April 8, 2024

Stephanie Kaplan Lewis Talks About Bootstrapping Her Campus Media Over the Last Decade


Jacob Donnelly: As the name implies, you started Her Campus Media while in college. Talk to me about the origin story of the business, how it got started, and those early years building.

Stephanie Kaplan Lewis: Yes, I would love to. My co-founders, Windsor, Annie, and I, started the company 15 years ago now as college undergrads ourselves at Harvard. We had been running Harvard’s Women’s Lifestyle and Fashion Magazine on campus. It was a student publication at the time. It was a print magazine at the time. We transitioned it online for what are now obvious reasons to cut down on printing costs, be able to publish content more frequently.

Once we put this Harvard student publication online, it really took off with college women all over the country. We started to see college women reading it at schools that were all over, and we started hearing from a lot of them in two different veins. One was that a lot of them said, “I wish we had something like this at my school that I could read. I love reading your Harvard publication, but of course, it’s somewhat specific to Harvard.” Then we had this whole other group of college women reaching out saying, “I wish I had something like this on my campus that I can write for. I want to go work for Glamour or Vogue or Cosmo one day, but the only outlet I have on campus is the school newspaper. Can you give us advice on how to start something like this at our school?”

We looked around, noticed these two different pain points for college women as a whole. One, that there really wasn’t content out there speaking to them at this unique stage in their lives where they weren’t being met by teen magazines. They also weren’t at the stage that young women’s magazines were really speaking to or looking at a reader in their 20s or 30s. At the same time, there were all of these aspiring journalists that wanted to go into a career in women’s media, lifestyle media, that didn’t have a way to get the clips and the experience they would need to be able to set themselves up for success when they graduated.

We took those pain points and opportunities out of them that we saw, entered Harvard’s business plan competition and went on to win that business plan competition, and launched the site in September of 2009, coming up on 15 years ago.

Jacob: Did the Harvard magazine turn into Her Campus or are they still totally separate things?

Stephanie: That’s a great question. The Harvard magazine turned into the Harvard chapter of Her Campus. When we launched Her Campus that fall, we launched with a national presence as well as our first campus chapter at Harvard. Then from there, we started building out campus chapters at other colleges across the country.

Jacob: Walk me through the business because it’s part media company, part user-generated content, part influencer agency. Talk to me about each of these pieces.

Stephanie: The company has evolved a ton over time, as you might imagine. When we started, it was just Her Campus. We were a digital platform of content written by college women for college women with campus chapters at colleges around the country. Over these last years, we’ve built it out to be the Gen Z media and marketing ecosystem represented by this portfolio that we have of owned and operated media brands, some that we’ve launched ourselves, some that we’ve gained through acquisition, own communities of individual creators, influencers, journalists, campus chapter networks that we have. Then our suite of integrated marketing services that span different buckets.

On the whole, we think about them as digital bucket, campus and influencer, and then experiential. Most often those are coming together to form these integrated programs that we’re executing on for brands to drive Gen Z relevancy for them with this audience. Today we are really this one-stop shop when it comes to reaching and engaging authentically with Gen Z. It’s all still powered by that same mission that started us off about empowering the next generation, unlocking opportunities for them, speaking to college women the way they want to be spoken to from their peers, and really having community as the core driver of everything we do.

Jacob: Does Her Campus Media invest in its own content creation or is it primarily a platform for young women at these colleges and universities to create content in a user-generated way?

Stephanie: All of our content itself is written by student journalists at colleges across the country. We have a national and local model where we have local campus chapters at hundreds of campuses around the country. Each of those is a student organization on campus like a hybrid student publication meets sorority almost in that it’s women and other students that are united around their common interests and career goals and media and marketing and journalism and event planning, social, et cetera.

Then there’s also this huge community element to it as well, both within their campus and with the campus chapters at other colleges around the country as well. Then we have our national content, which is produced by a smaller team of the best of the best student journalists that write for the national part of the site that are working hand in hand with our full-time editorial team who are assigning, editing, curating the content that makes up the national part of hercampus.com. Again, that’s just thinking about Her Campus, which is now one of the five properties within our portfolio, Her Campus, College Fashionista, which is fashion, beauty, influencer-centric media and community and social for Gen Z, Spoon University, which is a food media property for Gen Z.

