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How Hearst UK’s new product testing facility aims to enhance relationships with readers and partners

Hearst UK has unveiled The Hearst Institute, a state-of-the-art testing facility to enhance its product testing and accreditation capabilities across its brands.

The 8,000 square foot site in Feltham, South West London, will contain office workspaces, video production facilities, meeting rooms, a warehouse, and most importantly, category-specific testing areas. 

The Hearst Institute isn’t the publisher’s first foray into product testing. One of its leading titles, Good Housekeeping, has had a testing arm for almost a century, known as the Good Housekeeping Institute. The research unit tests items from makeup and headphones to washing machines and vacuum cleaners from its base in Soho, London.

Testing of white goods, appliances and technology will move to the new Hearst Institute facility, while the GHI beauty and food testing will remain in Soho. The Hearst Institute will also allow other Hearst brands to get accreditation, from Women’s Health and Runner’s World to Country Living, Cosmopolitan and ELLE.

The Hearst Institute in Feltham. Image courtesy of Hearst.

But this is more than just an add-on for the publisher’s brands. Hearst’s Chief Financial, Operations and Data Officer Claire Blunt spoke to WNIP about what accreditation adds to the e-commerce side of the business, how it enhances their relationship with commercial partners, and launching the project in a pandemic.

The importance of accreditation

With nearly a century of product testing experience, Hearst is well aware of the value of accreditation to its brands. “We know more than ever that what our readers are after is impartial, trusted information,” explained Blunt. “All our readers are smart, savvy shoppers, and they want to know how best to spend their money. So our testing functionality is also about providing them with impartial, trusted insight.”

Many publishers provide product recommendations, whether that be shopping listicles or in-depth reviews, but for Hearst’s brands, a seal of approval will help set them apart. Blunt notes that they recognise that they have a wide spectrum of consumers, from those that just want a quick recommendation to those that want to know the ins and outs of a product before buying, and hopes accreditation will help them all.

“There are people who want that level of rigour in so far as they want the end-to-end testing…what protocols we have followed and what depth of testing. But other readers just want to know what lipstick colour to choose,” she said. “I feel very confident that we can cover that bandwidth.”

“[Accreditation] will allow our readers to make educated choices, whether it’s a fanciful “I just really like that pink gin and not the green gin,” or whether actually they really need to understand the full detail of what product is in that lipstick because they’re a really strict vegan, and it’s important to them that the whole process has been end-to-end tested and validated.”

Strengthening commercial partnerships

Accreditation is also valuable to the publisher’s commercial partners. GHI has offered rigorous testing of products in order to award a GHI approved badge, and Hearst plans to take this same approach for the Hearst Institute Accreditation. Hearst Institute’s commercial offering includes product benchmarking for products in development, as well as quality assurance and peer-to-peer testing with its consumer panels.

“If a company is making a claim about its washing machine and what it can do, then the Institute is well positioned to be able to say categorically, yes that claim can be substantiated, or no that claim can’t,” Blunt said. “Partners want to have the leverage to tell their consumers that they can use this objective, independent, trusted testing functionality to give them confidence.”

Hearst Institute Feltham, July 2020

This does occasionally lead to difficult conversations if products don’t meet the standards required. But Blunt says that most commercial partners are actually taking the information back to their own development and research teams in order to improve the product and do further development. 

“You can’t put yourself out there as a trusted brand and then say, “It’s fine, we’ll say whatever the commercial people like if they pay us the money.” That’s not trust,” she emphasised. “Trust is objective, impartial advice, and it has to go both ways. So actually, we’ve had stronger commercial partners as a result of our independence, objectivity, and impartiality.” 

Launching in lockdown

Hearst has been one of the few publishers yet to make cuts due to coronavirus, which has been attributed to smart cash conservation and support from its parent company. While the crisis may have delayed the launch of the Hearst Institute, it’s something that the company sees as vital to continue working on.

“The opportunity that existed prior to COVID continues to exist,” said Blunt, outlining that the Hearst Institute has been in the works for a number of years. “We have the Good Housekeeping Institute that has been in operation for a number of years and has been one of our success stories, and it seemed eminently sensible to expand that to other brands.”

The lease was signed on the new building in December, with work expected to be completed in the spring. There were delays due to coronavirus, but with the appropriate procedures in place, the project was able to be completed ready for launch at the end of July.

“Whilst we were doing a number of [product] tests at home and being quite innovative in how we worked at home, testing washing machines at home is probably on the impossible list,” Blunt commented. The publisher is now looking at safe ways to allow their team of experts to come in and ramp up testing capabilities with social distancing measures in place.

“We felt there was no time like the present, because it’s been a number of years in the making,” she emphasised. “We wanted to get started, even if that wasn’t in the huge way that we may have done it had COVID not existed.”

A data-driven rollout

Hearst’s intention is that all of its brands will be able to benefit from the work at Hearst Institute. But when it comes to prioritising the initial rollout, Blunt anticipates taking a data-first approach.

“There are brands currently that are getting a lot of questions from their consumers about certain products, ones that feel much more contemporary in terms of things we need to look at,” she outlined. “We’re going to use data to decide where we put our efforts and energies.” 

“We won’t try and boil the ocean and do them all tomorrow, but you are going to see all our brands have some tested content that can really add value to their credibility.”

Blunt is also keen to involve partners in the rollout. “We don’t operate as an island, we operate as a multi-partnered way of doing things,” she commented, highlighting that their clients will be given virtual tours as part of the launch.

As eCommerce grows in importance as a revenue stream for publishers, product testing and accreditation will become a vital way of standing out, and building trust with both audiences and commercial partners. A huge physical testing facility in London may seem like an expensive way of gaining that trust, but Hearst’s experience with the Good Housekeeping Institute shows just how much that investment can pay off in the long term.

“We see that there are so many opportunities for this business for the future, and we’re going to invest wisely in the areas that will make a difference,” Blunt concluded.

To mark the launch, Hearst are live-streaming an event on July 30th which includes a virtual tour of the new premises as well as a Q&A between James Wildman, CEO and Laura Cohen, Head of Accreditation. See here for more details.