Fit for purpose: How Hearst UK is helping to change the face of the health and wellness sector

Over the last 18 month Covid-19 has dramatically changed exercise habits around the world. During that time Hearst UK (home to titles Men’s Health, Women’s Health and Runner’s World) has played an important role in the fitness revolution, launching wellness campaigns, hosting online workout sessions and further raising awareness for mental health. It’s a proactive approach that’s helped to keep the business, and its readers, in good shape.

During 2020 Hearst UK saw a 27 per cent increase in subscription revenue generated by its three health and wellness brands, while having similar success across other titles. There has also been a big spike in the consumption of digital content with the wellness magazines enjoying up to 58 per cent more traffic.

You Tube has been a massive growth area for Hearst UK with Women’s Health seeing a 358 per cent increase in subscribers last year and Men’s Health experiencing a 600 per cent year-on-year surge in revenue. In terms of e-commerce, Women’s Health enjoyed a 515 per cent growth.

Photo: Don Flood

“The most successful media brands offer that highly engaged experience across multiple platforms,” says Matt Hayes, Chief International Brand Officer at Hearst UK. “We super serve the passions of our audiences, who act on the advice of our brands and editors. Specifically, within the health and wellness sector, we’ve seen a real exploration in just how deeply you can connect with consumers, whether that’s through virtual events, video or social platforms like TikTok.

“I think the last 18 months has highlighted, more than ever before, that magazine brands need to stay relevant, and I’m proud of how quickly our titles reacted to ensure consumers were able to get more out of their lives during a challenging period.”

Self-care and body confidence

An example of how Hearst UK has reached out to its audiences to help inform strategy is the major research into self-care it ran earlier this year. A nationally representative survey showed 84 per cent of the UK population feel there should be a greater focus on self-care following the effects of Covid-19.

Meanwhile, two thirds of people living in the country are open to or have already increased their investment in health and wellness over the last 12 months. This has been backed up by a mammoth increase in purchases of wellness products like running shoes, yoga mats and massage guns on Hearst UK’s health brand sites in 2020.

The full findings of the research examining consumers’ approach to health and self-diagnosis were then unveiled at Hearst UK’s The Shift to Self-Care webinar in March.

“We’re fortunate in that we have a Hearst UK panel, which allows us to delve deep into the mindset of more than 2,000 consumers,” says Hayes. “During a global pandemic, gaining that emotional insight has been more important than ever before.

“Our survey research is one of the data points that informs editorial, alongside many other factors, including online traffic, cultural and social circumstances, social listening, e-commerce and real-life events.

“Our survey research often helps us to understand major issues – such as loneliness during the pandemic or harassment of female runners – and go deeper into what these findings mean before our editorial teams take on multi-platform campaigns designed to instigate positive change. The content is emotionally relevant to the reader.”

Also crucial is the insight Hearst UK can provide to potential clients on a commercial level. “Through our Hearst UK panel, we can give external brands access to their target audience to help them understand mindsets, and ultimately create a focus for sponsored campaigns to engage with them,” adds Hayes. “Titles like Men’s Health and Women’s Health can help brands connect through print, digital, social and experiential initiatives.”

Sponsored campaigns can have a far-reaching impact beyond the media business. In 2019 Hearst UK launched Project Body Love, a campaign born out of research that showed only 6 per cent of women loved their bodies. “With titles like Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan, Red and ELLE, we felt we had a duty to address this issue and change the way women think, feel and speak about their bodies,” says Hayes.

With the backing of Philips, who came on board as a partner last year, Hearst UK embarked on a huge campaign across print, digital and social media geared around the ‘Power of Positivity’.

“We’ve used online search and social listening to monitor emotional intelligence to establish the nation’s sentiment towards body positivity, whilst we’ve also worked with credible influencers like Alice Liveing to create a Project Body Love Weekender virtual event,” adds Hayes. “Since the campaign started, we’ve seen a 43 per cent increase in women’s high body confidence and, at the same time, Philips has proven a 10 per cent rise in its brand preference rating as a hair removal brand.”