Then our InfluenceHer Collective, which represents an influencer and creator community. Then lastly, Generation Hired, that’s a career development platform for college students and a platform for employers to connect with the next generation of talent.

Jacob: I want to talk a little bit about Influence Her Collective, because from the way I can see it looks a little bit like it’s an agency, where you’re almost connecting influencers and brands. Can you talk about that business and how Her Campus sits in the middle of that?

Stephanie: The InfluenceHer Collective is a community of tens of thousands of Gen Z, younger millennial creators and influencers that are looking to hone their craft, professionalize their skills, connect with other influencers, and then access brand opportunities. It is its own influencer agency in a sense. At the same time, it’s not purely transactional, the way a lot of influencer agencies can be. It’s not that our InfluenceHer Collective members only hear from us when a brand opportunity comes along. In fact, the brand opportunities are really like the cherry on top of their experience being part of the InfluenceHer Collective.

They’re coming here for mentorship, for skill building, for professional development, for building community with other influencers, and then as well accessing these brand opportunities. The InfluenceHer Collective grew out of a need that we noticed back in, I believe, 2013, where we had Her Campus as a platform. It was all about the next generation of student journalists, students that wanted to go into media and journalism, working generally for bigger media companies. We realized there was this whole other subset of college women that didn’t necessarily want to be journalists. Maybe they wanted to be bloggers, and that was the big thing at the time.

At the time, we launched something that originally was called the Her Campus Blogger Network. That was a lot of what I just spoke to you right now about the InfluenceHer Collective, but an earlier iteration really around these young women who had their own blogs, they were looking to monetize those blogs, connect with other bloggers. Over time, that morphed into what’s now our InfluenceHer Collective, as most of that content creation has obviously moved away from blogs, moved on to social.

If any of our InfluenceHer Collectives have their own website, it’s typically a portfolio site at this point, not a blog anymore, but it was always about identifying what the needs and interests were of that next generation of content creators, what they were looking to get from a professional development perspective, a community perspective, and then a monetization perspective to be able to access the kinds of campaigns and brand opportunities they wouldn’t be able to have access to on their own.

Jacob: How has the Her Campus content strategy had to evolve as we’ve gone from people were bloggers, then they’re influencers, now we’re all creators? How has the editorial and content strategy had to evolve?

Stephanie: Certainly, this audience has evolved so much over the past 15 years when you think about it in 2009, this was a squarely millennial audience. Then we were talking about the Gen Zennials. Now we’re talking about Gen Z. Now we even have, on the horizon, thinking about Gen Zalpha and then Gen Alpha. Because it’s really powered by these student journalists, the members of this demographic themselves at its core, it’s been able to naturally shift and evolve along with that evolving audience and demo. Everything from what content verticals we have on the site have shifted over time.

What we call those content verticals has changed, something like a health or a wellness vertical has probably had a number of different even just names over time in order to make sure that we’re really resonating with the audience that we’re looking to serve. Then really it’s that where we’re showing up and where we’re manifesting has moved beyond just hercampus.com or a .com presence and has really moved from being just about owned and operated media, which is still a really important piece of what we do and is really what a lot of our programs are built on.

Then also recognizing that shift to individuals, individual creators that are creating content on their own platforms and understanding how can we support them, how can we connect them with brands because brands know they need to get in front of them, need to be activating them to drive Gen Z relevancy, and how can we do that authentically and at scale and in demo for this really niche audience of college women.

Jacob: I think you and I graduated the same year from dramatically different colleges.

Stephanie: [laughs] We were 2010.

Jacob: I was 2010 as well.

Stephanie: [unintelligible 00:10:28].

Jacob: How do you think about the graduation of your audience? Because when you launched you were on campus, now you’re very much not on campus. How do you think about that graduation of audiences as they move increasingly away from being on campus?

Stephanie: That’s such a good question because we are in a unique spot in that our audience itself, as you said, basically literally graduates each year, moves out of the demo that we’re serving. We’re constantly regenerating and replenishing who that audience is that we’re serving. We have very specifically stayed focused on this life stage of being in college rather than trying to grow up with our audience over time. We always felt like this niche is incredibly important. It’s this really unique life stage that has unique needs from a content and programming perspective. These students are on their own for the first time, making decisions for themselves, just a completely really specific era in their lifetime. At the same time, it’s an era that brands are looking to connect with women, during but it’s not easy for them to do so, versus when you look at getting into your 20s and 30s, there’s a lot more media, and other platforms out there reaching that larger, wider demo. That means that our community members, our audience members are churning out constantly each year.

