Innovation means a lot of different things to a lot of different people in a lot of different industries. In publishing, the word has typically been tethered to data-driven digital products, rather than ideas and ideators.
But at Cosmopolitan, innovation is taking on a more complex meaning that factors, among other things, product, people and philosophy.
Spearheading that drive towards innovation at the Hearst Magazines brand is its editor-in-chief, Jessica Pels, who was promoted to that role in October 2018 after 10 months as the brand’s digital director. She was tapped by chief content officer, Kate Lewis, to accelerate the young women’s title into a multi-platform destination geared towards the next generation of readers.
Over the years, Cosmo has made waves with some, and been applauded by others, for its edgy coverlines and articles that spoke to modern-thinking women about relationships, sex, fashion and beauty and just about everything else. And while it continues to carry that legacy today, the approach has changed.
We wanted to learn more about that shift, and how Pels is reshaping the brand. Further, we wanted to get a better sense of what innovation means to her, as well as what it means for Cosmo and its readers.
Folio: Let’s start with your homepage. It has a much different feel than a lot of media brands. It’s organized more like a magazine or flipbook, and not a time-stamped feed. What was the thinking behind this experience?
Jessica Pels: There is a strategic reason for the design. We’re practical about people coming to our page and what they’re looking for when they get there. Our site used to be built with a reverse-chronological feed, but the data showed us that the majority of our traffic doesn’t come to the homepage. We’ve known that for ages. So we reworked it to be more leisurely, surfacing more of our highlight experiences. I’m really loving the design.
Folio: You also publish interactive and immersive digital storytelling. For instance, you took a print story, “The G-Spot Doesn’t Exist,” and made it an entirely new digital experience. How did you execute that across teams to integrate so many rich media assets?
Pels: There’s a special ops product team at Hearst. I call them a “ninja team.” They are a handful of developers who help create special interactive digital experiences. They are the sort of special, high-touch interactive experiences that make an impression when you land on them.
I really believe the value of a reader’s relationship with a brand is joy, delight and surprise. So when we started working on what we felt was a groundbreaking story with the G-spot, we also started talking about how to innovate with it online. Our first call was with the special ops ‘ninja team,’ and we worked with them for months and had a ton of in-depth conversations about what we wanted to do. We wanted an experience that was chic and elevated and didn’t distract from the story itself, but at the same time was fun.
Folio: How does a project like that align with who Cosmo is as a media brand?
Pels: A project like that is only a piece of a huge puzzle. We put a ton of elbow grease into digital. That is the native space for our audience. My plan for Cosmo was and still is to create excellence across platforms and grow this already-large audience into a new generation of fans. Digital, social and video are key. It’s about innovating and pushing the limits of what a magazine brand can be.
We publish 30 stories a day online. We’ve posted over 175 stories about COVID-19 alone. So it’s a large operation with a ton of moving parts.
Folio: How does data inform your decisions?
Pels: Data plays a huge role. It’s our window into our readers. I believe that connectivity to our audience is our secret sauce. It’s the thing that matters most. We talk about our reader just as much as we talk about the content we make for our reader, and we always lead the conversation with data.
I’m putting together a report right now about where Millennials and Gen-Z are in terms of headspace, what they want and what they need.
We poll our audience all day, every day. Right now our polling shows us that 50% are quarantined with their parents. Another 24% are with their significant other, 19% are alone and 7% are with roommates. That’s the kind of insights we get and then create content around. That informs our print product, too, as it should.
I always say I’m not the boss of this brand, our reader is. I think that’s critical. You see it reflected in the fact that my staff is mostly Millennial and Gen-Z women, so we really are making a product for young women by young women.
Folio: How does the idea of your team being among your readership cohort square with your leadership style?
Pels: One of the first things I did when I got here was empowering every single voice on the staff. That includes making sure our interns felt comfortable speaking up with ideas, which I love.
I like to include everyone on our coverlines meeting because I believe great ideas can and do come from everywhere. A couple months ago that idea almost brought me to tears. We were hashing out a coverline and we weren’t there yet and were hemming and hawing and then an intern in the back of the room said, “What if we do this?” and it was perfect. It was such a huge moment of empowerment—to see a young woman feel comfortable speaking up in a room full of 60 people who are very senior to her.
Folio: We talked about how you’re innovating on your website, but what about your other platforms, what’s happening across other digital channels?
