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Hornet App: Creating A Global Newsroom To Bring More Editorially-Driven Content To The LGBT Community & Prove The Gay Social App Can Be Much More Than A Dating Connection – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Sean Howell, President & Co-Founder, Hornet Networks

February 6, 2017

“I love beautiful magazines. One of my best friends is the editor of a super-small magazine, and I have another friend, Peter Cummings, who founded a magazine that closed and just came back to life, called XY. So, I love print magazines. And much like the print magazine is a beautiful thing that you keep and cherish, we want to keep making both our apps and the ad units better than current industry standards, and that’s why we’re moving away from those annoying 320×50 ads and trying to create something that’s better. It’s possible that we would have a print magazine, but not anytime soon.” Sean Howell

horent-logo-1Hornet is an app for gay men that promotes connection, longevity in relationships, whether by simply keeping in touch or forming long-lasting communications, and more recently more editorially-driven content for the LGBT community it serves.

Sean Howell is president and co-founder of the globally-known social app, and is determined to bring more journalistic type content to a niche area in the mobile world that has long had the narrative of being strictly a dating-type service. Howell is in the process of creating a global newsroom staffed with some of the best known LGBT journalists who lost their jobs due to the demise of the publications they worked for. His aim is to create a newsroom that not only relates to its audience, but also delivers topnotch journalistic content. Making LGBT journalism great again seems to be his goal.

I spoke with Sean recently and we talked about the changes he had already implemented in the app; the hiring of more journalists with a background in good content; the ads that are more than the typical banner ads; the profile section users can use that is more personalized with face photos and interests, and we talked about the millions of gay male users that utilize the app and the issues that are important to them. It was an interesting conversation about a niche in the mobile world that is growing rapidly.

So, I hope that you enjoy this Mr. Magazine™ interview with Sean Howell and the global network that he is trying to create to serve the LGBT community by the offering the best of what true journalism can offer.

But first the sound-bites:

headshot-sean-howellOn why he thinks more LGBT social apps, including Hornet, are moving toward content rather than just being social dating components: A lot has changed in media in the last 16 years. With the first Internet boom and maybe a second or third one now; the total number of readers that are on some digital tool like their phones has really grown, and that’s where they are today, just in terms of the number of eyeballs that are there. And whether it’s a publisher or an advertiser or a social app like us, there are just too many readers out there all day to not be giving them content that they can enjoy. So, really it’s about where the readers are.

On how to remove the dating stereotype that many LGBT apps have and make them more editorially-driven with content: Giving our readers great content is important. What that content means for them is custom-made content that’s just for this audience, where if their interests are stamp-collecting in India, having the right kind of content that is really engaging to that reader is important. We have 15 million readers online and having perfect content for them takes a big team. And that’s what we’re assembling so that we can make the content as powerful and relevant as possible.

On the challenges he faces in breaking the stereotype: For one, we didn’t make this stereotype. The stereotype can exist, but I would say gay men easily understand this idea that they might go online and hook up with someone and that person becomes their best friend, and they can chat with that person online; sometimes you chat with people for years before you ever meet them. And that’s just a very common, gay, coming-of-age type experience. Really, the stereotype that I’d like to change is what people can expect from an online experience. I think media today and print journalism have to adapt to new ways of doing business and someday there will be a new way for us. We’re not tearing down, we’re continually trying to make our product better and give people more and more resources as we grow as a company.

On his business model for Hornet: It’s all about premium advertising. You know, mobile is still new. Getting a CMO from Coca-Cola to change their advertising budget to mobile has been something the entire industry has been working on for a long time. There are a lot of powerful things that advertisers can do with their mobile ads.

On whether we’ll ever see a Hornet magazine on newsstands: I love beautiful magazines. One of my best friends is the editor of a super-small magazine, and I have another friend, Peter Cummings, who founded a magazine that closed and just came back to life, called XY. So, I love print magazines. For us, we support other magazines. With XY, we’ve been advertising in them so that they can exist; it’s important that our community has these resources. But I think we’re really going to be sticking to our strong suit, which is a digital format. It’s possible that someday we would have some kind of “look book,” but I think the distribution model that we are focused on is something that is so used and so liked, and we’re focused on something much larger.