We do that very intentionally and deliberately. Once you’re no longer in college, you can no longer be a part of basically any of our communities other than the InfluenceHer Collective, which goes up to a little bit older than that. It means that we’re making sure constantly that who we’re speaking to and who we’re engaging are in that life stage college demo, but that is a very different approach than many others might take to think about moving with your same audience. We’ve stayed with the life stage. Who is within that audience is what churns over every single year.

Jacob: As the company has gotten older, not even just as people, but just as the company, how has the company ensured that it understands its audience as it gets farther and farther away from being that audience?

Stephanie: Exactly. It’s really that community-powered piece of it that’s at the core of our ability to do that. Everything that we do is really bottom up, ground up, driven by our community members, by Her Campus chapter network, by the members of our InfluenceHer Collective, even something like changing and rebranding Her Campus Blogger Network to the InfluenceHer Collective came from the members themselves and us understanding from them that, “Okay, they’re not calling themselves bloggers anymore. Now they’re calling themselves influencers. They’re not looking to sell sponsored posts on a blog anymore. Now they’re looking for, how can they be monetizing their Instagram followings?”

Everything that we do is community-powered and fueled at its core. That’s what’s informing the decisions that we make, the shifts that we make, and we’re able to really move hand in hand with that audience and community because they are the core and the center of every single initiative of ours. Certainly my co-founders and I have obviously aged up over time. Our staff is a mix. We have a number of amazing team members that are obviously closer to college, some that are further away from college, but it’s really that community-powered piece of it that drives our decisions.

Jacob: Let’s talk about chapters for a moment because obviously Harvard was the first and then you’ve now grown to a ton of chapters. While going through the prep for the show, I visited a bunch of different chapters, but I want to focus on two. I landed on Emerson’s, randomly clicked on Emerson’s, which looks to be both pretty active and with a chapter level of silver. Then I landed on the University of Albany, which is inactive. A couple of questions here. First, how does one start a chapter and how does the level factor into this?

Stephanie: Exactly. You can go on our site and let’s see, if you click join at the top of hercampus.com, for example, we’ll have different information about the different opportunities to get involved in the Her Campus community, one of them being to start a chapter at your school. We have a very extensive process to be able to apply and launch a new chapter, one that, as you can imagine, we’ve developed and iterated on over time as we’ve recognized what are the hallmarks of successful chapters, those who lead successful chapters, how can we ensure their continuity and all of that.

What you spoke to about Emerson being a silver-level chapter speaks to part of that as well, as we’ve built out these internal and external in that case, awards programs, incentive programs levels for chapters to be able to strive to be able to have these certain accolades that they can put on their chapters page, that they can put on their LinkedIn page to say, “I achieved a gold level campus chapter out of 300 plus Her Campus chapters,” or whatever it may be.

We are constantly noticing over time, the chapters that thrive, that perform, that stick around, maybe they have at least this many members on campus or they’re having weekly meetings or they’re doing XYZ, we’re then able to operationalize those best practices and learnings to be part of the playbook that we give all of Her Campus chapters to really make sure that they’re aligned with what we’ve seen over time is going to help them perform. We have a very extensive transition process for campus chapters, as you can imagine, every year and every semester, a certain amount of our chapter leaders are graduating or studying abroad. We have an extensive process again that we’ve developed to manage those transitions.

Inevitably, some chapters will become inactive over time, and then we’ll recruit new leadership or have new leadership from that campus apply to restart that chapter. Her Campus chapter retention overall is in the high 90% year to year.

Jacob: When a chapter goes inactive, do you have someone on the team who’s going out, and so let’s use the University of Albany, going out and trying to find a student journalist or are you promoting it to the collective and saying, “Hey, by the way, this is an opportunity?” How are you taking it from inactive to active and then up to gold?

Stephanie: It will depend on the campus chapter probably. There’s certainly some schools that we have a larger presence at, some schools that we have a smaller presence at, some schools that brands are more apt to want to get on campus ad and get in front of the students there. Typically we’ll look at who else was in the campus chapter. Does one of them want to take it over? As you said, do other community members have connections there that they can tap into if there’s someone that wants to restart the chapter? We don’t do any outbound paid marketing to grow our communities or grow Her Campus chapter network.

