply put, the world of digital has changed. Ten years ago, publishers were creating evergreen content and optimising that content for search engines. That was the old model. But because of digital developments, especially around mobile devices and social media, while we still create evergreen content, we’re also creating newsy, up-to-the-minute content and optimising that for social. That’s the big change. 

The tempo of producing a weekly or monthly magazine is clearly different than producing an engaging, topical, up-to-the-minute website or social media strategy – even if it’s for the same audience. So it’s critical that we think differently about what we do on social media, and what we put on our websites compared with what we put in our monthly magazines, which have much longer lead-in times. That is what has really driven this catchphrase of ‘months to moments.’ 

How does that look in reality? I was in London in July, and around that time the PR companies start talking to the magazine editors about Christmas. If you were following Lindsay Nicholson, the editorial director of Good Housekeeping UK, on Instagram or Twitter around that time, you would see lots of Christmas events, Christmas trees, fake snow and all of those things – because that’s when editors are planning their Christmas issues. Passionate readers want a look behind the scenes, so they see that on social, but it’s not the right time to be posting stories online or in print about it – they are thinking about sunscreen and summer vacation and whether the drachma is coming back.  

People’s reading habits have also changed – with social channels often being used as news channels. Has that influenced your direction?

Well yes, and that’s another thing that shows the importance of this new thinking. For example, we have a massive global story, ICONS, in our September issue of Harper’s BAZAAR every year, where we work with our Global Fashion Director, Carine Roitfeld, the most-well-known fashion stylist in the world, to photograph these fantastic celebrities in a particular way – this year, they are photographed by Jean-Paul Goude as their fantasy icons, from Elizabeth Taylor to Joan of Arc. Traditionally, that was published in all of our editions of Harper’s BAZAAR. Now, we launch it first on the Harper’s BAZAAR websites and social media around the world. The old mind set would’ve been that we must protect the imagery for our print publications before releasing it online. But our approach now is that this is such a big story that we must run it as soon as we possibly can. As soon as that first global edition comes out in print, in whichever country, those pictures will be all over the world via the internet. So we control that, and ensure we are driving the traffic to our sites. This is a mind-set change, because traditionally magazine editors would have been very protective about their magazine content. And that is why ‘months to moments’ is also a cultural change for us as a business. 

How have you implemented that cultural change?

We start by making sure we are consistent in our thinking – we’ve been saying the same things as a company for two years now. We have allocated resources to digital content creation and, whether those resources are separate from the print business, which is the case in the US, or they're integrated, as is the case in the UK, we get the job done. As long as we are creating large quantities of high quality content, in high frequency, that has a distinctive brand voice, then how we get there is less important. We will be nimble and flexible as we figure out the best way of doing this. 

How do you know your strategy is the right one and that you’re going in the right direction?

At the end of the day, we’re a business, and there are two main things we look at. The first is whether we are building audiences, and we are having enormous success in building global audiences around our major brands. Through our internal analysis, we can see that we have significantly north of 300 million unique visitors to our websites each month worldwide. Outside the US, May was a record month, with 184 million unique visitors to non-US websites, and growth is around 30 per cent per annum. There are other measures too. In the Netherlands, for example, which is a country of around 17 million people, we have 3.4 million unique visitors to Cosmopolitan.nl. In Italy in July, we had more than 1.1 million unique visitors to Cosmopolitan there. So we have very large audiences coming to our content and that is the first way we look at it. The second thing we look at is, are we building a business that is commercially sound? We are a private company and don’t share specifics about our finances, but I’m happy to say that our digital advertising business is growing at a real gallop and we are certainly happy with the rate of progress we are making. 

What does longer-term growth look like?

For our digital businesses, we have prioritised our big, powerful, audience-defining global brands, like Cosmopolitan, Harper’s BAZAAR, Esquire, ELLE and Good Housekeeping. We believe these brands have very clear voices, in print and online, and we will be emphasising globally those businesses for development. We of course have local businesses that are very important in local markets, but what we’re doing with the global brands is going around the world to make sure the execution of these sites is as good as it can be. In some cases, we are the operator of those sites, but in others we have partners, and it’s important that all the sites are using the technology and knowledge that Hearst has developed to make them as good as they can be. We’re also launching digital businesses in countries where we don’t have print editions. For example, Cosmopolitan now has websites in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and we launched Cosmopolitan in Nigeria around six months ago. My expectation is that we will continue to roll-out local versions of our global brands, because we see that as a major opportunity. 

How easy is it to launch those products in new markets and to ensure they stay relevant?

We have built a global network for sharing content and we’re making sure we don’t write the same story twice. Through the network, any story that is published by Cosmo, anywhere in the world, is available to all the other editions of Cosmo. So global stories, such as coverage of the Oscars, get written once and distributed across the network for local editors to pick up. If an editor wants to add a local angle, by highlighting a celebrity from their country, for example, they can do that – but it still means the story was only written once. Local stories do very well, so it’s important we provide that ability to tailor and localize articles. Its like the TV show The Voice: the format is global but the local audience still wants it to be relevant to them – which is why the judges and the talent is different in every country. And that’s what we are trying to provide too. What’s also critically important for Hearst and what gives us an advantage is our centrally controlled technology and publishing platform called MediaOS. We have transitioned all of our US sites on to that platform - and we are going round the world and migrate the rest too. 

You are the incoming chairman of FIPP. Why is such a role important to you?

FIPP is a great organisation doing fantastic work for its members and I think that any content publishing company that aspires to have an international business, whether it has a background in print or not, should be a member of FIPP. It has built a global network of great publishing companies. Not every organisation has the scale of Hearst, but through FIPP media professionals are able to improve their knowledge and their networking at a far quicker rate. Hearst has a strong business publishing internationally, and it’s important that we give something back. 

What area of the industry particularly excites you right now?

My view is that it’s an incredibly good time to be a content publisher. If you’re good at creating compelling content, with a clear point of view and a distinct voice – true for many content publishers that have their roots in magazine publishing – this is an amazing time, one of the most exciting times there has ever been. You can see that in the demand for content from other digital players, such as platform players, and the dynamics of that relationship have changed. Editorially curated magazine media content is in demand, and that’s because as an industry, we are very good at producing compelling stories that drive consumer engagement.

Meet and hear more from Duncan at the FIPP World Congress, taking place from 13-15 October 2015 in Toronto, Canada. Some 700-800 executives from around the world are expected to attend the Congress (register here to join them, if you haven’t yet).

  • See the provisional programme here
  • See more speakers here
  • See companies that have already registered to be there, here

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