How Hearst Magazines Leverages Its Scale and Innovation to Drive Consumer Value

Leading digital publishing executives united to discuss industry-wide technology challenges at the 2019 FUSE Media Summit in November. Sheel Shah, VP of strategic partnerships and consumer products at Hearst Magazines, kicked off the event with a keynote addressing how platforms disrupted the traditional media model – and how Hearst is using the reach of platforms to extract audience insights for consumer product development.

Shah began by overviewing the Internet’s fundamental impact on the business of legacy publishers like Hearst. Before the Internet, “companies like ours were able to package up the editorial and the advertising and put it into a curated product that we owned and operated the distribution channel for,” he says. “Consumers really valued that.”

The Internet eliminated the competitive advantage of distribution, as well as opened the door for digital media natives like Vice, Group Nine, and BuzzFeed (where Shah worked prior to joining Hearst in 2016).

“Another phenomenon that happened during that time was that the attention moved from media companies to social platforms,” says Shah. “If that attention is going to be spent with the platforms, then they get to create the consumer experience. They get to own the consumer, own the consumer data, as well as build an ads business.”

Thus, content distributors became competitors. As publishers well know by now, the duopoly of Facebook and Google gobbles up most of the digital ad spend, along with other Big Tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft.

While a publisher’s initial instinct may be to pull content off platforms or to charge the platforms for premium content, Shah views platform distribution as both a necessity and a big opportunity.

“We have visibility into what people are watching on YouTube, what people are saying inside of our polls on Instagram, and how much time they are spending with us on particular articles versus other articles,” he says. “One of the ways I think we can use data like that is to develop consumer products and drive our consumer marketing strategy.”

Below are key points from Shah’s session at FUSE, plus examples of data-driven consumer products developed within Hearst.

“We have great brands, we have tons of influence, and people trust us; I don’t think many people really trust platforms.”

Shah emphasized the respect and authority garnered by magazine media brands like Hearst’s ELLE, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and others. This authority uniquely positions publishers to create premium digital content and physical products (e.g., books and branded merchandise) that platforms won’t create themselves.

“We can find different ways to engage with people and create value for them, and at the end of the day we are businesses, so we’ll find ways to monetize them as well,” he says.

By gleaning audience insights from platforms and then sharing those insights internally, media companies equip employees to put customer needs first. It’s important, however, for teams to be mindful of how each decision or piece of content impacts the business, Shah says.

“There has to be some type of purpose to everything we create.”

Whenever creating editorial content, the Hearst team will ask, why are we creating this? “Is it to learn something new? Is it for somebody to want to buy something? Is it to drive a click to go somewhere else?” Shah suggests. “We need to know that purpose before we go into actually creating it.”

Shah used a Women’s Health initiative to demonstrate how the team applied this line of questioning. Hearst recognized strong audience interest in yoga content, so the editorial team decided to create more of it. But before doing so, they had to understand the purpose that content would serve: In this case, “their purpose of creating is to learn more about the customer need,” says Shah.

Leah Wynalek is editor-in-chief of BRAND United. She is passionate about creating content that engages audiences across channels – and delivering insights that help others do the same.