Hearst is building a 12-person research team to boost engagement

When Troy Young took over as president of Hearst Magazines in July, one of his to-do list items was looking at ways to streamline its magazine operations and integrate several of the previously separated print and digital teams. To that end, the company is increasingly using data to make editorial decisions, with help from a new 12-person research team.

Pure audience scale is still important to publishers like Hearst, which is still growing; monthly unique visitors rose to 128.2 million in September, up 16 percent year over year, according to comScore. But increasingly, publishers like Hearst are paying attention to measurements of quality, like repeat visits and time spent. Already, Hearst has been tilting toward reported stories over aggregated or quick takes that are designed to go viral.

Access to reader data has historically been limited to a few on the digital side of the company. So the company built a Slack tool called HANS (for “Hearst Analytics Slackbot”) that’s designed for anyone in the company to use to find out things like which stories people are spending the most time with, which topics are trending and which items in e-commerce posts are the top sellers. People can also find out the results of reader polls that Hearst puts at the bottom of a lot of its stories.

The emphasis on data is meant to support Young’s latest motto: “content with a purpose.”

“What we mean by that is, there’s intention in the content you’re creating,” said Kate Lewis, chief content officer of Hearst Magazines. “You have to make that evaluation before you publish. HANS is representative of the fact that the way we’re working now is editorial insight, powered by data. It gets people to see data as more part of their daily work life.”

Using HANS, staff at Hearst’s Good Housekeeping saw that readers especially liked stories about shows like “This is Us” and “Dancing with the Stars.” It ran a poll to find out they like to watch “This is Us” live, which led to the decision that the best time to publish online stories about the show was right after it aired. That feedback also helped the Good Housekeeping staff decide to put one of the stars of “This is Us” on its March cover.

The tool is also meant to bring a data orientation to the company as it brings its once-separate print and editorial teams closer together. Helping staff interpret all this data is a new team, under Brooke Siegel, vp of content for Hearst Digital Media, that will include staffers who were working in search and social media. Whereas publishers’ audience development teams can take on editorial and business tasks, this team will focus on editorial.

“High on my agenda is getting people aligned on what we do every day. In that way, it’s been nice to have an easy way to talk about what’s working. The print editors understand what people are connecting with on their sites that they didn’t before,” Lewis said.

A more data focus on the print side is overdue, said Kevin Anderson, who does digital media management consulting through his company, Ship’s Wheel Media. The trick is to make sure leaders emphasize the right data to support their goals.

“Some of it comes from, ‘This editorial gut feeling I have that this is going to be the right thing.’ We’ve always been more numbers-focused on the digital side,” he said. “The question has been how to use the data.”


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