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March 2, 2023

How Cosmopolitan UK moved beyond print with 17m monthly website readers

Claire Hodgson says her biggest priority is to keep Cosmo relevant.

By Charlotte Tobitt

Cosmopolitan UK has both changed radically and not much at all in its 51 years of publishing.

The brand launched in the UK in March 1972 with cover lines promising details about Michael Parkinson’s vasectomy, sex advice if your man is having problems in bed, Jilly Cooper’s perspective on what makes men “fantastic lovers”, and diet tips. Since then, it has expanded far beyond the limitations of print but its “core DNA” remains the same, according to editor-in-chief Claire Hodgson.

Print magazines have had a tough time lately. Cosmopolitan UK’s total circulation has fallen by 66% in five years (reaching an average of 120,495 in 2022) and has gone from monthly to bi-monthly. But it is not alone: in the women’s sector, Elle UK’s circulation has fallen by 58% in ten years to 81,032, while Grazia has dropped by 53% in the past decade to 88,204. And Marie Claire UK, Now, InStyle UK, Look and Glamour all closed in print, if not altogether, in the late 2010s.

In just a few years, however, Cosmopolitan UK and its competitors have built sizeable audiences elsewhere. Hodgson was appointed digital editor at the title in 2015 and at that time, she says, Cosmopolitan UK was averaging about three-and-a-half to four million global users per month online. By 2022, that had reached an average of 16.8 million average unique users globally, 4.8 million in the UK in December, while she says it gets about 15 million video views each month and has just under six million social media followers.

Speaking to Press Gazette's Future of Media Explained podcast, Hodgson said that since becoming editor-in-chief in 2019, she has enjoyed "getting to be an editor that can really, with my amazing team, rethink what a magazine brand is and means nowadays, and I think that is quite different from what it has ever meant before in terms of its scope".

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Despite the evolution, "print is still a really, really integral part of what we do as a brand, completely," she said. "But we're also a really thriving digital business now. We're a video content producer. We're a social media brand. Obviously a very strong digital brand. But so many other things as well."

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Hodgson later added "our passion for print has really not wavered" and noted that 44% of Cosmopolitan UK's circulation is made up of paid subscriptions. She also revealed that revenue per issue on the digital editions of the magazine grew by 13% in 2022 – even though the circulation of the digital edition fell by 17% year-on-year to 23,440 (print fell by 12% to 97,055).

The print magazine remains the "shop window" of the brand and acts as a "physical example of what we represent as a brand", Hodgson continued. "It really helps in terms of that halo effect, that brand recognition that people have."

Cosmopolitan UK first cover
The cover of the first edition of Cosmopolitan UK in March 1972. Picture: Hearst UK

While not giving up on print, Cosmo wants to "be a brand that is the trendsetter in making a platform a thing to begin with". For example, Hodgson pointed out that it was among the first media partners creating shows for Snapchat's Discover page when it launched in the UK.

Within a few weeks, Hodgson said, about 50% to 60% of Cosmo's Snapchat audience was coming back three to five days a week, a trend that is continuing now, while about 30% go to the brand five to seven days a week.

"And you're talking about a very big audience on there so it's a really loyal, engaged audience," Hodgson said, "and I think that's one of the things that is so great about this job is that we're a brand that's very innovative and can really try and play and experiment with these things, but also because we've got that 50 years of heritage and this very iconic title we've got this really lovely deep engagement and loyalty from our audience. So we do launch on these platforms and then we see our readers coming with us on that journey and enjoying the content we produce in a very different way."

This is also part of why Cosmo has built a virtual world in which it is summer all year round on the gaming platform Roblox, currently in its beta stage.

"We're a brand that wants to be first and looking at what's next, and the metaverse is the next thing that we all need to be thinking about and aware of," Hodgson explained.

