From ShondaLand to Lenny Letter, Celebrity Platforms Stretch to Find Fans

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Shonda Rhimes.
Shonda Rhimes. Credit: ABC

Shonda Rhimes—showrunner and creator of hits from "Grey's Anatomy" to "Scandal"—is not starting another celebrity blog.

"I'm not interested in a lifestyle site. There's not going to be a lot of beauty tips or articles on what lipstick to wear," she said earlier this month at Vanity Fair's New Establishment Summit about, the digital venture she had launched mid-September. "It's anything you can talk about that's important to you."

As far as mission statements go, that's a fairly broad mandate from a creator with an equally broad fan base. But as works to define its editorial voice, it also has to build an audience that's independent of the ShondaLand television brand and Rhimes' 1.5 million Twitter followers. That challenge has been the downfall of a number of celebrity-driven platforms before Rhimes—and still faces others that are hoping to become serious players in digital media.

Goodbye Sunshine, Hello Lenny
Celebrity lifestyle blogs are as ubiquitous as they often are temporary. Many, like Chrissy Teigen's Delushious and actress Blake Lively's Preserve, shutter after short runs; others, like Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine, stagnate in development. New media platforms like ShondaLand and Lena Dunham's Lenny Letter are striving to attract stickier audiences, far past Rhimes' or Dunham's own core fans.

Easier said than done. Build the site around the founders' interests, rather than their personalities, advises Elizabeth Spiers, founder of media consultancy firm The Insurrection. "It's about the tastes and sensibilities of a certain audience that happens to identify with [that person] because they think she's emblematic of things they believe and are interested in."

Lenny Letter may have found that audience: The twice-a-week newsletter reached its two-year anniversary this September. In some ways, the content feels very Dunham. Its tonally slow journalism includes creative non-fiction, personal essays, poetry and fiction, centered on socially conscious, feminist themes. But it differentiates itself from its sometimes-polarizing founder by thriving where Dunham has performed poorly in the past, regularly publishing articles on topics like anti-blackness and intersectional feminism.

"People who love [Lena] will always come to us, because we are the place that publishes her most frequently. But from day one, we've always had so many other contributors whose fan bases, frankly, hate Lena," says Jessica Grose, the editor-in-chief of Lenny Letter. "My favorite tweets that we get in our timeline are 'I really don't like Lena Dunham but Lenny is amazing.'"

ShondaLand faces a slightly different challenge: a much broader fan base. Rhimes says she's often recognized by fans young enough to not even have been born when "Grey's Anatomy" first aired. She followed up on that at the VF summit, telling journalist Kara Swisher that her audience ranged from 12 to 75.

In some ways, the trick to creating content that's bigger than a single brand—that also caters to an audience that is essentially everyone—is looking at the smaller picture.

"The demographics might be broad, but that doesn't mean the interest drivers are," Spiers says. "The people who are drawn to Shonda like her because she embodies something they approve of—a strong and progressive orientation toward women's ambitions ... and an unapologetic love of pop culture."

There's a lot on the internet currently geared toward millennials, though -- particularly to millennial women.

"We want to be able to speak to older women, grown-ass women, who can be underserved in the digital realm," says ShondaLand Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Romolini, who came to the publication after a two-year stint running HelloGiggles, actress Zooey Deschanel's editorial platform for young women. (HelloGiggles, launched in 2011 and purchased by Time Inc. in 2015, still publishes regularly.)

The power of the name
Though ShondaLand is courting a slightly older audience, with recent pieces on talking to your children about death and how to plan a run for public office, Romolini recognizes that initial audiences may be coming for brand name alone, which widens its potential readership. "I imagine much of the audience will be people who already watch the shows or have read Shonda's book," she says.

Perhaps surprisingly, in the month since its launch, the ShondaLand has seen an audience that is roughly been 50 percent male. Though the site will continue to skew female, says Romolini, "[that] tells me that more men are interested in smart stories from powerful women than you'd probably imagine."

Two years into the publishing process, Lenny Letter is starting to see that differentiation between creator and platform. The age of the average Lenny reader is a woman around the age of 30, versus Dunham's personal fan base, which can skew younger. "When we started, I assumed it was women in their 20s," says Grose. "But it's actually a very specific kind woman who is somewhat established in her life, but is looking to her next step and to come into her grown up self." The newsletter has also seen surprising growth internationally, an area it hopes to expand in editorially.

Lenny Letter's email newsletter has grown to a subscriber base of 500,000, and boasts an almost 50 percent open rate, according to an interview Grose gave to tech publication Magenta this July. The brand makes money from sponsored content—articles from marketers such as Cole Haan that appear in the newsletter and on the site alongside editorial content, written in the Lenny tone. It also sells branded merchandise and has an imprint with Random House.

Even so, Hearst Digital Media—the same publisher behind and a Lenny partner almost since its launch—had no problem letting Dunham's property go earlier this month. Condé Nast, which recently partnered with Gwyneth Paltrow's own new media juggernaut to publish a print edition of Goop, quickly made a contract with Lenny instead.

Just a month prior, Hearst Digital Media president Troy Young told WWD that when it came to celebrity media, "We look at them first as businesses—do they create free cash? … I think we're relatively unsentimental about future promises and very focused on whether they are going to be great businesses."

Hearst's investment in ShondaLand still remains in the decidedly sentimental camp. The site has six staffers split among editorial, video, and audio, and a handful of regular contributors. It plans to expand further into video and launch a podcast in coming months. Spiers advises continuing that expansion across a variety of ways to connect with consumers, rather than relying on Rhimes' existing fans. "If it's just a platform for a celebrity," she says, "it's only as monetizable and sustainable as the brand of that celebrity."

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