Pels: I am a big-time realist and pragmatist about how our audience reaches us. I like for myself and my team to be thoughtful about the fact that when you have a brand as big as Cosmo, sometimes you are capturing a certain audience on one platform and the other spectrum of your audience on another platform. So I make sure we focus on creating content that is endemic to each platform, without trying to always draw them back to the website. I’ve been in digital for a long time and I know that’s not always an effective strategy, and it can be frustrating to the reader. But you don’t always have a ton of time, and the competition is fierce, so we have to deliver high-impact content quickly across all of our platforms. That’s sort of the ethos.
But to run down on what’s going on on some of the platforms:
Our YouTube is growing really quickly. Last month was our best month ever. We had 15 million views and 630,000 hours of watch time. This month we hit one-million subscribers and launched three new series during quarantine alone, and we have a handful of others in development.
TikTok is a really important one to talk about. Our audience was one of the earliest adopters and we knew they would be spending more time there during quarantine. Our polling data says that they are spending more time there than before the pandemic. But 21% of Cosmo readers are spending at least a few hours a day on the platform. So we’ve obviously been experimenting and having fun there because there’s so much growth potential. Our follower growth is up 660% month-over-month. In the last month we’ve had four-million views there, which is up 189% month-over-month. So we’re seeing a lot of opportunity, but it’s also just a super fun platform.
We are also doing cool new things on Instagram. It’s still the preferred social network for our audience. It’s obviously important we do great work and live there as much as they do. [Today] we’re premiering a new comic strip series that we developed for Instagram stories that we partnered with The Believer on. It’s about the stuck-at-home experience.
We were one of the first media brands to make our own gif stickers for Stories. We later realized we could release them to our audience, too, which is super cool. I checked this morning and our gif stickers have had 3.2 billion views. There’s obviously a lot of demand so we continue to roll out new ideas that are either themed or seasonal or to encourage voting or promote a big editorial initiative we have.
Instagram Live is another opportunity. Instagram reports they’ve seen a 70% uptick in the use of Live since stay-at-home orders started. Our engagement in that space is about the same as it was before then, but my thinking on that is it’s because our audience was already high-use so now other demographics are rising up.
The last thing I want to mention about leveraging other channels is that we have a text-to-subscribe program for the magazine to make it easier to get print. Print magazines are the original no-contact delivery. It feels like a better time than ever to get a treat in your mailbox every month. The subscription process hasn’t always been easy, so we developed a way to let readers subscribe by texting.
Folio: That last bit segues into a somewhat obvious question. Given all of this innovation and your success in digital, where does print fit into such a dynamic brand like Cosmo?
Pels: It’s a marquee piece of our brand. One way you see that is in the power of the magazine cover.
It’s central to this brand, and I actually think will become more so. A magazine is a notification and news-assault-free space. Our culture has become more mindful of mental health. Younger generations, in particular, have been focusing on wellness. But this whole situation has made all of us more focused. I think during this time developing healthy disconnection habits will stay with us. Magazines are a great way to do that. I’m not saying content will be less significant. I think the pandemic is underlining a belief I have that content is about community. It’s a way in this very spread out world that we can connect with each other. So I think the print magazine provides a significant value going forward.
The other thing I wanted to talk about is the print cover. As somebody who has worked in digital for a long time, one of the things that has frustrated me in the digital space is the inability to recapture the cover experience. A lot of brands have tried to do digital covers, but it’s just not quite the same. There’s an intangibility about describing it. It’s just not quite as impactful.
An example of that is when we put YouTube star Emma Chamberlain on our cover earlier this year. The amazing thing is her fan base is largely based on YouTube and are all Gen-Z and they felt so validated by the fact that she was on a print magazine cover. That was a nice moment of seeing that print magazines still mean something and establish a moment in time. I think that’s really important.
Folio: So we’ve talked a little bit about the pandemic, without really getting into it too deeply. So to dig in more, how has it impacted your editorial strategy to maintain your brand mission?
Pels: Perhaps the sexier sounding answer is to make it seem hard, but the truth is it’s easy for us because it’s what we do every day. We are in the habit and practice of responding to what’s happening to our readers and affects the lives they’re living. That isn’t just during the pandemic or a time of incredible fear or stress, it’s always. While our focus has certainty shifted to more topical coronavirus content, our practice hasn’t changed at all.
I have had some print colleagues ask me if I’m concerned about content being outdated in future print issues. I’m not. This is what we do. We react in real time and nimbly reflect what’s going on in the world.
I’m a believer in not planning too far ahead, ever. We plan just far enough ahead in that we get done what we need to get done. But otherwise I believe in strategizing in the moment, but also being reflective. I think that’s generally the best way to capture passion. There’s no better way to create dispassionate content than to plan it a year-and-a-half in advance.