It’s really all driven by student interest. It really is about who’s coming along and applying to start a campus chapter. Then we are reacting to that interest, putting them through a vetting process to see if it makes sense to get that chapter off the ground under their leadership.

Jacob: As more and more of student journalists go from being bloggers to more social-first influencers, have you found it harder to get those chapters going again?

Stephanie: I don’t think that we have. I think people have an array of interests. There’s certainly many that are still interested in being a part of student publications, whether it’s their Her Campus Chapter, their school newspaper, plenty of other publications that exist on these campuses. They’re also not mutually exclusive. We’ll certainly have members of Her Campus chapters that might also be influencers or be creators or nano-influencers.

We also have Her Campus Trendsetters community that’s our nano and even more micro-influencer community of college students who aren’t necessarily trying to be a full-time influencer or anything like that, but are creators and have influence on campus and are looking to maybe receive free samples and get to post about it on their social pages or that kind of thing. I would say these also aren’t mutually exclusive. What you can do within a Her Campus Chapter spans well beyond just writing. Her Campus chapter members, some are doing writing, editing, social media, events, PR, marketing, all different flavors within that content creation, communication, marketing, PR industry to set themselves up for what are the next era and the next wave of what these careers look like.

Certainly, the way Her Campus chapters operate has evolved over time to meet those needs as we see what those interests are and what careers they’re going to be striving for when they graduate.

Jacob: At the top of the show, you mentioned that you have a number of secondary brands as well, including Spoon University and College Fashionistas. What is the origin story of these and what is the rationale between having separate brands versus relying on the Her Campus parent brand for everything?

Stephanie: A really important evolution of the company was in 2019 when we acquired both College Fashionista and Spoon University. Before that, we had Her Campus, we had our InfluenceHer Collective that represented the more creator-influencer side of the business, but we didn’t have other media properties within us yet. College Fashionista and Spoon were both two incredibly like-minded properties that were serving a similar demo but in a different vertical. They were both also community-powered. They have been founded by college students themselves, and they again had that community piece at their core driving what they were doing. We had known both of those founders for a very long time. College Fashionista was founded at Indiana University. Spoon was founded at Northwestern. They both actually been acquired by larger media companies before we acquired them. Both of them had gone through an acquisition already, and then we ended up acquiring them secondarily from that. Both of those, to us, represented two really powerful, really strong brands that again were meeting this demo, but via a different vertical than Her Campus was.

We saw in that a lot of opportunity to just expand into this portfolio, expand into new advertiser categories as well that would make sense for those brands. Of course, each of those brands has their own events, tentpole events associated with them, email newsletter, et cetera. It was really about growing from being Her Campus and Her Campus Media, in some sense as being one and the same, to being this portfolio representing the leading Gen Z media brands.

Jacob: Can you talk about the career vertical as well because anyone who regularly listens to the AMO Podcast knows that I am a job board failure. I have done it three times and I have failed at it every single time. Can you talk about that vertical and how it fits within the broader portfolio of brands?

Stephanie: Generation Hired is our most recent property that we launched. We launched it during the pandemic and it was the first time we were really hitting super head-on that career vertical, like you mentioned. We’ve always been doing a lot of stuff in the career space. Her campus, College Fashionista has been very much the launching pads into jobs and internships in these industries. What we found over time from doing that is that a lot of our clients themselves were saying, “Wow.” Maybe they worked with us on just a general brand awareness campaign, but our clients themselves were then coming to us and saying, “You will have the most amazing community members that you’ve built. How do I get in front of them for our jobs and internships to come work here?”

We had started dipping our toes a little bit in some employer branding campaigns, again, typically with clients that started as brand awareness clients that then realized, “Wow, I need to get in front of this audience for a recruitment standpoint,” and we were seeing that. At the same time during the pandemic, of course, more than ever, college students had a heightened sense of urgency around figuring out how they’re going to be able to get jobs and internships. It was obviously a really tough time. That was a pain point. We really identified from our audience while also recognizing that our clients were looking to be able to access that same audience more directly as well.

Everyone wanted the same thing. We launched Generation Hired as a career development platform, Gen Z’s online campus career center. It’s a combination of an email newsletter, a job board, as well as different initiatives that will spring up over time for different partners of ours when they’re having big employer branding, recruitment moments, et cetera, we’ll have big initiatives tied to those.

