Playboy’s announcement that, come March, it would no longer run photos of nude women in its magazine sent shockwaves through the publishing industry–and perhaps more than a few readers. But for those who see the move as a death knell of the publication, relax. Online, Playboy.com did away with nudes in August 2014, yet the digital site, as well as its social presence, has continued to grow.
Chalk that up to Robin Zucker, Playboy’s SVP, marketing for digital media, who has led the marketing strategy and implementation of the iconic brand’s newly launched digital media properties since coming aboard in 2013. Under her guidance, Playboy.com’s traffic has grown by more than 400%, reaching 1 billion page views in the relaunch’s first five months.
Before joining Playboy Enterprises, Zucker established and ran Yahoo!’s central social marketing organization, providing marketing strategy, services, and consulting to expand the brand presence through the use of social media. She also had stints at AOL, Netscape, and video startup VastVideo.
CMO.com spoke to Zucker about Playboy’s bold changes (not only the photos), the power of partnerships, social and mobile initiatives, and the importance of digital in Playboy’s future.
CMO.com: Coming out of The Anderson School at UCLA in 1997, what were your career goals? Judging by your early jobs at Netscape and VastVideo, it seemed you knew the power of digital early in the game.
Zucker: Digital intrigued me from the start. I had a very strong interest in entertainment, and I saw digital as the start of evolution of entertainment. At UCLA I took classes in the film school and did an internship at Disney. I started really digging more into tech, and I was hooked. My interest shifted to “com.” I liked the idea of engaging a consumer through this new platform. Upon graduation, I joined Netscape at a time when there were no rules or ways things had been done before.
At Netscape I leveraged my pre-business school advertising experience and applied it to what was the future. I came on board and helped figure out how to monetize the traffic that Netscape was getting from the browser as it transitioned to be a media company.
CMO.com: What interested you about joining the Playboy team and taking this job?
Zucker: I am energized by new challenges, especially when there is a strong foundation to build upon. Playboy is a brand we all know. It’s a brand people really love, with a large engaged fan base. When I joined, the company was at a turning point. Playboy’s licensing business was strong, with over $1.6 billion in sales, but when the company was taken private several years earlier, playboy.com was licensed to a partner. The lack of control of the website created a brand disconnect.
My role was to build an audience, create business value, and help determine the viability of launching a digital media business. I came on board to help figure out what was next. Should we take the site back? Is there revenue potential? Is there an audience there that wants to engage with us?
As a marketer this was appealing because it’s a brand that I had known my whole life, one that I’ve always had a high level of respect for, and at Playboy’s foundation was a very young and engaged audience on social. This is a brand that had great building blocks, and with my digital background it was the right next steps for me. And I was up for the challenge–helping guide this iconic brand through its transformation via digital.
CMO.com: Can you talk more about how Playboy didn’t control its own website at the time?
Zucker: Playboy had licensed the website to a partner but maintained rights to build a social presence. At the heart of our new strategy was the audience. We weren’t going digital for the sake of digital but rather to connect to our target audience. We were “fishing where the fish are.” And this is why it has worked.
With strong brand awareness, 11 million fans and followers at the time, and an executive leadership focused on a digital future, I was excited to build on Playboy’s roots, to celebrate and modernize the brand.
As I started digging in, I found that this audience was engaged and were a viable base for us to build our future in digital media and commerce businesses. It was an amazing opportunity for us to relaunch and start repositioning the brand with our audience in mind.
CMO.com: A rather significant announcement came recently from the company concerning the decision to eliminate nude photos from the publication. Why was this the time for such a bold move? Obviously you had already seen success with this on the digital side.
Zucker: When we decided to relaunch the website, we knew it would limit us to have nudity, and there’s so much out there for free. In addition, most social platforms are safe for work. From the perspective of engaging and reaching advertisers, we wanted to move from being classified as adult to entertainment. The removal of nudity, from a digital perspective, was a non-issue for us.
CMO.com: How much separation is there between the magazine and the digital team?
Zucker: The success of our digital properties and a strong engagement from our target audience made us look at the magazine and talk to advertisers and consumers. The feedback: Playboy has always pushed the envelope, but in recent years nudity was a distraction. So even though we have an amazing interview with Bernie Sanders or Gary Oldman, the nudity was a distraction and confused people from a brand perspective.
The magazine announcement was part of a brand evolution and alignment. Our digital efforts validated the audience and their interests. We’ve been “fishing where the fish are” and found that our younger engaged audience, the audience the advertisers want to reach, was the audience that’s there for us. We wanted to make sure everything was aligned.
The magazine is a very different beast than digital. The vision of last year’s launch wasn’t to be a “magazine” website. It was about being digital-first. Now that we’re reimagining the magazine, we’re working on how to have digital and print align in a way that’s appropriate for their respective mediums. With this evolution, all of the teams are working closer than ever.
CMO.com: How have you and your team helped to transform this iconic brand into something digital for the 21st century?
Zucker: We used our social footprint as our foundation to create a shareable story and reach our desired audience–the Millennial man.
When we launched, we had 11 million fans and followers on social, but we’re now over 30 million. We’ve had just tremendous organic growth with this younger demographic. For instance, 80% of our Facebook page is under 35.
