How is boosting its digital metabolism

In the crowded world of online celebrity news, People has brand heft, but its heritage of original, fact-checked reporting puts it at a size disadvantage against quick-hit competitors. The Time Inc. weekly’s site ranked No. 4 in comScore’s entertainment news category, with 35 million multiplatform unique visitors to its website in January, after TMZ, Yahoo Celebrity and E! Online.

In the past year, though, People has grown its digital presence significantly. Its online audience, at 35 million multiplatform unique visitors in January,  according to comScore, is up 73 percent from a year ago. (By People’s internal server-side stats, its February was a much-higher 72 million uniques.) According to analytics firm NewsWhip, People had 7.4 million Facebook engagements (a combination of likes, shares and comments) in February, up from 1.5 million a year earlier.

People’s print business isn’t what it used to be. Single-copy sales, which used to top 1 million copies weekly, averaged 686,364 in the second half of 2014. So as Time Inc.’s cash cow, its digital health is key to the company’s future. In September, it recruited former TMZ New York bureau chief Will Lee to became editor of in September. Yesterday, Rich Battista was named the business head of People and Entertainment Weekly. Lee, who has since been named digital editorial director for both titles, talked about other ways he has been juicing

Keep it real.
Stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things have always been part of People’s stock in trade — a fact that was made abundantly clear when its coverage of Brittany Maynard, the terminal cancer-patient-turned-right-to-die-advocate, brought in a record-breaking 16 million unique viewers in a single day in November. But importantly, the story also highlighted the importance of real people to the weekly’s coverage.

On the heels of the Maynard story, Lee has made a big push for more real-people stories. Today, between 30 and 40 percent of stories are human-interest based, which Lee believes has played a part in the site’s traffic growth.

“If you look at what works for us, it’s not #TheDress,” Lee said. “So core to what drives people to share online is people they can relate to in one way or another.”

Post more content. has doubled its daily posting volume, and on award show nights, it more than triples production. On Oscars night and the morning after, the site had nearly 120 posts.

One way People is doing this is by slicing and dicing its cover stories into multiple parts, giving readers more reason to return to the site.

For example, a Brooke Shields cover story on the Nov. 24 issue of the magazine was turned into eight parts that were promoted as “Brooke Shields’ Bombshell of the Day,” such as Brooke Shields’s Bombshell of the Day: Her Calvin Klein Jeans Still Fit! and Brooke’s Bombshell of the Day: How Liam Neeson Proposed (and Then Dumped Her).

“We have to create as many points of entry for the magazine content as we can,” Lee said. “We can’t try and fish with one line.”

Video everywhere.
As the engine of Time Inc., People has been core to the company’s video strategy. People recorded 10.9 million streams to the website in February, up 259 percent year-over-year, driven by coverage of the Duggars and Bobbi Kristina Brown. Key to People’s video is a mix of People Now, its half-hour daily news show, and shorter, 90-second to two-minute news clips.

Focus on social. is unusual in that a sizeable portion of its traffic (42 percent) is direct. (Most of the remainder is driven fairly evenly by social and search). But last year, the brand created a team to solely focus on social, which, along with the increase in human-interest stories, has led to significantly more Facebook and Twitter sharing. “They may feel more comfortable sharing human-interest stories because it’s something their friends can actually relate to,” Lee said.

People also migrated its Twitter handle from @Peoplemag to @People, which has both symbolic meaning (it’s emblematic of the brand’s multiplatform push) and real (People gets three more characters to play with). The brand has joined other publications in experimenting with Snapchat Discover and Facebook-only video to reach consumers wherever they are.

Stretch resources.
People has eliminated the distinction between its digital and print staffs, and has been cross-training them in video, social and photography. It was one of the last celebrity weeklies to have a dedicated staff, but those days are coming to an end, now that it’s merging staff with Entertainment Weekly, which is designed to help People post even more frequently. “Strategy is not an outcome,” Lee said. “What’s important to me is velocity.”

The change hasn’t gone unnoticed with Robin Steinberg, evp, director of publishing investment and activation at MediaVest. “They are finally leveraging the Web, its capabilities and the various screens to create and distribute stories in dynamic, interactive ways and at a faster pace,” she said.

But the risk for is that, as it grows its publishing volume, quality takes a hit, though, said Steve Goldberg, managing director at Empirical Media. “No one’s saying that it’s happening, but at any point where a news organization or someone purporting to be a news organization increases their volume for the purposes of making more money, the risk factor goes up,” he said. “The second risk that’s immediately seen is, companies start to include stories and curated content that’s inconsistent with their brand.”

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