Jacob: All right, let’s dig into the Her Campus business model now. As far as I can tell, you are predominantly an advertising-based business. Can you talk about the various products that you take to market?

Stephanie: Definitely. We are predominantly an advertising-based business in that 99% of our revenue comes from brands who are giving us money to market or advertise to our audience. We have some very, very de minimis revenue streams of like ticket sales or merchandise or something like that, but we really haven’t tapped into those to date yet at all. Within advertising, what we’re really doing are these 360-degree integrated campaigns for clients. A lot of people are often surprised to hear that our revenue is actually only about maybe 10% or so from display on our sites, despite being a media-centric company.

Most of what we’re doing are these big integrated buys that are really holistically, comprehensively leveraging what we’ve built at the intersection of owned and operated media, owned communities, and then integrated marketing services. The three main buckets are digital products, campus and influencer products, and experiential products, which more often than not are coming together for a bigger integrated buy. On digital, that looks like everything from native branded programs manifesting themselves on our site, obviously email, social, et cetera, as well display components, of course, but it’s not the majority.

Campus and influencer is about activating our community members as individuals. Activating them as influencers, a lot of product sampling that we’ll do as well. That spans everything from the InfluenceHer Collective, which are your somewhat larger, but still, micro-influencers to our real nano influencer community with something like Campus Trendsetters, College Fashionista is also a community that we’re activating on an individual basis.

Then experiential represents both our tentpole events we’re doing like Her conference for Her Campus, Creators Loft that we’re doing for College Fashionista, as well as dedicated builds of sold events that we’re doing for brands on campus, near campus in major cities, et cetera. Again, typically these programs that we’re doing are bringing together components from those different buckets for a really integrated program.

Jacob: When advertisers work with you, are they predominantly looking to reach the whole audience or are they targeting specific colleges and universities or specific degrees that these young people are in? How are they working with you and how are they segmenting?

Stephanie: It can be both. I would say most programs that we do generally are happening on a national scale on our platforms. At the same time, we will also do programs that have a more targeted outreach, something like a campus brand ambassador programs that we’re doing are going to have campus brand reps on certain campuses. We run an amazing campus brand ambassador program for Clinique, for example. Right now, for the first time, we’re running American Eagles brand ambassador program on campuses, and that’s actually a male and female program activating ambassadors for American Eagle.

We will have some of those that pop up on campus and of course, their priority campuses and priority markets. A lot of the campaigns as well, again, are going to have just that overarching national focus which is what you’ll see more often, I would say, with these larger national campaigns.

Jacob: I want to talk a little bit about the events business because I know when we were in Barcelona, we were both talking about some of the events that we’ve worked on. What is the strategy here? How do you see the events business continuing to evolve, especially as we get farther and farther away from the pandemic?

Stephanie: Events have had a huge resurgence since the pandemic, obviously. We certainly did a lot of events pre-pandemic that all moved to virtual in a huge way during that time. We had some incredible wins on virtual events. We stood up in a matter of literally six weeks from idea to launch something called I’m Still Graduating. That was a mega virtual graduation for the class of 2020 with incredible celebrity and other famous speakers that came in, student speakers that applied and got selected to speak at it, student performers. We had over a million live streams. We sold over a million dollars in sponsorships on that and we won Adweek’s Campaign of the Year Award for that.

That was amazing. Fast forward a couple of years later, no one wants to do virtual events anymore. We got really proficient at them. No longer a service offering of ours and now we’re back to in-person. For us with in-person events, there is a ton of interest, appetite, and demand for events, both on the brand and client side, as well as on our audience and community side as well. From a business standpoint, experiential programs are never going to be as high margin for us as a digital program or a campus and influencer program. We have certain business rules that we have in place to make sure that we’re only allowing brands to tap into experiential offerings at certain spend levels with certain other components included, et cetera.

Because as a- I don’t know if we’ve chatted about this yet, but as a bootstrap profitable business, we’re really, really hyper-focused on our margins and continuing to just drive profitability in a sustainable business model. There is something so incredibly powerful about bringing the community together, IRL in-person for these events. It’s just this intangible magic that you feel when you’re at one of our events. The easiest part for us is driving attendance at these events. We just put on College Fashionista, Creators Loft in February in Union Square in New York City. It was amazing. We over-registered for that event. Over a thousand people come through the door over those couple of days.

