Hearst Digital Puts Focus on Social, Mobile, E-Commerce

Group VP Grant Whitmore wants to customize sites' content for users

If tablets were the talk of 2011, social media and e-commerce will be at the top of Hearst Digital’s priority list for 2012.

Grant Whitmore, Hearst Magazines' new vice president of digital, is hoping to see at least a 300 percent increase in social activity over the next 12 months. That doesn’t mean just boosting Facebook “likes”; what’s really important is increasing user engagement with its brands like Cosmopolitan and Esquire by driving users to Hearst's sites through social media and getting them to stick around longer. “You can buy fans,” said Whitmore, but “true fans are the ones who want to follow you someplace.”

Once those fans arrive at Hearst's sites, they could soon be seeing articles selected especially for them. Hearst looking at new ways of targeting specific website content at readers based on their interests and personal information. (When searching for hair care tips, for example, a fair-haired reader might see suggestions for maintaining the perfect shade of blonde.) For this initiative, Hearst is using iCrossing, the digital marketing agency it bought in 2010, and Red Aril, a data management company that iCrossing acquired in December.

It won't all happen at once, though; Whitmore said the plan was to start rolling out the targeting on a few of its websites by the third or fourth quarter of this year. "We want to make sure we get it right," he said. "We don't want it to be creepy." If this content targeting proves successful, however, he said, it could offer advertisers a better way of reaching their ideal customer.

E-commerce will be another challenge in the coming year. According to Whitmore, Hearst is still in the process of figuring out exactly what kind of e-commerce initiatives work best for its brands, whether it’s closely aligning one magazine with a specific online retailer or forming broader partnerships, like the one the publisher currently has with Amazon. "This will be a year when we are trying out a lot of different things," Whitmore said.

With readers increasingly accessing the Web through smartphones and tablets (Whitmore estimated that upwards of 14 percent of Hearst’s traffic comes from such devices), mobile is another key part of the 2012 agenda. By the middle of the second quarter, Whitmore is aiming for all Hearst’s brands to be mobile-optimized.