With stints at Domino, House & Garden, Martha Stewart Living and Condé Nast Traveler, Stephen Orr was every bit the high-end media industry insider—making his 2015 move to Better Homes & Gardens something of a departure. The magazine, started in 1922 by Meredith Corporation founder E.T. Meredith, is a few notches down the luxury chain from the glossy shelter books put out by Hearst and Condé Nast. But with a circulation of 4 million, its reach is also much bigger.
Speaking to a larger, more varied audience—not just the coastal, affluent and design-obsessed—is part of what appealed to Orr about the chance to helm the 100-year-old magazine. “What I immediately identified was that it was a great opportunity to talk to all of America on a grand scale,” he tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “It’s very exciting, very challenging and very satisfying to help all of America be happy at home. That’s really what we try to do.”
Exciting? Yes. Easy, not so much. As Orr points out, it’s difficult to give gardening tips that work as well in New Mexico as they do in Manhattan. It’s also tough to cater to a broad demographic that wants very different things from BHG, ranging from practical how-tos to dessert recipes to pictures of pretty homes that inspire and delight.
Take BHG’s June issue, which featured British pop star Harry Styles on the cover. The image was a huge hit that, according to Dotdash Meredith, generated billions of media impressions (it was hard to miss on Instagram) for the publication. But while a buzzy cover with a likable celebrity seems like an indisputable success, Orr says BHG has plenty of readers who were put off by a tattooed musician as the face of a magazine they normally turn to for the comfort of familiarity.
“The readers who get it, love it. And the readers who are worried express their worry,” says Orr. “And that’s where it’s my job as the orchestra conductor to listen to all those voices, and that’s why the next month they got beautiful ice cream pops on the cover. That’s where the push and the pull was. We pulled forward with Harry, and then we gave them something the next month that wasn’t Beyoncé on the cover.”
Elsewhere in the episode, Orr discusses Meredith’s recent acquisition by digital media behemoth Dotdash and what it means for the future of print, BHG’s diversified monetization strategy and interesting revelations from a trip through the magazine’s archive.
Homepage image: Stephen Orr | Courtesy of Carson Downing