It is exactly 10 years since Harvard University students Stephanie Lewis, Windsor Western and Annie Wang hatched the idea of an online magazine targeting college women like themselves. They had been working together on the college fashion magazine and decided to change it into a digital service with fresh weekly and daily content, primarily for women. It was an instant hit at Harvard and also attracted readers from other US campuses. Lewis says: “We realized there wasn’t really an online media outlet that was targeting the college market with relevant content. And who better to provide that content than us, the students who related to it most?”
They decided to go it alone and (even before graduating) created their own online service to give US college women practical advice and inspiration on style, health, love, college living, and careers. It also contained micro-sites for localised content provided by students. That was the start of ‘Her Campus’ in September 2009. Lewis, Western and Wang won a startup competition in Boston which gave them $50k and a free office for a year. That – and $500 borrowed from a founder’s father (and repaid two weeks later) – was the only funding, and they’ve been profitable ever since. By the time they graduated in May 2010, Her Campus was pumping content to and from 30 colleges round the US.
The site grew organically through word of mouth and social media, with nothing spent on promotion. It helped that the co-founders were featured in media lists of cool entrepreneurs published by magazines like Forbes and Inc.
Their objective was to create a place for college women interested in journalism, marketing and media, giving them what has been described as “a taste for working in media at a fun, Cosmo-esque publication”. As CEO Lewis says, Her Campus lets young women get published on a reputable site, helping them to get other journalistic opportunities: “When employers see Her Campus on a girl’s resume, they know that she’s a quality candidate with experience.”
It’s obviously working because the site’s churning team of college journalists have variously been offered jobs with Glamour, Vogue, BuzzFeed, Vanity Fair, Seventeen, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, People, Huffington Post, Teen Vogue, InStyle, Esquire, MTV, Washington Post, WPP and many more.
Her Campus is the infectious online destination for college women interested in: “LGBTQ+ playlist you need for next weekend”, “7 reasons kissing is good for your health.”, “4 texts to send when you want to break it off with someone you just started seeing”, “Should you make a room-mate contract?”, as well as guides to writing CVs, preparing for interviews, and getting jobs for the summer. And there’s piles of merchandise to buy, wear and use.
Its annual “Her Conference”, launched in 2012 in New York, gives students and recent graduates careers advice. Its College Fashion Week provides a unique nationwide tour of fashion.
Her Campus now has chapters at 380 colleges in the US and in 11 countries across the world including the UK, Japan, Australia, India and South Africa. Each college’s correspondent has editorial and publicity templates to publish their content directly to the Her Campus site which has an estimated 9,000 contributors and some 4m monthly users.
Students at colleges without a Her Campus chapter can apply to become (unpaid) correspondents. By providing localized content, the aspiring journalists are reaching a sought-after demographic for advertisers who have traditionally found it difficult to reach students.
The Boston-based business, which now has some 35 employees, has expanded through roadshows, sampling events, content marketing and advertising for companies including Merck, TRESemmé, L’Oreal, Deutsche Bank, the New York Times, Microsoft, Victoria’s Secret, Intel, and Ikea. They recognise Her Campus as a lifestyle brand and digital media company which reaches a large slice of America’s 11m female students – and their estimated $400bn purchasing power.
The success of the still privately-owned company, Her Campus Media LLC, is reflected in soaring revenues, believed now to be some $15-20m. With such a large volunteer workforce, you have to believe that the profit margins are good too.
The growth shows no signs of slowing, with the appointment now of ambassadors in US high schools to help girls prepare for college. This month, Her Campus acquired the smaller, five-year-old site The Lala which will be rebranded as Her20s, “for women navigating their post-grad lives”. So, they’re expanding at both ends of the college woman’s life, and we should also expect an increasing global push into “new” and existing countries. Inevitably, the world’s universities will become a land-grab race which might, ultimately, persuade the Her Campus founders to seek the outside investment they have eschewed so far. And, years ago, the company registered the domain ‘His Campus’, so who knows what’s next?
Her Campus is a brilliant web site and a brilliant business. Significantly, few of the reader-users we spoke to even thought it was a business: it’s the ultimate sense of community. The “by college women for college women” service is just the latest reminder of the power of the virtuous circle that can enrich special interest media everywhere. In some ways, Her Campus is like YouTube in the way that the mutual sharing of content “incidentally” helps people to make careers and start businesses.
That’s what makes you think it could be the inspiration for similar media channels among, for example, professionals in different industries. They could share their experience in focused sectors, exchange intelligence and ideas, and pitch for jobs, and assignments or funding for startups. It could be more targeted (and generation-focused) than LinkedIn, and more dynamic than a B2B magazine or professional association. Just think.
Meanwhile, Her Campus is set to become a truly global business, helping graduate women into that first job, then guiding their lives and careers. Perhaps, along the way, it will become a primary recruiting ground for the media and creative industries, and even a political voice for those who may care most about the future of the planet.
You can’t help feeling that the once-formidable Cosmopolitan magazine, whose brand won the hearts of millions of college women in the decades before Her Campus, could have morphed into this. Perhaps it can yet be inspired by the women from Harvard.