‘We were kind of a late entry into the digital space,’acknowledges Alex Ballantyne, managing director of NatMag’s digital publishing business, Hearst Digital.
NatMag began to pursue online publishing with renewed vigour in 2006, as broadband penetration increased, cheaper hardware and open-source software brought down the costs of running digital publications, and – most significantly – a digital advertising market emerged in the women’s sector.
Like his predecessor, Nancy Cruickshank, who had joined NatMag in 2006 when it bought her site Handbag.com, Ballantyne came to the role through an acquisition that year: he was the founder and managing director of NetDoctor.co.uk.
‘For an organisation that has only been in the digital business for two years, we’ve grown quite considerably, and in the UK NatMag is already the market leader in producing digital destination sites for women online,’Ballantyne says.
‘We reach 30 per cent of all UK women online on a monthly basis, whether through a health title such as NetDoctor or a proprietary brand such as Handbag.com, Good Housekeeping or Country Living.”
January figures, he says, show unique users across the portfolio up 18 per cent year on year. Ballantyne took up the reins of Hearst Digital in October, shortly after NatMag announced the completion of a review of its digital strategy which saw it decide to adopt two parallel approaches to online publishing.
Since January, the websites of Men’s Health, Baby Expert, Runner’s World and You and Your Wedding have been brought back under the control of their magazine publishers and are being run as part of integrated, cross-media publications. Hearst Digital, meanwhile, is concentrating on running five stand-alone online portals targeting women – Handbag, NetDoctor, GetLippy, Cosmopolitan and AllAboutYou.
Handbag was relaunched last autumn and Harper’s Bazaar now has a microsite within the relaunched site. GetLippy serves as an online home for young women, linked to the magazine Company, while AllAboutYou, acquired together with Handbag, is being redeveloped into a portal for women over 35.
‘We’re going to use that vehicle to wrap up and extend the support of the print magazines from one title to six,’Ballantyne says.
The site, already linked with She magazine, will also promote Good Housekeeping, Country Living, Coast, House Beautiful and Prima.
While the day-to-day operation of these sites is done by editors who work as part of Hearst Digital’s 80-strong team, the associated print titles’ editors remain involved, says Ballantyne. ‘The Cosmo editors, for example, are very heavily involved – they want to be part of the site,’he says. ‘Many of the experts in the Cosmo title are reflected on the website, so there is an expansion of the print editorial into the online editorial.”
Generating a community of readers and reaching out to existing social networks elsewhere on the internet, are key parts of Hearst Digital’s plans for the sites, Ballantyne says. The relaunched AllAboutYou will be the first Hearst Digital site to feature community functionality from Pluck.
‘One of the principle reasons we chose that particular software manufacturer is that it is already breaking the ground for that technology to speak intelligently and make bridges with other open social networks,’he adds. ‘We have the opportunity through Pluck to connect comments that someone is uttering in the Cosmo discussion board, for example, straight into their Facebook profile if they so desired.
‘It’s important, when we think about how we distribute our brands, particularly in the online world, to make sure that they are in these networks where a considerable number of our consumers are aggregated.”
Video is also becoming a more central part of Hearst Digital’s plans.
‘I’d like the capability dispersed more widely among the staff, because video is one of the megatrends online at the minute. Within six months all of our sites will have some element of streaming video to them.”