For 14 fun and pretty thrilling years, I was the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine — and, yes, that means I was the one responsible for wicked coverlines like "Mattress Moves So Hot His Thighs Will Burst into Flames." But it also means I had close-up view of the modern consumer landscape. And in the year since I left the magazine, I've had a chance to distill some of the the strategies I used to make Cosmo number one on the newsstand (and keep it there).
First, a little background. Cosmopolitan has been around for over a hundred years but the version most of us are familiar one is the one Helen Gurley Brown brilliantly brought to life in 1965. She took a dreary magazine that was about to fold and relaunched it as "the bible" for fearless young single women. It was an instant, mega success.
By the end of Helen's thirty-two year tenure, Cosmo had become dated in feel and sales were eroding. When I arrived in 1998, my mandate was to take a magazine that baby boomers had devoured and make it compelling for Gen x and Gen y readers.
Here are the three brand-kickstarting strategies that I relied on at Cosmo, both with the magazine and the many brand extensions. Warning: the word sex appears more than once in this article.
Make sure the baby still bounces. I know it's a boring cliché, but I've always lived by the maxim "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater." I've seen so many editors in chief (as well as other types of business leaders) fail because they ignored this adage. But you have to be certain the baby (a.k.a. the core brand identity) still has viability.
It wasn't hard to spot the baby — or the bathwater — when I arrived at Cosmo and began to look through old issues. Though under Helen the magazine featured a wide variety of content, including fashion, beauty, and self-improvement stories, what really made the magazine fly off shelves was the candid advice it offered about sex and relationships. Helen firmly believed, ahead of her time, that unmarried women had the right have sex and totally enjoy it. Cosmo went where others didn't dare to go.
My gut instinct told me that the baby still had plenty of life. Young Gen x and Gen y women might be more comfortable with sex than their baby boomer counterparts, but I sensed that, nonetheless, they were very hungry for candid sex advice. Cosmo could provide that.
I backed up my instinct with lots of research. I regularly used not only focus groups and surveys, but I read every reader email.
Of course, what was candid in 1970 seemed tame by the turn of the century. So, guilty as charged, I made the content more explicit. It may have seemed shocking at times to the public at large, but readers never found it so. They regularly wrote in to say that the sex articles — pieces like "The Cosmo Kama Sutra" or "Never Lose An Orgasm Again"— helped them have happier sexual relationship with their partners.
Oh, what was the bathwater? In Helen's last years, the magazine featured some pretty cheesy pictures and a breathless tone that no longer worked. The editor who briefly ran Cosmo between Helen and me had already jettisoned that stuff.
Find the growth pony. That's an expression used by a friend of mine who helps re-launch tech companies. His point: it's great when a brand's DNA still makes sense, but that's not enough to ride into the future with. You need something that's going to help you take the business to the next level and bring in new consumers — though it had better be in tune with the core values.
My team and I made several changes that definitely helped us grow Cosmo (overall I increased circulation by 700,000). One was shifting the tone of the magazine and making it irreverent, cheeky. Movies like Bridesmaids hadn't even been green-lighted yet but my top editors and I could see a different sense of humor emerging among young women.
Readers also gave high marks to the new pieces we ran on sexual health and personal safety. These were women who clearly wanted to take charge of their lives and were looking for information on how to do that.
But one of the best growth ponies we used was one I discovered a good year or so into the job. Thanks to a ratings system I employed to measure reader satisfaction with the content in the magazine, I discovered how fascinated readers were with anything that explained what made men tick. Whereas baby boomer women often seemed anxious to make men more like them (i.e. chattier, more sensitive), younger women seemed to accept that guys would never be like them (even if they encouraged them to drinks lots of chardonnay). They just wanted to understand men.
So at Cosmo we looked at the male brain and said, "Hey, we're going in." We commissioned articles on everything from deciphering a man's body language to why guys tended to cheat more in August. Eventually we started a monthly section called "101 Things About Men." It rated as high as any sex feature, thus helping drive readers to the magazine. And it fit perfectly with the DNA.
By now you can probably tell how much I love research. Trendera President Jane Buckingham, a researcher who I used extensively at Cosmo, puts it this way: "If you do the research, the secret sauce is often there for the taking, but too often people don't want to look."
Return to the T. When my husband was teaching our young kids how to play tennis, he'd set them up at the point on the court where the lines intersected. Eventually they'd drift to the left or right and he'd tell them, "Come back to the T." After hearing him use this phrase many times, I realized it was a good mantra for me as an editor. Over time you can start to drift from your mission (maybe an art director pushes you in a kooky new direction without your realizing it) and it's key to recognize when that's happened and how essential it is to get back in position.
I found it useful to regularly audit the content and make certain we weren't doing too much of something that didn't matter — or too little of what did. I also tried to book an hour a week on my schedule to just focus on the big picture.
What also helped: offsite meetings where my top staff would help me take an objective look and make suggestions, even if ruthless. Unfortunately those became tougher to do when resources shrunk after the recession. In hindsight I wish I'd found a way to make them happen.
So those are some of lessons I took away from that wonderful job. Cosmo Confession: I also learned a few things about the Kama Sutra. But I'd better not go into that here!