Eclipsing 50 Million UV’s in January, People.com Eyes More Lifestyle Content (and Video)
Zoe Ruderman, newly named editor of People Digital, on content strategy in the multi-platform age.
People magazine’s ubiquity on newsstands and in mailboxes across the country is self-evident; perhaps less well-known is that the legendary title’s website attracted 42 million users1 on smartphones last month (a 37-percent increase over January 2018, which vaulted People‘s mobile audience past even the print edition’s still-considerable readership2), or that one-in-three visitors to People‘s digital channels are millennials.
Among the key figures in the magazine’s digital rebirth are Zoe Ruderman, who joined from Cosmopolitan as People.com’s senior style editor in 2011 before ascending to features director three years later.
As part of a greater restructuring aimed at breaking down the walls between the various titles in Time Inc.’s portfolio, a 2015 promotion made Ruderman responsible for content strategy across several brands—including among others, People, Entertainment Weekly, Sports Illustrated, and The Pretty, a social-exclusive, all-video beauty brand whose summer 2017 launch Ruderman oversaw.
Now, while Time Inc. embarks on its next chapter as part of its former rival Meredith Corp., so too does Ruderman, returning home to once again focus solely on the brand at which she began her Time Inc. career. This time, however, it’s in a newly created role: editor of People Digital, overseeing content across all of the brand’s digital channels—not just its website, but social media, newsletters, brand partnerships, “anything that touches editorial,” she says.
“I’m thrilled,” Ruderman tells Folio:. “When I first came to Time Inc. six years ago, it was specifically to People, and that was a big draw for me. I’ve grown up with the brand; I love the brand. One thing I really like about it is that there’s nothing we don’t cover. Sometimes we think of it as almost like ten or a dozen different brands in one.”
Ruderman takes the digital reins at a time of remarkable online growth for the legacy publication. To recap: People‘s combined print and digital audience of 79.7 million ranks second among the 124 consumer magazine titles measured in the MPA’s monthly brand audience reports. Out of that combined audience, web traffic—which has nearly doubled since 2014—hit an all-time high of 51 million uniques in January, per the latest comScore data; and PeopleTV, the OTT streaming network which first launched in September 2016, generated an additional 2.2 billion video streams over the course of 2017, according to the company.
Amid all of this, Ruderman believes there’s still plenty of room to grow. So Folio: sat down with her to learn more about her plans for People Digital going forward, and where she sees opportunities for further growth.
Folio: What’s something you’ve learned during your time working across so many Time Inc. titles that you’ll apply to your new role at People?
Zoe Ruderman: A lot of brands out there take their core product—whether its print or something on a website—and just kind of push it out everywhere. One thing we realized specifically with Snapchat (we’ve been a Snap discover partner from the very beginning) is that you have to speak specifically to that audience and create an editorial experience for them.
It doesn’t work to take a story that’s run on our site and in print and just shove it in front of them. You have to think about how they’re interacting, what time of day, who they are and what they want to get from that platform. So we’re taking ideas that we applied to Snapchat and now applying them to Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, to video both on and off our site. Even things like newsletter strategy—thinking about where this woman is and what she wants to get from this product and this platform.
Folio: People has seen a lot of growth in digital since integrating the print and online staffs a few years ago. Through which channels are those new readers primarily finding you?
Ruderman: We’re really lucky at People Digital that our audience is very diversified. I think, especially over the last few months, a lot of brands that are very dependent on Facebook are probably freaking out a little bit right now. We’re lucky that we’ve never been as dependent as other brands on Facebook for traffic. Obviously, it does drive traffic for us, but search is also really big for us.
We also have a really loyal and dedicated audience that comes directly to the site. That’s rarer and rarer these days, and People benefits hugely from that. The homepage is very important to us; it’s the first entry point for a lot of our users. So when we think about programming, we’re not just thinking about shoving every link out on social and crossing our fingers and hoping that the algorithm doesn’t change.
Folio: Would you say that’s a big priority for you—maintaining that diversity of channels through which readers can find People?
Ruderman: Maintaining it, but also increasing it. One thing I really want the team to focus on is newsletter programming. We have really high open rates, compared to the rest of the industry, but I think we can focus on that even more and create even better newsletter experiences.
Folio: What types of content have you found resonates with that email newsletter audience?
