Q&A: HearstX’s Mark McCafferty on Roblox, and adding purpose to content

HearstX's ECD Mark McCafferty on the resurgence of the documentary, purpose-driven content, and rewarding your audience

Hearst UK recently launched HearstX — the company’s new experiential division. The aim of HearstX is to create compelling physical and digital experiences by using emerging tech like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). We spoke to Mark McCafferty, Executive Creative Director at Hearst Solutions / HearstX about how this new part of the company is using technology to improve storytelling.

Hi Mark. So what kind of stories are people interested in these days?

As humans we’ve always loved ‘stories’ — but the type of story that we engage with has changed over the years. Fiction still provides creative escapism and a means of empathising with a situation that we may not be familiar with. The demand for this has and will always be high — hence the explosion of Marvel films, and Netflix shows like Stranger Things. However, a relatively new development has been the resurgence of the documentary — a dramatisation of real life events that’s now reaching a younger audience, thanks to streaming services and social media.

There’s also a demand for authenticity amongst Gen Z and Millennials, which explains this trend and launches in the social space such as BeReal. As a media business this has always been our editorial heartland, and we’re finding that the real life twist to a story is resonating with a much younger demographic than it used to.

When it comes to branded content, driving engagement is more tricky. Influencers and celebrities still help to drive awareness of a content piece, but when it comes to engagement it’s about the hook. And it’s much more difficult now (in a sea of commercially-funded content) to get the audience hooked. The creative concept has to be strong and clear, but what really drives engagement for us at Hearst UK is adding purpose to content. Our readers are savvy when it comes to a brand’s objectives — they know that a sponsor is trying to promote a product or a service — and unless it’s entirely relevant to them, they won’t engage.

Purpose allows us to show a brand in a different light — it gives the viewer something back. This could be in the form of motivation, positive emotional reaction or factual information. It’s this value exchange that is the key shift in driving success for branded content.

How are emerging technologies and new media formats changing expectations of audiences?

Both content and ad formats are evolving. I remember using facial recognition software in an ad format for the first time nearly 10 years ago. At the time it was a breakthrough campaign — but using a camera as part of a branded experience is now considered an expectation on many platforms. When we look at video, we now create mini trailers on social platforms to drive to a longer-form piece that lives somewhere else. Again, this strategy has been around for decades in the cinematic space, but only in the last couple of years has this been the newly adopted process for branded social content.

As mentioned above, asking an audience to perform any form of action — whether it be a click-through, download or a view, means they’ll expect their efforts to be rewarded. So the key to leveraging new technologies, is to ensure the end user experience justifies the journey. AR is a great example of this. The user journey to an AR experience used to be far too complex to justify the reward, and this problem was further compounded by the tech still being in its infancy. Now there’s no need for an app download, and the reward is one of function and interest. You can visualise a new sofa in your home, try on a new pair of glasses or even change your hairstyle prior to a trip to the hairdressers. The user journey is three or four steps shorter.

How does HearstX leverage new technologies to improve storytelling?

At HearstX the ethos is simple. We aim to leverage all forms of technology to improve the end user experience. What’s been really fun so far is extending our brand footprint in new and uncluttered worlds. Our Cosmopolitan Summerverse experience has just launched in BETA on Roblox — we’re the first magazine media company to do this.

The idea is to give our readers a true-to-Cosmo experience in a new place. Our readers are already on the platform — but the hard work comes in boiling down the core components of the Cosmo brand, and turning it into a world which you can explore. The Summerverse will allow Cosmo audiences and new audiences to explore Cosmo as a virtual world — engaging with all the Cosmo pillars such as Fashion, Beauty, Music, Pop-Culture and more, but in a gamified sense.

This opens up so many new possibilities for storytelling — whether it’s gamification, personalisation or even live streaming of real life events.

How has the reaction been so far?

Our launch event was on the 6th October — and we created an immersive walk-through of our latest developments and ideas. The key to success was the tangibility of the event — allowing our advertisers and clients to visualise and experience everything. Whether this be a VR ‘behind the scenes’ fashion shoot, a guided tour around the Cosmo Summerverse, or even transforming them into their own digital avatar. Since the launch we’ve had a lot of interest in how brands can leverage the tech on show — and most importantly how they can engage with the HearstX team in a consultative fashion.

Any quirky and fun upcoming projects you’d like to share?

What’s great about having a division like HearstX and the team we’ve recruited, is that there are original, creative suggestions coming daily. Our next launch however is going to be our UK Virtual Influencer, which we’re creating at the moment. As I mentioned with Cosmo’s Roblox experience — the challenge with this is similar – in that we are now personifying the core components of another one of our brands into a virtual being. This ‘person’ will then interact with our readers as well as work with brands on commercial campaigns – whether it be a virtual fashion shoot, or hosting a video franchise. We’re hoping to launch them early next year.

Nazli Selin Ozkan, Head of Content & Partnerships at MediaCat Magazine

Selin is Business Editor at MediaCat Magazine. After graduating from Duke University with a degree on political science, she started working at the content department at Kapital Media, working on events such as Brand Week Istanbul and Digital Age Tech Summit. She took on the role of Business Development Manager at Kapital Media, working on Kapital Media's several products, such as MediaCat Magazine, Polaris Awards, Brand Week Istanbul and Digital Age Tech Summit. She regularly contributes to MediaCat Magazine, covering media and tech.

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MediaCat is an online publication exploring marketing and media change. We focus on brands, the environments where they operate, and the industries that serve them, reporting on ideas, trends, and perspectives. Delving into modern brand experiences, evolving media landscapes, emerging forms of insight, the dynamic world of commerce, forces of transformation in organisations and markets, and the drivers of social impact, we aim to guide professionals navigating a brave new world.

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