Back in 2008, Jessica Pels was doing exactly what any ambitious, media-obsessed NYU grad should do: interning at A-list publications like The New Yorker, then Vogue. Her career started in earnest at Condé Nast, where she worked her way up the ranks at Glamour before joining Teen Vogue as features editor and online deputy editor in 2013.
It wasn’t long before Pels was poached by Hearst’s Marie Claire and then ultimately named digital director at sibling title Cosmopolitan. In October of last year, at age 32, she was named the youngest-ever editor in chief of the whole operation—web and print.
A year in, we take a look at her tenure so far on the “Ad Lib” podcast, where Pels is the latest guest. Traffic at the glossy is up 105 percent year over year, she says. Digital subscriptions from December 2016 to December 2018 increased from 85,060 to 242,075, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. From February 2018 to February 2019 the number of unique visitors to Cosmopolitan.com went from 15 million to 41 million, according to The New York Times.
“Our secret sauce is obsession with data and understanding our reader,” she says on the podcast. “Analyzing data is like breathing at Cosmo.”
About that reader: She has a name, at least internally, at Cosmo.
“We call her Taylor,” Pels says. “We talk about the reader as much as we talk about the stories and the content that we're making for her to engage with … We call her Taylor because it's easier to talk about Taylor as a person than it is to talk about a data set. But we're constantly updating our perspective on her. It's not a single person. It's a very large 78 million-person group.”
And to reach all those "Taylors," Cosmo is not just competing with digital pure-plays like Bustle, Refinery29 and PopSugar, but literally anything that pops up on her phone, from a text to a push notification to Instagram. (Also according to Cosmo’s data: Taylor checks Instagram some 42 times a day, though Pels herself confesses to checking even more often.)
“My reader is the savviest audience out there, partially because of the sheer volume of content that she absorbs without even intending to,” Pels says. “It’s all on her phone and it's all finding her. She knows everything. She sees everything, meaning it's very hard to impress her.”
Being able to impress her is what Cosmo increasingly sells to clients and brands that want to reach her with their own paid content.
Pels, who was named a 2019 Ad Age Woman to Watch in July, opens up on all things Cosmo, from inheriting stewardship of the brand made famous by Helen Gurley Brown, to how she views platforms like Instagram and TikTok, to Cosmo’s e-commerce play.
“The audience trusts us. When we tell them we're obsessed with something, they go buy it,” she says. “We have seen great success with our e-commerce. Our e-comm revenue is up 100 percent year over year. And I kind of feel like we're at the very beginning of that.”
Listen to the podcast for all of that and more.