Whether or not social media is a function that needs to be centralized varies among publishers. Some consider it an audience development operation, others keep it with the editors. Still others are building specific teams that interface with the other departments and create standardized approaches and strategies for how social media is handled from brand to brand.

Hearst has recently formed a dedicated social media group and has promoted Brian Madden to head it up as its general manager. Here, FOLIO: checks in with Madden to find out why the company has taken this approach and how the group serves the its 20 magazine brands.

FOLIO: Why was the group created and what are its primary responsibilities?

Brian Madden: It starts with how big social really is—850 million people on Facebook, 7 hours a month on the site; 250 million tweets a day; and Pinterest crossed the 10 million unique visitor mark faster than any other standalone site in history. It is obviously important to our brands and to our company.

The social media team is a small one, and what we’re focused on is turning insights into action. We’re trying to connect the dots between our social communities and our brands to grow and engage our audiences.

We also want to look at ways of driving additional revenue from the social platforms. On a day-to-day basis we’re constantly sharing insights; developing best practices; revising best practices; finding new ways to work with our brands; experimenting; digging into analytics; and monitoring and keeping track of the new emerging social platforms. In doing this, we work closely with all of the brands, the digital groups, and the rest of the corporation.

FOLIO: How is the group is structured?

Madden: There are three of us, so a lot of what we do is in conjunction with the digital team and other departments within the company. But some of the things we do on a regular basis are having working sessions with the general managers on each of the verticals and working closely with the ad sales team. We’re building out social packages and finding ways social can be part of an advertiser’s campaign because it’s really important for them and they understand how engaged and passionate our social community is. They are very interested in tapping into that. We also work with the e-reader group and the app team, as well as consumer marketing.

We go broader, too. In March we had a large company meeting on Pinterest to make sure that everyone—publishers, editors and the digital team—knew what it was and how we are engaging on it. Since we started tracking Pinterest in the middle of February we saw an over 500 percent increase in the number of followers.

FOLIO: Does your group own social? Or is each brand responsible for its own stuff?

Madden: We work with them jointly. We lead the strategy and help them understand what’s working and what’s not, but as far as editorial voice or content voice, each of the brands oversee that. They can speak specifically for the voice of Cosmo or the voice of Harper’s Bazaar. We work with them on what works, what doesn’t, what’s important, and what is less important.

FOLIO: What has gelled by forming this group for Hearst?

Madden: I think it says a lot about the importance of social for Hearst. We want to be where our audience is, and we want to be able to interact with them there. So having a strong social strategy is really important for this. We’re seeing a growing number of traffic from social sites. So I think that might have been the tipping point as we’re seeing traffic from social to continue to grow. As the social networks grow, having a group that is focused on that was important. We also want to find ways to drive additional revenue from the platforms as well.

FOLIO: Can you quantify that traffic growth in percentage terms?

Madden: We have seen an over 250 percent increase from 2010 to 2011. And our goal for next year is even more than that—over 300 percent.

FOLIO: Talk about the revenue opportunities. Does that break down across audience or sales?

Madden: It’s both and it’s still forming. It’s going to be a focus of this group to figure out from both a consumer standpoint and from an ad sales and sponsorship model how we’re going to drive additional revenue from our social platforms.

FOLIO: Why does it make sense to form a core group that drives social?

Madden: When you focus on what’s working on a lot of brands you can draw some connections. You can get a sense of if we do it this way for this brand it will work really well for another. We’re focused on audience, and how we can drive them, how we can reach them. It is also on us to make sure we stay on top of any social trends, make sure we bring a Pinterest to the brands before it’s too late, for example. Being there at the right time is important. And then it’s just best practices across the organization. I think having that standardized list of things that work and constantly monitoring it is important.

FOLIO: Do those standards evolve?

Madden: Yes, what works one month may not work the next month. What works for one brand may not work for another brand. Our specific audiences act differently with different platforms.
It is important to us that each brand has its own persona. You can’t standardize too much or you end up sounding the same. But, we did find that there are some things that work across the board, and we try to look at what the brand’s take on that is. For example, having a Facebook app that’s engaging and useful is important.

We have made all of our content on the sites very easily shareable—liking, sharing, plusing—and we are working on adding pinning. So those sorts of things roll out across all of our sites to make sure we encourage social interaction.

The other thing that we standardized to some degree is what key metrics we’re looking at. We’re looking at the topline metrics: Followers, fans, how much traffic we’re getting back to our site. But you can dig into much more. Facebook, for example, has datasets that have over 1,000 columns of data in them, which is just an incredible amount of information.

Engaged users are also very important for us to measure on Facebook—people talking about a specific item, for example. As I said earlier, what is being shared on our sites is important. People are coming to our sites and consuming our content. What they are actively sharing themselves guides us in understanding what may work, and what sort of editorial themes to take onto our social platforms. I would say that this sort of approach is definitely paying off well. We have 5.3 million Facebook fans across all of our brands, and we set a new record in March with over 630,000 new Facebook fans for that month.

FOLIO: What doesn’t work very well for publishers on the social Web? What tactics have you tried that fell flat with users?

Madden: I think being overtly direct, saying ‘hey, do this’ or ‘buy this.’ That is not a conversation, it’s one way, and it doesn’t work. When we don’t speak in that brand voice, and be authentic with the brand, it doesn’t work well. Having Cosmo’s take on a story is going to be different than Elle’s or Esquire’s, and I think that’s why people come to our communities and follow our brands. They want to hear what our unique take is on what’s happening, either with our magazines, our brands or in general.

FOLIO: How do you see social media continuing to evolve?

Madden: There are five things that are important trends that I am seeing:

The first is social as a source of traffic. As I said earlier, we are going to continue to see that grow. We have very strong goals for continued growth. More users are spending more time on social, and more of our traffic is going to come from social.

Number two would be social content recommendations—your Pinterest and your StumbleUpon. Users used to find our content through search. Now more and more are finding it through social, and we will get new users that never visited our sites because they are on these other platforms. We’re going to see a lot of it from this sort of content discovery/content recommendation growth.
Number three would be social commerce. I think this one is still a little bit of a mystery, but we will figure it out in 2012. I think it’s going to play a role, I don’t know if people will be actively buying products and magazines on Facebook, but it will definitely be a larger and larger part of influencing purchases across Hearst’s brands.

Four would be Facebook’s open graph. I think the possibilities with it are endless, but finding the right sort of fit and value proposition for each of our brands is key.

And finally, Google+. The intersection of search and social will become more and more important, and we are seeing that with recommendations and people searching and seeing what their friends have searched.