That was capacity at the venue, obviously. We had so many people coming to us and said, “Wow, how much do you pay for marketing to fill up your events like this?” We said, “We don’t pay anything for marketing. All we do is promote it over our owned and operated platforms through the College Fashionista social platforms, email, newsletter. For us, our community is so excited to be there in person to engage with us. We also create these events, to begin with, around the needs and the interest that we’re understanding from that audience. With Creators Loft, for example, that’s an event that’s really Gen Z’s home base during New York Fashion Week.

We built it in that way because we heard from our community members that one of their needs and pain points was that they wanted to be a part of New York Fashion Week, but they weren’t necessarily invited to the shows. It wasn’t accessible to them. They didn’t have a way into it but as up-and-coming, aspiring, budding creators, it’s a moment that they really wanted to get to be a part of. We built this event, Creators Loft, that would be their home base during New York Fashion Week, a place that they were invited to. They were included. They could convene. They could meet one another, have all these content creation moments, engage with brands there, hear from amazing speakers with all of our programming throughout the days.

It was something that we built because they told us that they wanted it. We knew they wanted it because we have this community that we have our ear to the ground on at all times, just hearing directly from them about what they’re looking for. We had some fantastic brand partners along with us for that. We had Kate Spade New York there that had to borrow a bag bar where you could check out a bag for the day to bring around New York Fashion Week and New York with you, which was a lot of fun. Kiss, Press On, False Eyelashes was there doing lash applications, which was a lot of fun. These brands got to be a part of these creators feeling like, “Wow.” This was their New York Fashion Week experience. They got to be at New York Fashion Week and it was just a win for all stakeholders.

Jacob: Are the events from a revenue perspective, all driven by sponsorship, or is there a ticket sale component?

Stephanie: For Creators Loft, there are no ticket sales. For Her Conference, which is Her Campus’s tent pole, it’s in June every year. It’ll be in June this year in New York City. We have ticket sales, but the ticket price is very, very low relative to what you might see elsewhere. I think it’s $50 maybe.

Jacob: Just to make sure people actually show up.

Stephanie: Exactly, exactly. Just to make sure that as we have people registered, that they’re actually going to show up because they had a little skin in the game with that ticket price. The revenues really are all on the sponsorship dollars and these are very profitable events for us.

Jacob: I want to talk a little bit about those rules for activating experiential, because it’s– Where I come from at Morning Brew, we also obviously cared a lot about margins and making sure that we put the right products into the right plans. Can you talk about your expected margins across those three buckets? You’ve got digital, you’ve got the influencer program, then experiential, how can I unlock those things if I’m on your sales team, and how do you think about those expected margins?

Stephanie: We don’t share publicly exactly what the margins are on our campaigns, but we certainly have certain margins that all that revenue needs to fit within. Then we’ll have certain spend levels that you need to be at for it to be even just worth our executional time to do something like an event. Events are amazing, but of course, there are a lot of work to put on and just a lot of work and labor that goes into those for sure.

We are really thoughtful about our margins. Then we also are very careful as we’re thinking about our revenue, our sales goals that if there’s any costs they’re coming, they are not within margin for any reason. Revenue doesn’t exist to us. If it’s not in margin revenue, it doesn’t exist. We think about it as pass-through revenue that’s coming into the business. We’re paying it out of the business and if it doesn’t fit within our margin rules, it doesn’t even exist to us as as revenue.

We’re really thoughtful about that. Then also things like increasing our campaign minimums over time to just make sure that we’re really continuing our focus on long-term enterprise clients that really want to work with us on a long-term basis and engage with this audience over time rather than just be a flash in the pan campaign.

Jacob: Affiliate and commerce revenue have become big drivers for many consumer-focused media brands. Have you explored either of these for Her Campus or is it still not really a priority?

Stephanie: They haven’t been a priority to date. Those definitely represent opportunities for us that we could tap into. I think with the properties that we built, the brand equity that we’ve built, those are ones we absolutely could. We have them both on a very, very elementary nascent level. We do a teeny bit of affiliate revenue on the site. We have the Her Campus shop that sells merchandise across our brands that really is just for community members who want to have some merch and we give away a lot of it for free. They both exist, but the revenue that we’re doing on them is infinitesimally small relative to the advertising services revenue.

