Hearst’s Duncan Edwards on Cosmopolitan’s online-only expansion

Top on the initial target list are the Nordics and Africa. Cobus Heyl spoke to Duncan Edwards, president and CEO of Hearst Magazines International, about their plans.

Cosmopolitan will launch local language sites for Sweden, Denmark and Norway in the first quarter in 2015. It launched a site for Nigeria in December 2014 and is considering launches in other African countries such as Ghana, Kenya and Botswana (the company already have a print edition and site in South Africa).

Internationalisation strategy

In the past, content brands often required local partners to enable their internationalisation strategy, requiring local content, advertising, logistics and brand development support in expanding to new markets.

Today, on the back of the Internet in general and social distribution of content in particular, this is not an absolute requirement anymore. As such, there is no single blueprint for such expansion anymore.

On the one hand, we will continue to see partnerships such as the one between POLITICO and Axel Springer, announced in September 2014, to jointly launch a European edition

On the other, there will also be examples of those doing it without local partners, as is the case with Cosmopolitan’s latest expansion drive. “The need for a local partner is lower in digital as there are no physical tasks like printing and distribution. Of course, ad sales still needs to be solved, but it may be that the model of using partners is going to change for cross border publishers,” said Edwards of the internationalisation model.

Earlier, Edwards told FT.com that Cosmopolitan would hire local editors as part of the drive, working with existing Cosmo staff (see the FT.com article here) to service the sites.

The local editors will develop content to serve local preferences, while the sites will further tap into Cosmo content from elsewhere in the world. Edwards explains that local editorial talent will be used either on a full time or freelance basis, with co-ordination from its offices in New York or London.

Decisions on whether the sites need commercial people on the ground will be made on a “market-by-market basis,” but with advertising seen as the major revenue stream, Edwards said they “will sell this locally and centrally.”

Sweden, Denmark and Norway

Asked about expansion into Sweden, Denmark and Norway, Edwards said, “We have done a lot of work to assess which markets we should enter first. We are already in 60 or so countries, but have no print edition in these countries which are well developed and highly digital.”

Nigeria and other African markets

While challenges remain, many markets in Sub-Saharan Africa are among the fastest-growing markets worldwide. One of the key drivers is its emerging middle class, with increased household consumption contributing to growth.

The emerging African middle class is aspirational, with local values but within a global context and strong interest in what goes on around them – not much different from there peers elsewhere in the world.

With a population of nearly 174 million, Nigeria surpassed South Africa as Africa’s largest economy in 2014, based on restated GDP numbers. It has a sizeable online population, driven by – as in most African markets – mobile penetration and improved connectivity.

Already having a presence in South Africa, Hearst’s expansion with Cosmopolitan expansion into Nigeria should therefore not come as a surprise. 

According to the company, it already had (before the launch of the Nigeria site) “an interested Nigerian audience going to several Cosmopolitan sites globally, in particular the UK, Australia, Philippines, India, South Africa and France. We knew from page view data that certain content and tone engaged the Nigerian audience more. We implemented a content creation strategy letting data guide us for launch. So far, our data has shown a low bounce rates and healthy number of page views per session [useful metrics to help show audience engagement] – similar to sites with deep audience engagement.”

While too early to divulge specifics on usage and revenue numbers in this market, Edwards said they “hope to announce a significant advertising partnership soon.”

Mobile first

Mobile is hugely important in the sub-Saharan markets, in some respects with innovation leading other parts of the world (as MPESA – a mobile money platform launched in Kenya – showed some years ago). 

While adoption of mobile commerce in Nigeria is high, Edwards said m-commerce does not yet form part of the plans for Cosmo Nigeria. “Nigeria is really a proof of concept. Our expectations for revenues in this market are low at the start of the project.”

It of course provides a good environment for mobile experimentation, but Edwards went a step further to say “in all of our Cosmo digital environments we are thinking about mobile first…not just in Africa.”

Audiences at scale

According to FT.com, Hearst International’s magazine websites drew 169 million unique users from outside the US in December 2014, up 50 per cent from a year ago. This compares with 110 million unique users for its US sites. “We’re starting to become a large provider of digital audiences,” Edwards told the FT.

Apart from plugging markets where Cosmopolitan previously had no particular focus before online-only expansion strategy is sure to help the company build, and serve, overall digital audiences at scale, all the while developing deeper local engagement and brand affinity – at speed.

Edwards confirmed the company plans to replicate the Cosmopolitan strategy beyond the markets in Europe and Africa already mentioned to others around the world.

It’s worth keeping an eye on their progress.

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