It’s a tough environment for design media publications, and that was true even before the global pandemic. Now, editors and publishers face a strange set of circumstances: As much of the nation shelters in place, readers are flocking to sites and sources that cover the home—meaning web traffic is through the roof. On the other side of the coin, advertising has dried up, lucrative events are all canceled, and it’s difficult to pull together photo shoots over Zoom. It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times.
On the latest episode of the Business of Home podcast, host Dennis Scully speaks to three leaders in design media—Apartment Therapy founder and CEO Maxwell Ryan, Domino general manager Tracy Cho, and Luxe Interiors + Design editor in chief Pamela Jaccarino—to get a sense of how the industry is reacting to COVID-19.
For Ryan, the pandemic comes on the heels of a challenging period for Apartment Therapy, following a year in which the company was facing financial peril. Oddly, that difficulty was a bit of a blessing, as he and his team were already thinking lean. “[Headed into 2020, we were saying]: ‘We’re going to hope for the best but expect the very worst.’ This year, we will take no risks and be super safe and always expect that the sky could fall,” says Ryan.
Even with a drop-off of direct ad sales, Ryan says Apartment Therapy has stress-tested its operation to weather the storm, and on the bright side, he’s seeing an increase in programmatic advertising (traffic-driven banner ads you see at the top of most websites) and revenue from affiliate links. His team also pivoted its Small/Cool contest, an annual celebration of small spaces originally slated to take place last month in Brooklyn’s Industry City, to become a virtual experience (voting is still open).
In terms of content trends, Ryan has noticed that Apartment Therapy’s readers have been moving through phases of coping. First they were clicking on stories focused on hand-washing and safety. Now it’s cleaning, organizing, baking bread and houseplants. “It’s not style stuff,” he says. “I don’t get the sense right now that people are buying new pillows (‘I’m tired of the yellow pillows, let’s have orange ones’). It’s more about: ‘I want to build that bookshelf in the living room,’ or, ‘I really want to have more plants in my house.’ It’s hard-core home right now.”
Meanwhile, over at Domino, readers are into renovation coverage and DIY ideas. Looking forward, Cho predicts a surge of small dinner parties for trusted friends and family: “After social distancing is loosened and when it becomes appropriate, [we’ll see an interest in] this idea of bringing people into your homes,” she says. “Maybe it’s smaller groups, maybe it’s intimacy. Maybe it’s these celebrations that you do, but making each one feel momentous and special. … This generation will embrace and bring back the tradition of family gatherings and dinners.”
Still, she’s not planning on shifting Domino to be a renovation blog or cooking site: “Stylish homes … that’s never content that’s not going to work.”
Both Cho and Ryan spend a lot of time in the digital realm. Jaccarino is tasked with putting together 75 print magazines a year, spread out over the 14 regional editions of Luxe Interiors + Design. That’s in addition to DesignTV, the digital channel recently launched by the magazine’s parent company, Sandow. Jaccarino has been busy.
Given the timeline of magazine publishing (most print editions are prepared months ahead), Jaccarino’s team was relatively well-prepared for their summer issues. Fall will prove a little trickier, as homeowners are only starting to feel comfortable enough to let photographers in to shoot their interiors. However, Jaccarino says her team is finding ways to make it work, including a recent session where she and her art director got together, masks and gloves on, 6 feet apart, to approve some recent covers.
Another challenge is more subtle: striking the right tone. High-end interiors and global health crises don’t naturally go together. But there’s definitely room, says Jaccarino, for the sweet escape of a perfect interior. “There’s a lot of heartbreak happening in the world,” she says. “There’s also a lot of humanity. And there are people who want to be inspired and look at something beautiful. I’m someone who, at my core, truly believes that beauty matters and is not a frivolous pursuit—it does help your soul.”
This episode was sponsored by DEDON and High Point Market. Below, listen to the episode. If you like what you heard, subscribe to the podcast (free of charge!) to get a new episode every week.