Hearst UK’s experimentation with AR, metaverses and CGI influencers is a “long-term preparation strategy” for the next phase of the internet.
The consumer magazine publisher has long run major consumer events for its brands including the Harper’s Bazaar Women of the Year Awards, Country Living Shows and Women’s Health Live.
But now it has shaken up its events division Hearst Live, rebranding it as HearstX and creating more immersive digital experiences than before using lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic and new technology.
Mark McCafferty (pictured, left), executive creative director for commercial division Hearst Solutions, told Press Gazette’s Future of Media Explained podcast they are aiming to boost engagement – benefiting both the publisher and advertisers that are now looking for a more meaningful metric than scale.
He said: “…scale is available everywhere but what [advertisers] really want is true engagement, and everything that we are trying to develop as part of HearstX will answer that part of the brief in terms of driving pure engagement [and] enjoyment for the brand… if you can deliver that for a client, you are going to convert a lot more pitches than you would do if you’re just going with traditional media.”
He added that “it’s not just about innovating for innovating’s sake” but that this high engagement is “really, really important now” and will contribute to a “long-term preparation strategy” for Web 3.0 – the next, decentralised and open, iteration of the internet – even though one unified metaverse, or shared virtual environment, is still years away.
“I think if you can develop an audience and a following on these new platforms, the payback is true engagement because people are spending a lot more time than they would be just viewing an article or a pre-roll ad… So from our side of things, we’re basically hedging our bets on deeper engagement, which will allow us to convert more pitches.”
‘Definite revenue potential’ in metaverse and AR
Jane Wolfson (pictured, right), Hearst UK’s chief commercial officer, added: “The reality is at this point, are we going to say that there’s going to be tons of revenue? It helps enhance what we’re already doing but we want to encourage advertisers to come along with us and test and learn along the way as well. There’s a lot more new tech that we want to experiment with and we’d love advertisers to join in with that.
“I do think longer term there is definite revenue potential which is very big and I think that’s the way we need to focus on it.
“We can see in other markets how successful certain things have been so we know that the potential is there. It’s not going to happen overnight but it is definitely there.”
McCafferty said Hearst UK had done research with its readers finding that they are “engaging with these new technologies and these new online worlds, so it’s important that our brands have tenancies there as well so that we can engage our consumers”.
In particular the publisher discovered that of all Hearst UK brands – including Digital Spy which writes about gaming and other entertainment – the biggest proportion of gamers were Cosmopolitan readers.
A Cosmopolitan-branded virtual world is currently being built on gaming network Roblox with the aim of having a complete demo ready by September.
It will be called the Summerverse, with the premise that it will be summer all year round with features including roller discos, music gigs and a beach as well as some gamification, and McCafferty said it would be a “personification of what the brand stands for”.
“We’ve taken all the core pillars of what makes Cosmo Cosmo, and made it an experiential world for our readers to go and enjoy,” he said.
Roblox was chosen because its user experience “allowed for a fun environment which is really what Cosmo is all about”, McCafferty added, while the platform’s “ageing up” user demographics crosses over with Cosmo’s 16 to 24-year-old core gaming audience.
At the same time a virtual influencer is being built for Elle UK, as pioneered by the brand in China in 2020. It will be a CGI-rendered 3D avatar who will be able to be placed into any editorial or advertising campaign including in video, print, or social content, or even as a hologram at events.
The Elle UK editorial team including editor Kenya Hunt will help to ensure the influencer’s look and feel is representative of the brand’s audience. The aim is to have it ready by the end of this year.
Technology has become ‘much more accessible’
Augmented reality, which adds to the world around the user for example using visual overlays but not a full virtual reality experience, has also been playing into an increasing number of Hearst UK’s branded content campaigns.
For example, a Good Housekeeping licensed sofa range at DFS can be viewed using AR, or people could try on clothes or make-up from home to better visualise the products.
McCafferty added: “I think a mistake is to think it’s going to lead to commerce straight away. I think it’s more about that kind of mid-funnel engagement, where you can really see what a product can look like in your own home. So that’s kind of where we are going with it at the moment.
“But the key part is we can launch it from print as well, and obviously print is a massively inspirational medium, especially with all the amazing shoots that we do,” he said, referring in particular to QR codes. “So to be able to pull a product from a shoot in print and then activate it digitally through your phone makes it really interesting.”
He noted the technology has become “much more accessible” over the past three years as previously it was all app-based but now it can be activated through a normal web browser.
The same applies to all the virtual and online experiments at Hearst UK: McCafferty said everything they are doing is easily accessible, with only a mobile app needed for Roblox for example.
He said Meta’s VR gaming headsets Oculus probably give “deeper engagement” but are still not an everyday household item so can’t be a major part of the strategy.
And Wolfson said for the younger generations being targeted by many of the brands “it’s not new to them, they’ve almost grown up with it”.
Although “there are some audiences where it won’t necessarily fit quite the same way”, the virtual Good Housekeeping sofa “has worked and has engagement, so I do think it can go across all generations,” she said.
Wolfson said that what’s right for Hearst UK brands may not work for others but added “in my view, we all have to be looking at what’s the next thing and how can we make that a reality for the business”.
“Us experimenting is allowing us to engage with people in new and different ways. That’s got to be a good thing,” she added.
McCafferty suggested “passion point led” magazine brands, for which you can create an “online world that personifies what the brand stands for”, may have a better chance at making it work than news outlets – a suggestion also shared by Bauer’s director of content and audience development Ian Betteridge earlier this year.
“I think if it is too generalist it ends up being very difficult to get that brand feeling across in these gaming-orientated worlds,” McCafferty said.
Pictures: Hearst UK