From 2013 to 2014, Bauer Media Group’s digital properties in the United States have experienced explosive growth. The company reports that InTouchWeekly.com‘s unique monthly visitors grew organically by 745 percent, LifeandStylemag.com by 436 percent and the teen group (which includes J-14, M, and Twist) by 264 percent. On a monthly basis, Bauer’s digital teen division sees 5 million unique users. Three months after the relaunch of J-14.com, the magazine became the fastest growing magazine on Facebook, with more fans than publications like BuzzFeed, Us Weekly and People.
These numbers are impressive by themselves, but even more remarkable considering that just a couple of years ago Bauer in the U.S. did not have a real online department. The company’s success in print — in the U.S., Bauer sells more magazines at retail than any other magazine publishing company — left a hole in its business model in the digital space. As a result, Bauer recruited Christian Baesler from a management post at Bauer Media Group in Germany to take on the formidable task of revving up the company’s online activity. Between the incredible growth that these sites have seen and the fact that major advertisers like Coca-Cola, Adidas and Rimmel London are taking notice, it’s clear that Baesler has proven just how invaluable digital is for Bauer.
After the jump, Baesler discusses the ingredients to the digital department’s success, Bauer’s social media strategy and what the public can expect from the upcoming roll-out of the new and improved InTouchWeekly.com.
Name: Christian Baesler
Position: Vice president, new media
Resume: Worked for two years as a freelance writer, photographer and Web developer in Germany before spending three and a half years in Nordakademie’s corporate traineeship program, which placed him at Bauer Media Group. Relocated from Bauer’s Germany offices two years ago to head the digital team in the U.S., which he grew from a solo operation to a department of 24 people.
Birthdate: November 9
Hometown: Hamburg, Germany
Education: Nordakademie, Wirtschaftsinformatik (computer science and business administration); Boston University, semester abroad; Harvard Business School, executive training
Marital status: In a relationship
Media mentor: Hubert Boehle, president/CEO, Bauer Publishing Group
Best career advice received: “Question the status quo and do things differently, which is really the only way you can be successful and stand out. And always have a goal so you know in which direction you have to walk.”
Guilty pleasure: “I have two. One is flying. I’m in the process of getting a pilot license. I already have 45 hours now. And then the second one is electronic music. I used to be a producer and a DJ in Europe.”
Last book read: Blockbusters, by Anita Elberse
Twitter handle: @cbaesler
What does a day in your life as VP of new media look like?
It actually has changed quite a bit over the last two years, especially here at Bauer in the U.S. When I came here two years ago there was no real online department. And the reason why there hadn’t been much [online activity] before was because of the difference in [Bauer’s] print business model. While the traditional print media companies in the U.S. all are pretty much focused on advertising sales for their main revenue generation [as well as] subscriptions — heavily discounted — Bauer in the U.S. is very, very focused on newsstand sales and circulation.
And when the Internet emerged more than a decade ago, the other media companies started the consensus to go online and give away content for free because they knew it was subsidized. They could just reach that audience and secure it for advertisers. But our business model wasn’t prepared for that. So we did not have an incentive to give away content for free online. When I came over in 2012, I was building a proof of concept that there can be a viable model online. I started doing everything myself and then I brought in more people for editorial, advertising and technology. And, back to your original question, two years ago it was pretty much wearing everyone’s hat — from the ads monetization side, to technology, to product, to editorial. Now that we have teams in place to specialize in each area, [my role is] more so about working with the teams on achieving their goals, giving them the right platform to do what they can do best, and building the right structures and processes to grow further.
What were you looking for when you were building the digital team?
Now, looking back, I think all the growth that we have been seeing is really a result of hiring the right people, which is always the most important, but also the most challenging part. The people we’re looking for need to have two things: they need to have a vision of where each brand can go and how we get there. But, most importantly, being a self-starter. The way that I work and manage my team is [by] not micromanaging at all. I don’t have daily meetings with everyone. Instead we, together, set the right strategy in place and then I let everyone run themselves and we have occasional meetings to see how it’s going — basically empowering everyone to do what they’re best at without interfering too much. People have to be able to handle this much freedom and also be accountable for it. So I didn’t look for people that waited for me to tell them what to do. It was very important to find entrepreneurial-minded people.
Last year Bauer Media Group relaunched the online components of J-14, M Magazine, and Twist. Why did you start with the teen properties?
We were very protective about giving away content online. But looking at the teen market, we just saw at that time, last year around January, that there was a huge shift of our audience going away from print to online, and [we had] to take a step back from print [to] make a brand that reaches audiences wherever they are. The teen sites were our first [priority] because [that’s where] the shift was the most obvious. We also had a very strong position in the print marketplace but, again, having a real [presence] online seemed like a huge opportunity.
And what we then did as a result with J-14 and Twist, which in the print world are very similar, was we gave each of them their own identity [online]. So J-14 is now a breaking and viral [entertainment] news website. Twist is really focused on teen fashion — a younger audience than Teen Vogue, which is more sophisticated, more expensive. We want to be more approachable. And M Magazine is for the younger teen that needs advice on dealing with friends and parents. [The rebranding] helped us to not only internally figure out where to take the brands, but also set us apart from the competition.
What is your social media strategy?
In general, I think that we have seen incredible growth there. In Touch went from 24,000 Facebook fans a year ago to now 1.5 million. Life & Style is similar — 120,000 [Facebook fans] to now 2.4 million. So has been very huge across all of our sites. Last year, we had 900,000 [Facebook fans] in June; this year, around 12 million. The way we set it up is our editors own the whole life cycle of the story: so they come up with the idea, they do the research, they write the story, they pull the photo, they publish it on social media, and then they track the analytics to see what’s working. And as soon as they find success elements we replicate it again, not just on the same site, but across all sites.
And just to give you a content example of why J-14 has been so successful… there was a rumor that Justin Bieber would be the next Spiderman actor and all the sites out there were just giving the plain news, but with J-14 we had the ambition to create posts that go viral among our fans. We took Justin Bieber and Photoshopped his face onto a lot of Spiderman shots in real movies and published it onto our site and on social media. It went viral on Facebook with hundreds of thousands of likes and comments, and that’s really how more users found out about us and followed us as a consequence.
So In Touch is the next site you hope you relaunch? How is that coming along?
We’re working on it. The site as you see it right now is just the kind of block layout that we did two years ago without any financial effort, so we’re really in the process of addressing the way the content is being presented and planning on releasing it in August. It will be very different from anything else that’s out there in the entertainment space. We will go away from all these teaser-based, very text-heavy layouts — back to the roots of In Touch. Around 10, 12 years ago, when In Touch in print was launched, celebrity magazines looked very different than today. [Pages were] very text-heavy. In Touch introduced the gallery format, where you basically have only pictures in the magazine with captions.
What other goals have you set for Bauer’s digital team?
Janday Wilson is a storyteller based in the greater New York City area. You can find more of her work at jandaywilson.com.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.