Ruderman: It goes back to that idea of People covering everything. Obviously, breaking celebrity news is really big for us. When there’s an engagement or a baby born or any sort of big breaking news, the newsletter does help to drive a lot of traffic on that. And then we’ve also seen success in more of what I’d consider lifestyle content: human interest and style.
Folio: What would you say is your immediate focus in the new role? What are you working on?
Ruderman: One thing I’m really excited about is leaning into service journalism and lifestyle content even more. That’s not necessarily new for People, but based on the reaction of our audience and our users I think we can be doing a lot more of that. We have the trust of our readers and authority when it comes to celebrity news. If our beauty director says this is the best red lipstick, that authority carries through to those service-oriented categories. For example, we’ve seen that with pets; we’ve very much become a resource for pet owners. I think we’ll see more of that in the health and wellness space, in style and beauty, in food.
I think now more than ever, it’s very important for this information to be coming from a brand like People, where there’s an understanding from our readers and users that we’re vetting all of this content, we’re fact checking and copy editing. There’s a process to it.
Folio: What specific audiences do you have in mind when you think about bringing new readers into the fold?
Ruderman: Everybody is thinking about that young woman who maybe didn’t grow up reading the print publication and doesn’t have that same affinity that an older woman might have, but who comes to People for other reasons.
Obviously, Snapchat skews very young, but there might be a Snapchat user out there who literally doesn’t even know that People is a magazine. We hear sometimes from our very young interns that they don’t know what a newsstand is. I would love for people to follow People on Instagram because it’s a great experience and because of our content, not out of an obligation because they know our print magazine.
Folio: When you’re producing tailored content for all of these different channels, is it difficult to maintain a degree of continuity in your voice and brand identity?
Ruderman: The nice thing about digital is that there’s ample real estate, and you can do a lot of testing. I work really closely with our audience development team to get the editors much more involved in thinking about testing and pivoting and using data to drive editorial decisions. I talk a lot about marrying your editorial gut with data. We’ve been able to maintain a loyal audience and stay true to that core consumer while also pulling in new audiences because of a lot of that testing.
Folio: It sounds like a very consultative approach.
Ruderman: Yes, there’s a lot of communication. We use Slack here a lot. We have a morning digital meeting where we talk around ideas with representatives from all of the different verticals, from all of the social platforms, from SEO, and there’s a lot of constant communication throughout the day and a lot of different people who weigh in on stories.
Folio: You’re also doing a lot of video. What have you found that works well in that medium?
Ruderman: For longer-form content, it’s a lot of what you would expect: celebrities, things like the [People editorial director] Jess Cagle Interview—big name, A-list talent opening up. Then it’s also human interest—ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
For the short form content, 10- to 15-second pieces of “micro-content” that you’re seeing on Instagram and maybe on Facebook, it’s anything that makes people feel something. It makes them laugh, it makes them cry, it makes them feel inspired. It goes back to the original People mission, something that grasps them right away and pulls at their heartstrings—something they can relate to. So it’s a lot of pet content, anything with babies, anything with pets and babies. It has to make them feel something.
Folio: How important has video become in your overall content strategy?
Ruderman: It’s hugely important to us. Everywhere that we’re pushing out video, from PeopleTV to our relationship with Twitter, we want it to be everywhere and in front of everyone.
Folio: What do you foresee as your biggest challenges?
Ruderman: I don’t know that I’d call it a challenge, but one thing I’m thinking about is how every site, every blogger, every outlet, is covering everything now. Five or ten years ago, People was the only place covering the red carpet. Now, we have to get really creative and look for new ways to differentiate ourselves. I see that as a really fun challenge, it drives us to think more creatively, because we know we’re not the only ones doing this anymore. So we have to find ways to do it better and faster than anyone else, and I think we’re well positioned to do that.
Folio: You’ve even got brands within your own group covering these topics. Is there some degree of healthy competition within the office?
Ruderman: We’re all really good at supporting each other. We know that if we’re smart about syndication or content swaps, then it only helps our brands. So we don’t see it as, “Oh, we beat InStyle on Oscars night.” It’s more a scenario of all boats rising with the tide.
1 comScore Multi-Platform Media Metrix, January 2018
2 Alliance for Audited Media, December 2017 Publisher’s Statement