Delivered from behind a transparent podium in an opulent downtown Manhattan ballroom, much to the adoration of New York’s media elite, Carolyn Kylstra’s acceptance speech appeared almost cathartic.
“Affirming is a good word for it,” the Self editor-in-chief tells Folio:, describing the National Magazine Award for social media that the magazine earned last month, barely a year after its parent company, Condé Nast, elected to shutter its print edition and install then-digital director Kylstra atop the masthead.
Accepting the award from CNN anchor Don Lemon, Kylstra described the “huge pivot” involved in running a magazine brand no longer tethered to the monthly print edition it had produced for 39 years.
Asked to go back to the weeks and months, in late 2016, when Self initially went digital-only, Kylstra says, “We realized very quickly that running a website is not the same as running a brand. There are things you can do on a website, when it isn’t the focal point, that you need to step back and reexamine when the website becomes the brand’s flagship.”
Multiple industry accolades are a subjective measure of Self‘s digital success in the year since Kylstra took over. For the more empirically minded, traffic to Self.com is up 18 percent in the past year, attracting record highs of more than 7 million unique visitors in January and February (according to data from comScore), and Kylstra says the brand’s Q1 revenue was up 61 percent from 2017.
The key to ensuring Self’s ongoing vitality, she says, was reaffirming the wellness title’s mission and core values—inclusivity, empathy, and accuracy—supported by the print legacy that took decades to build. Committing to those values meant making the difficult (and uncommon) decision to cut back dramatically on the amount of content the brand was producing online—a reduction of about 50 percent, by Kylstra’s estimation—as part of a focus on quality over quantity.
Gone are the days of tirelessly mining trending news and quickly reacting to any given day’s viral Facebook sensation.
“Lots of different publications have CrowdTangle; everybody jumps on the same story at the same time, and you end up seeing different versions of the same article across ten different websites,” Kylstra says. “And it gets traffic.”
Instead, Self acknowledged that they frankly weren’t equipped to function as a breaking news organization, instead focusing on the ways the brand could cover its key topic areas—fitness, health, nutrition, beauty, culture—in a way that was unique, service-oriented, and science-based.
“We realized that traffic just for the sake of traffic wasn’t doing us any favors,” she continues. “We aren’t writing about celebrity haircuts anymore. Even though you can argue that those stories are about beauty and self expression, there just wasn’t a way for us to do them in a way that made it clearly a Self story.”
Other things that aren’t a Self story, says Kylstra, are one-off studies, the types of findings that, taken out of context, make for grabby headlines about how coffee makes people die younger or red wine helps them live longer.
“That’s not an appropriate way to talk about the scientific process. More often than not, you’re spreading incomplete information that just adds to the noise and confusion, and doesn’t genuinely help anyone.”
Instead, Self.com launched a new vertical last year titled Health A-Z, in partnership with the Mayo Clinic, that regularly publishes content related to various health conditions Self‘s audience is particularly interested in, such as Endometriosis, Psoriasis, Crohn’s Disease, or depression. Kylstra views it almost as an antidote to the WebMD effect.
“The goal is to provide information with a human context, telling stories from other people who have a condition, answering questions with doctors, giving information in a way that’s explicitly meant to empower you and not freak you out. It’s not just signs and symptoms; it’s so much more.”
Kylstra says there’s no simple answer as to what exactly has catalyzed Self‘s online growth, acknowledging that all of the brand’s different distribution channels, from its private but highly engaged Facebook group, Team SELF, to its beauty-focused email newsletter that regularly achieves open rates over 70 percent, to its Snapchat channel that’s weathered that platform’s widely-panned redesign to the tune of 10 million impressions each month.
“In general, it’s content that speaks to communities, and features voices from within those communities, that tends to get the levels of engagement we’re looking for.”
Under a decentralized editorial strategy, Kylstra aims to cultivate engaged but separate communities on a variety of channels. Snapchat, for example, isn’t intended to drive people off of Snapchat, and Self is satisfied to play within those parameters.
“Our goal there is to engage the audience as well as we possibly can, so that any time they see the Self brand off of Snapchat, whether it’s seeing our products in Bed Bath & Beyond or encountering us on Instagram or anywhere else, they’ll have an affinity for the brand because they already know what we stand for and what we do.”
Earlier this year, when Snapchat unveiled its redesign—variously described as “baffling,” “a mess,” or, in the words of Kylie Jenner, “so sad”—Self‘s Snapchat channel manager, Jeffrey Cattel, forged ahead with the same strategy as before, only to see engagement decrease.
Tinkering with the formula, a process Kylstra describes as “telling the same stories, but packaging them in ways that are more consistent with the UX,” resulted in Self‘s Snapchat audience actually increasing by two million unique users in the same month that users were seemingly abandoning the platform en masse.
“Jeff is just incredibly attuned to how Snapchat users are using the platform,” adds Kylstra. “He and the team he’s built are highly flexible and have a mindset that experimentation is good.”
It’s that mindset of experimentation that leads Kylstra to claim she isn’t overly concerned with platform algorithm tweaks and UX overhauls, even as the brand’s combined social media following rivals its direct website audience. Instead, she says she’s comfortable being flexible and recognizing that change is a constant.
“Existing in media today means playing on platforms you don’t own,” Kylstra continues. “There has to be an understanding that things will change, whether you want them to or not. The important thing is that no matter what platform you’re on, you have a really strong sense of what your brand stands for and you work to differentiate yourself. The hope is that if that platform goes away, your audience will remain enamored with you and will travel with you to the next platform.”