Jacob: 2023 for a lot of media was tough from an advertising perspective. How was 2023 for you and where did Her Campus end from a revenue and profitability perspective?

Stephanie: We don’t share our actual revenues or EBITDA numbers publicly or something like that as a private company. 2023 was mega for us. We grew over 50% last year. Again, as you noted in an environment where that was not the thing to do, it’s not what we saw happening at a lot of other media companies. I think that was due to a few things. One, the fact that we really just own this demo that’s incredibly important for marketers to reach. Everyone wants to get in front of Gen Z, it’s incredibly difficult to do that and really requires this incredibly comprehensive, holistic, cultivated ecosystem that we build out over time in order to be able to do it right.

The community piece of it is another one that’s huge. We have, as we’ve been talking about throughout this hour, been able to really shift platforms as audience behavior shifts such that people are moving away in some senses from as much time as they were spending on media properties, moving more to creators, that hasn’t represented a concern or an issue or a challenge from us because we’re able to activate on that level too. Again, they have that campus and influencer bucket, we’re doing a lot of programs in that space, and it doesn’t stress us out as people and advertisers are moving towards the creator economy.

We love that. In fact, Her Campus and influencer revenue has been growing even faster than our digital revenue as you might imagine. We acquired a company last year called ZFluence. It was a Gen Z influencer marketing platform founded by an incredible woman named Ava. We acquired ZFluence folded that into our influencer communities, but it’s just another item that represents how we’re thinking about noticing that shift, reacting to that shift, moving along with that shift for sure.

We had done a lot of investment in 2022 in our team, in our tech, in our operations as we recognized that just huge demand we saw on the horizon for Gen Z marketing. That really just came to life in 2023 and those investments paid off. It was a huge year for us and we’re seeing that momentum continue into 2024 for sure.

Jacob: I’m glad you mentioned the team. Can you talk about the structure of the Her Campus team?

Stephanie: We have 85 employees and they– For one thing, we’re all remote. We were always really remote-friendly, even pre-pandemic. We’re technically headquartered in Boston. We have an amazing office there that is beautiful and built out and right in the Fenway neighborhood, which is great. We had always been a remote-friendly company even pre-pandemic. Then as of March, 2020 became fully remote and now our team members are spread out in I think over 20 different states across the country actually. That has been working great. It’s allowed us to attract even more talent and even more markets, which is fantastic and really help our employees be able to maintain work-life balance.

Many have young kids. Our team really, I think respects and appreciates the fact that we have this remote first culture. Those employees themselves are spread out over a number of different departments. Content is a big department community, integrated marketing, business development, design, product, and engineering business operations, which is legal, finance, people, and culture. A relatively even distribution over all those different functions.

Then of course we continue to build and scale those functions in those departments over time. Amazing, amazing, amazing team that is a huge piece of what has been driving our success is just that like absolutely incredible team members that we have executing on all of this day in and day out.

Jacob: If we go back to Spoon University, College Fashionista, and then Her Campus obviously, and the career platform that I’m blanking on the name, do you have dedicated teams for them or is it all a central team that then works on those different brands?

Stephanie: Across most functions it’s centralized and people are working cross-portfolio. Something like business development, integrated marketing design, for example. People are working cross-portfolio, cross-brand where it splits up somewhat is within content and editorial and community will have certain team members focused more on one platform or the other. In terms of the rest of the functions, its shared services work across portfolio.

Jacob: What is the technology stack that powers Her Campus?

Stephanie: Her Campus is built on WordPress, as is College Fashionista. One important project that actually we have underway for this year is that we’re re-platforming Spoon University to also be on WordPress. Spoon University was built on a custom CMS called Secret Sauce. It is really cool and innovative and has a lot of fantastic functionality around it. We’re now re-platforming it this year to get it onto the same infrastructure as Her Campus and College Fashionista. It’ll allow us to be able to monetize it not much more seamlessly with the same products and service offerings that we have on our other two properties.

Allow us to push out one feature on one site and have it deploy on all of them, et cetera. We’re re-platforming Spoon over to WordPress, which is going to be done in time for back to school. Really exciting initiative of ours for this year. Beyond that we’re in Asana, we are in Slack, we’re in Dash Hudson, we’re in MailChimp. Probably a lot of the platforms that you might expect for a business like ours.