At the time of the digital launch, we had around 5 million users on our site in August 2014, and we ended the year with 20 million. We average now around 16 million users a month. So when you think about relevance, we have people actively engage around our brand on both social and digital. All of this has been driven by the combination of relevant, compelling content and appropriately engaging with our audience across all things digital. So while we are an iconic brand, our digital and social growth speaks to our relevancy today.
CMO.com: Talk about some of the successes that the digital team has seen since relaunching.
Zucker: The growth in audience across social, mobile, and digital has surpassed our expectations. In 2014, we were among the top social brands [ranked] by Shareablee, and that’s based on engagement of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter handles. We were number 15. So that’s more validation because we are being recognized for our content, and none of it involves nudity. In addition, we were just named “Hottest Magazine on Social” by Adweek’s editors.
The other truly remarkable thing was the shift in the demographics on our website. In January 2014, the average age was 47, and in August 2015 it was just over 30. The audience had grown as well. Since relaunch, we are heavily focused on social and mobile, helping to drive the younger audience and growth.
CMO.com: Can you talk about some of those changes and some of the specific things that were done to bring younger people in?
Zucker: Social as our foundation meant engaging a much younger audience. As we design our content, we have this audience in mind, and we focus on the core DNA of what we’ve always been, which is men’s lifestyle. So it’s humor, sex, nightlife, style, and girls, of course. We have an editorial team that’s producing 20 to 40 pieces of content a day. Humor is a key driver of our engagement and of our traffic–the social currency for a Millennial male is humor.
CMO.com: How do you plan out the editorial strategy?
Zucker: The editorial team sets the strategy. It’s about understanding the audience. It’s a combination of key content categories, such as nightlife and style, sex and culture, and so on, combined with the relevancy of what’s happening today. Next we layer data and insights–what types of content have worked to engage our audience. In addition, if there is something trending that is relevant to our audience, we capture that and add it to our site with the Playboy perspective on it and then share it through social.
CMO.com: Can you give me an example of how partnerships play a role in Playboy’s growth?
Zucker: Partnership is a key piece to our strategy. As we reposition the brand, a key component is not just to engage our own audience, but to go beyond that audience through partnership. Everybody knows Playboy, but if Playboy can show up with somebody else that already has a relationship to our target demographic, it’s really beneficial. So just like people have friends on social/digital, brands can as well.
For example, we did a content partnership with Red Bull just as we relaunched the website. One of their athletes, Danny MacAskill, a world-renowned trial bike rider, gave a tour of the Playboy Mansion on his bike. He did amazing tricks as he toured the grounds. This was a subtle way to introduce of Playboy to the Red Bull audience. We both shared it on social and digital with great success. The video received over 4 million views, as well as millions of impressions across social and digital.
CMO.com: What’s an out-of-the-box way that you’ve improved the site and brought people to Playboy?
Zucker: Focusing on our audience and leveraging our social footprint have been the foundation. Social has been a key platform to engage our audience. We’ve strived to understand this audience. We have put the right tools and infrastructure in place that enable us to use art and the science around what engages someone. It’s making sure that we understand what people share and what they want. It’s really, how do we take all this data and insight, take the science, and apply the art to it?
CMO.com: Let’s touch on mobile. How important is that now and how important do you think it will be in the marketing efforts as you go forward?
Zucker: It’s foundational for us, and it will continue to be as we move forward. Almost 80% of our traffic is mobile. We reach a significant portion of our audience through social, which is predominantly mobile, so we think about it constantly.
Everything we do is designed from that perspective. When we design content, we make sure that it’s going to work on a smaller screen, which means video is a key component of our strategy. Video consumption is as good of an experience on a phone as it is on a larger screen, as well as being an incredibly engaging format. In addition, video is important for storytelling. We’ve been telling stories since the brand’s inception. Now we can present programs with advertisers that can easily integrate into our content as a lifestyle brand.
As we think about designing for mobile, we focus on what’s going to perform on social. This means that it could be compelling with no sound on, or you might need to overlay text. So as we think about mobile, it’s really thinking about the consumer, where they’re spending their time, and how can we create the most compelling experience.
CMO.com: How do you stay up on what’s trending and when to add new elements to the site?
Zucker: The teams pay close attention to what’s trending and up and coming. Plus, we have a staff of bloggers that are also looking for what’s next and ideally catching it right before it hits. There are some internal tools we have, and there are some tools that are built into our workflow, like social CRM, for example, so it’s just really paying attention to what’s happening and relevant.
CMO.com: As everything starts to change next year, what do you envision to be the biggest challenge ahead?
Zucker: The biggest challenge is the constant state of change and determining what matters to our business. There are new ways to reach consumers that didn’t exist five years ago–and sometimes five weeks ago. The audience is part of the equation. Our audience has a voice they didn’t have before. They have new things presented to them constantly, which means their behavior keeps changing. Just because you’ve done something and it works doesn’t mean you can set it and forget it. Being ahead of the next trend in tools, platforms, and consumer behavior is critical–and how they relate to our business and our customers.
In addition, our challenge is using digital and print to complement each other, working off of the combined strengths of each medium. Also, consumer feedback is critical to evolving our business and to be relevant for the next 60 years. Our plan is to write our history every day.
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