Getting serious about social in the exec suite

Let’s see VP Finance, VP HR, VP Sales, VP Social Media. Social Media? Yes…a number of companies are putting social media smack dab in the middle of executive strategy and responsibility.

Matthew Milner is the VP of Social Media for Hearst Magazines Digital Media Group where he oversees social media and community for the company’s 25 Web sites. Who are these executives who get to be social all day? In the case of Milner he seems uniquely qualified for the job. With an MBA from Northwestern and a career in sales and trading on Wall Street, Milner learned numbers before he took a hiatus to write a romantic comedy novel called Guy Critical. To support the book he built a website and community called, “Where Women Can Ask Guys Anything.” Eventually his site grew to become an online Q&A community and social media platform that Hearst acquired in 2008.

Can you tell us a little about Hearst and your role?

I am part of the Hearst Magazines Digital Media team. We run online and mobile strategy for Hearst’s magazine brands such as Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, Marie Claire and Seventeen. We also run our “digital-only” properties such as, a food site we launched in partnership with MSN; social shopping site; and, a consumer health site.

I joined Hearst in 2008, when they acquired a social media company I founded called Answerology. Now Hearst uses Answerology’s technology to power “Question & Answer” communities on its magazine sites. My official title is VP of Social Media, so in addition to running Answerology, I run the social strategy for our magazine brands. I’m also responsible for aspects of Hearst’s teen business – in particular, non-display revenues such as lead generation. And most recently, I’ve been working on developing a program to partner with start-up companies. The idea is to provide distribution to early-stage ideas that we feel have great potential.

Is social media the road to reinvention?

Very well put. For publishers, “socializing” their brands – creating ways for users to join the conversation – is a huge step, but it’s an essential one if they want to stay relevant. Given the long history of some of Hearst’s magazines, in some cases more than 100 years, and given the nature of service journalism, the challenge of reinvention is to stay “on brand,” while at the same time inviting users to participate and share.

One way we’ve approached this challenge is to think about our content in the shape of a pyramid. The way we’ve integrated Answerology on – – is a great example. The entire community of teen girls sits at the base of the pyramid, asking and answering questions. In the middle of the pyramid we have “expert peers.” These are the users who answer questions well and answer them often, earning the respect of other community members. And at the top of the pyramid, we have Seventeen’s experts and editorial content – this creates a high-quality social environment for users, as well as a strong environment for advertisers.

Do other companies in media and non-media have folks in your role? How does the job differ?

It is still the Wild West when it comes to roles in Social Media. Southwest Airlines has a “Chief Twitter Officer,” as well as an employee who’s responsible for their presence on social nets such as LinkedIn, YouTube and Flickr. Last time I checked, Dell had forty people in their Communities and Conversations team. The thing is, social needs to be infused into everything a company does – from product development to content syndication to marketing. At Hearst, we’ve found that a certain level of knowledge about social media needs to be collected and transferred throughout the organization. We’ve had great ideas about social media come from all over the company – from Cosmo’s print team, to Seventeen and Marie Claire’s web teams, to our colleagues at Hearst Television.

What’s your greatest challenge?

Balancing the basic blocking and tackling that needs to be done every day with carving out enough time to think about and develop new strategies and new business ideas.

What have you learned?

Don’t be afraid of bad ideas – just don’t commit to them right away. When you’re developing an idea for a new consumer business, be as sure as you can be that there’s a genuine need. Be open to throwing away your original idea and starting from scratch, over and over again. Be agile. Iterate. And if all the iteration in the world doesn’t seem to be working, admit that you might have a bad idea. Move on.

How do you measure success?

For an early-stage idea, I look at consumer adoption. For a later-stage idea, I’m more interested in revenues and revenue growth. For a media company, I look at how their brands have evolved to stay relevant. And for people – this one is a bit tougher to measure – I try to figure out if they’re being true to themselves.

What’s your best business move?

Moving on from a Wall Street career. I used to work in equity derivatives. I enjoyed it, but I suspected I’d be happier elsewhere. Luckily, that turned out to be true.

What’s your worst?

Before Hearst acquired Answerology, while we were still a young company, I decided to grow it organically – even after we’d proven the basic business model. That meant taking very little outside capital, making do with a smaller team, and seeing relatively slower growth. The thing is, time compression is so important for a new business. Next time around, I’ll be more open to alternative, and perhaps faster, growth paths.

What’s the future hold for Hearst and media companies in general?

Like other media companies, we’re exploring how best to socialize our brands, and how best to monetize our content. We believe in the power of our brands, and the power of our content. I’m confident we’ll figure it out. Part of what drew me to Hearst was their history of making bold bets, committing to them long-term, and innovating. It started with William Randolph Hearst’s belief in newspapers – and that spirit of innovation is what led to everything from Cosmo’s “Fun, Fearless Female,” to our investment in cable television and ESPN, and our recent commitment to socializing our brands.

How do you stay smart?

Maybe it’s just my background with Answerology, but I sure do ask a lot of questions.
To check out Answerology, Click Here

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