Cosmopolitan UK cover December 2022

It also means Cosmo can work on connecting with 16 to 24-year-olds, the fastest-growing demographic on Roblox. Cosmo's audience may be largely summed up as young women – but it is not that simple, Hodgson said.

"I even hesitate to call the Cosmopolitan audience young women now," she said. "Obviously young women have always been our target audience as a brand, but it's in our name really - Cosmopolitan has always been really about diversity, inclusivity, really good representation of a very broad scope of people, I think, and when you look at the kind of generations we are talking to today, actually calling them young women feels increasingly insufficient because our audience are increasingly very gender fluid. We have a really thriving LGBTQ audience.

"But certainly we are a brand that's obviously targeting that 18 to 35 demographic, but equally that audience can skew very much younger or older, depending on the part of the brand we're looking at as well."

Diversity, inclusivity, relatability part of 'core DNA'

Regardless of these evolutions in audience and platforms, Hodgson said the "core DNA" of Cosmo has stayed the same – with sex, relationships and love content a big part of what it does alongside entertainment, celebrity, fashion, beauty and careers coverage.

She is "really proud" of the way the brand talks about sex and love, she said, especially today when there are wider conversations around LGBTQ representation, gender identity, and what healthy relationships look like.

"We saw a huge increase in reports of domestic abuse during the pandemic, which is incredibly worrying and something we've addressed a lot of times as a brand. I think consent has become increasingly important. There's so many aspects of what relationships mean to people and I feel incredibly privileged that we have this huge platform with which to talk to our readers and say actually, this is what you deserve in your relationships, in your life, and this is how you can ask for that and make sure you demand that your partner is treating you with respect and love and kindness.

"So that will always be a really core part of our DNA and I'm very proud of the fact that it is, in ways that a lot of other brands out there don't really tackle that as a topic area."

Hodgson later added: "I don't really think the core DNA of what our brand is and what it represents has actually changed that much over 50 years. We were talking about the AIDS crisis back in the 1980s. We had Boy George on our cover. We have always been a brand that is really diverse, inclusive, relatable, approachable to people, but that also was really tackling quite meaty, heavy issues that sometimes other people were afraid to go there, and I think that that is one of the things that has really been important because I think when your audience understand who you are and what they would come to you for, it builds habit."

Being relevant: in content, aesthetic and platforms

She added that this clarity of brand creates a "really strong foundation" for the experimentation taking place on different platforms.

After that, the content has to put the consumer first and revenue will follow, Hodgson believes. "We are really not in the business of driving clickbait content, pushing popups, forcing engagement on social. We're just in the business of trying to create a really great consumer experience because I think when you just come at it from that angle and have your audience at the forefront of what you're doing, it becomes much more organic."

Despite the benefits of all these new platforms, Hodgson counts technology as Cosmo's biggest competitor nowadays rather than other magazine brands. This is why a broad strategy is best, she said – so Google or Meta algorithm changes are less impactful.

Cosmo's direct traffic was up 50% last year, Hodgson said, compared to social traffic growth of about 10%. "That's just showing if you put your reader first and your audience first and you can get that really loyal, engaged habit from them then you're going to build that direct relationship with them and it matters a bit less what other headwinds you're facing."

Looking further into 2023 and beyond, Hodgson's biggest priority for Cosmo as a brand is keeping it relevant, which she sees in three ways: content, aesthetics and platforms.

"We've got to be really brave and bold with the stuff we cover – maybe addressing topics other people haven't gone to yet because that's a really big part of staying relevant in the lives of your reader.

"There's having a really fresh-feeling aesthetic – we actually had our biggest redesign in probably about a decade last summer across all of our platforms that was all about making sure our brand across everything we do felt super joined-up and very current and relevant to the lives of our audience... and then lastly it's relevancy of platform. You can be creating amazing zeitgeist-y content that looks incredible but if you're just pumping it out in old formats, on old platforms, you're probably not going to really entertain or excite your current audience, and you're definitely not going to attract any new audience."

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