Photo: Chris Floyd

In the wake of Covid

As Hearst UK looks towards the future it’s clear that Covid will leave some form of legacy – both in terms of content and the way people now prefer to work out and get their health information. For instance, the pandemic has highlighted the mental health benefits of exercise – something Men’s Health and Women’s Health have been extolling for many years.

“The pandemic has really accelerated awareness across the nation that mental and physical health are inextricably linked,” says Hayes. “I think we’ll see more demand for content around mental health, as our brands continue to create an environment in which people feel they can talk about the subject.”

At the height of the pandemic, there was a huge increase in demand for home workouts, with up to 20,000 people tuning in daily to Men’s Health Instagram sessions. While that was a short-term spike, there’s still an appetite for working out where you live – a recent Men’s Health poll indicating that 51 per cent of fitness enthusiasts plan to include home workouts as part of their long-term fitness routine.

The pandemic has also shaped how Hearst UK host health and wellness events – both in the short and long term. Because of Covid, Women’s Health Live – traditionally the publisher’s biggest physical event with 8,000 paying customers – had to pivot to a virtual format within just three weeks. Global stars were asked to shoot content from home and panels and wellness sessions were streamed across Women’s Health’s digital channels, with around 11m video views the result.

“We had to quickly pivot our physical events to a virtual format, which soon became the norm for the months to follow,” says Hayes. “There are many aspects of those virtual formats – like panels and Q&As with talent across the world – that we believe will still be part of our events in the long term, but we will progress to more of a hybrid model.

“Undoubtedly, events will play a significant role for Hearst UK in the future. We’ve seen benefits of virtual events and learnt invaluable ways of engaging audiences digitally with functions like live chats, or in some cases gift sets that allow them to take part at home.

“However, we do see the future of our events business following more of a hybrid model. There’s no question that virtual lacks the magic of a physical event – you simply can’t replicate that in-person experience, with things like gala dinners, drinks receptions and other social gatherings. We’re already planning our first major hybrid event for this year: Esquire Townhouse in October.”

The power of print

While Covid has caused a big spike in readers seeking out content online, print will continue to play a crucial role in Hearst UK’s business strategy.

“Growing our print share, alongside digital acceleration and revenue diversification, is one of our three key, long-term strategic pillars,” Hayes points out. “There have of course been challenges on newsstand for the industry, but you only need to look at our subscription business, and the fact that health titles are up 27 per cent year-on-year, to see how important print is.

“It’s also a central component when building brand partnerships and has huge prestige for both the consumer and advertisers. We actually noticed that during the pandemic, during a time when fake news was rife, many brands came back to trusted and reliable titles like Women’s Health, Men’s Health and Runner’s World.”

Photo: Duncan Nicholls

Hearst UK is investing heavily in the quality of its digital editions, striking up strong partnerships with Apple News+ and Readly to allow its brands to reach new audiences. Between January and December 2020, sales of Men’s Health, Women’s Health and Runner’s World digital editions grew between 75-97 per cent year-on-year.

“When you look at digital magazines across the Hearst UK portfolio, it’s a similar story with revenue doubling what it was two years ago,” says Hayes. “So, clearly our digital editions are an important revenue stream, and are on an upward trajectory in terms of the importance to our business.”

By keeping pace with changes to the health and wellness sector, Hearst UK has managed to forge an even closer connection with its readers.

“Whilst I think it’s fair to say the pandemic has proved challenging for the industry, we’ve seen a huge number of notable advancements – including within subscription strategies, digital innovations and revenue diversification – that you can argue have taken the sector forward many years,” says Hayes. “It’s also fair to say that during times of great uncertainty, consumers crave reliable information and the very best entertainment more than ever before – that’s where magazine brands play a unique and emotional part in people’s lives.”


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