Jacob: Where do you see Her Campus going over the next three to five years? What are the dreams?

Stephanie: We have endless dreams and goals and aspirations for Her Campus over the coming years. For one, again, really building out across our entire portfolio. On a relatively short-term perspective, building out the whole portfolio, really monetizing across all of them, against some of these are newer brands for us. There’s a lot of immediate opportunity to get those scaled up which is really exciting. Also thinking about other service offerings that we can bring to our brand partners that our abilities that we already have within us, or maybe that are immediately adjacent to us. One new community that we just launched this year is called our Sampling Squad. That is a network and a community of student organizations all across the country that are everything from your acapella group to your sorority to your dance team. Now these student orgs are united with other student leaders across the country and they’re basically able to access sampling opportunities from brands who want to sample out to their student orgs. That’s something we’d identified over the last couple of years that a lot of clients were looking to do mass sampling, looking to get products in the hands of as many student groups on campus as they could.

We then decided, rather than trying to piece this together ad hoc when these asks come up, let’s build out an offering and build a community around this. That’s what we did. That’s just one example of a new service offering that is meeting the same demo, but in a different way than we’ve been able to activate on before. Also thinking about all the opportunities when it comes to a Gen Z strategy and creative and consultative approach is something that we’re seeing more and more brands be looking for a partner to help them on and something that we’re seeing is really a capability that we already have.

We use that primarily for really B2B marketing initiatives right now with something like our Genzology event where we bring marketers together to teach them about Gen Z based on our proprietary data and research and insights and all of that. Thinking about how we can build out that line of business for sure. Then eventually over time, there are just so many brand extensions and other revenue stream opportunities we’d be excited to tap into, whether it’s like brand licensing, for example, that our brands lend themselves really well to and we just haven’t prioritized or focused on to date. Opportunities in the travel space that are exciting for us.

We had done a Her Campus only spring break trip with a travel partner right before the pandemic. That was a lot of fun. Just thinking about how we can continue to leverage these brands, the equity and credibility that they have and what are those other revenue streams beyond advertising that again, not next few years, but longer term we see as expansion opportunities for the business and then continued M&A. We’ve made six acquisitions to date. We always have our eye out for other like-minded companies and platforms that could really be additive to what we’re doing as we just continue our dominance in this Gen Z space.

Jacob: I want to end with the same two questions that I ask every operator that comes on the show. First, what is a mistake that you have made in your career and what did you learn from it?

Stephanie: Let’s see. So many of those that I can mention. It has been trial by fire running a business. We have made a million mistakes. What’s important is that you don’t make the same mistake more than once is what we always say. Very early on in our journey, we learned the lesson to one, not get excited about anything. Nothing is real unless you have a contract and don’t get excited about something until the contract is signed.

Early days we had some advertiser relationships that were never even properly papered or contracted in the very beginning. Your contact there leaves, someone else comes and they’re like, “Well, I didn’t want to do this program.” We’re like, “Well, what do you mean?” You don’t have it properly laid out in a contract. That’s something we got burned on super early on, never did it again, clearly learned that lesson. Then also, understanding again, not getting excited about something until a contract is signed, again. In the beginning, there’s so many just exciting potential wins and things that come up and meetings that you have and you get so excited about something.

To us, nothing is real. Nothing exists in our minds until you have a signed contract for it. Learning to manage those expectations served us well and we learned that. We learned that pretty quick in that first year.

Jacob: Second, what is some advice that you would give operators that are looking to grow their media businesses?

Stephanie: Let’s see. I think focus on community. That is what has been our secret sauce from the very beginning. It’s something that now we are seeing a lot more people waking up to and having conversations around that importance of community. I think when a lot of people talk about community, they’re talking about, “Oh, we have social followers or we have email subscribers,” but it’s really about building a community where your members are thinking of this as part of their identity. It’s something that they genuinely feel that they are a part of. It’s an important piece of their life. They’re connecting with other members.

When you can really build something around community– Again, like we’ve talked about throughout this hour, they can then inform what you’re doing. You’re not shooting in the dark about what are they looking for. What would they want? You’re hearing directly from them and your business can evolve alongside them because it’s stemming from their wants and their needs. I would say, don’t sleep on the importance of community and really figure out how you can build community.