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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

For Hearst’s Kate Lewis, data fuels strategy but the audience is in the driver’s seat

August 23, 2018 | By Ron Miller—Independent Technology Journalist @ron_miller

Reading Kate Lewis’s list of responsibilities as Chief Content Officer of Hearst Magazines boggles the mind. She oversees content strategy, which includes managing all of the company’s editors-in-chief and digital directors in the U.S., while working with its international network to coordinate global content.

Keep in mind that Hearst is a sprawling global publishing empire with 300 print editions and 240 digital brands. Lewis in charge of the 25 print and 25 digital publications in the U.S. The former has an audience of 89 million, the latter 108 million.

Kate Lewis, Chief Content Officer of Hearst Magazines

As though that weren’t enough for any single human, she also works closely with the product and technology teams, consumer marketing, and the division’s branded content unit, HearstMade – just in case she has some spare time.

Lewis is in constant motion. One thing is clear, to monitor this network of brands, she has become keenly aware of the value of data, which drives strategy across both print and digital. It also provides her with critical insights into the audience’s needs, desires, and expectations.

It’s all about that audience

Given her broad purview, Lewis has developed a core guiding philosophy (and great communications skills), which allows her to maintain a consistent approach while also considering each publication’s unique audience.

“Our approach is driven by our audience. What do they want from us, brand-by-brand, on every platform where we deliver content. We create and design content differently depending on the platform. And, of course, print is a huge platform for us. It’s where this all started! So, the thinking first will always be: ‘What does the audience want from us in this encounter?’ And yes, that is always evolving,” she explained.

As an example of that evolution, she points out that when she started at Hearst, they were very focused on Facebook to drive traffic. Now, they think about it as a way to get video views, among other things. “This kind of persistent change is something that feels digital in nature, but I think will be meaningful in the print world,” she said.

Digging the data

Back in the days before digital, it was hard to know much about your audience beyond subscriber numbers and some basic demographics. However, Lewis points out that today, print publications have access to the same data as the digital properties so that both can take advantage of it.

That means arming editors with as much information as possible. Hearst has a dedicated data operation called Hearst Data Studios, which feeds data across the brands. “This comes down to the efforts of our Hearst Data Studio, as well as an openness to sharing the data, the insights we have across our many, many brands.”

Beyond that, Lewis said that employees need transparency about how she is using the data internally to measure success or failure. “Sharing and being honest about wins and fails will be key. And truly defining, clearly, what a win and a loss is. My feeling is that content can rise from access to data, collaborative editors, and clear goals. We have established all the above amongst the digital team and I hope to add to what’s already being done on print.”

The future is now

Lewis believes that the biggest challenge on the content side of things remains distribution. And, she says that it’s getting harder to know your audience when it comes from many different sources. “People still hunger for content, big and small, but our direct connection to them has been somewhat obfuscated. It can be challenging to get in their face these days whether because of the decreasing number of newsstands or the increasing presence of social media. Our audience is huge but comes to us in many ways, not necessarily directly,” she said.

One way that media companies have tried to keep their audience front and center is through newsletters. Lewis acknowledges newsletters provide a kind of direct connection. However, she worries that consumer inboxes are becoming overloaded, which may sever that direct link. She sees chat as one way to fill the gap. “Chat is pervasive from grandmas to 10-year-olds,” she said. She also sees voice-driven media like Alexa and Siri also coming into play once they mature.

Ultimately, though, Lewis feels that everything boils down to audience engagement. It’s up to brands to figure out how best to keep the audience coming back as technology continually changes the way consumers interact with content creators. “Brands evolve based on generations and trends and the measure of good, and as the caretakers of the brands we’ll push them to be relevant and worth engaging with.”

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