On whether he’s seen a shift in the delivery of content with magazines such as Jarry, FourTwoNine and XY: Jarry is a great, cool niche magazine that’s a beautiful art book, essentially. And I think it’s beautiful, but I think there’s a difference. I think there’s a way for us as a large platform to support them. I’m not going to speculate as to what Jarry’s circulation is, but it’s a very niche publication. And we could slice and dice our user base in a way where we could help identify gay chefs, for example, which is the focus of Jarry, the urban, gourmet life. I think these are all great publications, driven by smart people. I don’t know that they indicate a shift; they’re a bit of a sign of the times; how quickly a magazine can adapt and grow.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly at his home one evening: Definitely a glass of wine or an Armagnac. We just opened an office in France, so I’ve graduated from cognac to Armagnac; it’s my new thing. Now we have so many great stories that we produce. We just did this really interesting one with 100 LGBT people emerging from around the world; it’s so global. We had contributors helping to create that content from Taiwan, Japan, and Brazil; just all over the world. No one has this super-international newsroom. So, I like to read and I’m a real media junkie. You’ll find me with some Armagnac and reading a lot on my phone in the evenings.

On anything else he’d like to add: I’m so excited to be talking about media and the fact that we get a chance to produce it. I think that the rapid growth that we’ve had often even surprises me. And the fact that we get to bring on these journalists at a really critical time; such as Stephan Horbelt from Frontiers, a magazine that shut down, but many of these journalists who worked at magazines that folded still have a home with us. LGBT reporting by LGBT people is just absolutely critical.

On what keeps him up at night: Right now it’s really the fate of the world on several topics. One, I’m really concerned about the fact that the U.S. has been the champion of LGBT rights for the last four of Obama’s eight years, with Randy Berry as the special envoy for the LGBT community. I think we were making strides. We had eight openly gay ambassadors, and now I just worry that we won’t get to continue that. And if not, we’re really looking at international issues, something that could help prop up that movement. And in countries where it’s already difficult; they don’t feel the green light, it could make it even worse.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Sean Howell, president & co-founder, Hornet Networks.

Samir Husni: With all the LGBT media consolidations, and with some magazines folding, and some new magazines being created into new print products; as president of Hornet you said that you feel the social apps need to be beefed up with more content, rather than just being dating mechanisms. In Hornet’s case, you are starting to offer editorials and other content and other apps are offering fashion and many other topics of interest. Why do you think this is happening with the LGBT social apps?

horent-logo-1Sean Howell: First, I’m so happy to talk to another magazine nut. I love magazines and I have a lot of friends in the business. Second, a lot has changed in media in the last 16 years. With the first Internet boom and maybe a second or third one now; the total number of readers that are on some digital tool like their phones has really grown, and that’s where they are today, just in terms of the number of eyeballs that are there. And whether it’s a publisher or an advertiser or a social app like us, there are just too many readers out there all day to not be giving them content that they can enjoy. So, really it’s about where the readers are.

And then in terms of what we’re trying to do, the editors are super-important. We need to have journalism today and if that means we need to change the format of the material and make it more digital and more mobile-based, then that’s what we’re going to do. There are so many important news stories, that having not just good journalists, but having even mixed journalists is also important. For instance, the new appointee for the Secretary of Education doesn’t have a good policy on teen bullying, not every reporter might be able to catch that, and so having reporters that specialize in LGBT brings something to the table. So, we can’t just have these journalists to go away and have media not reflect that. We have to find new homes and new ways of formatting content.

Samir Husni: As you’re discovering these new ways of formatting content and the necessity of journalism, when someone goes to your app, how do you change the stereotype that the only reason the app exists is for the social connectivity, the dating factor; the hooking up, if you will. How do you make it more journalistic and editorially-driven with content?

Sean Howell: Great question. Partly, good content is by far the best thing that you can offer an audience. And so, if you look at the caliber of the journalists that we’ve brought on; the founding editor of Tetu, which is probably the most beautiful gay magazine ever made, and it was the longest running French, gay magazine, and even Frontiers, which was Southern California’s oldest and largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) magazine, and was the more serious of the regional gay magazines. We’re offering that kind of content to our users and we have a top journalist from Turkey who joined and is reporting on Middle Eastern issues and we have a really big newsroom and great contributors from all over the world.

So, giving our readers great content is important. What that content means for them is custom-made content that’s just for this audience, where if their interests are stamp-collecting in India, having the right kind of content that is really engaging to that reader is important. We have 15 million readers online and having perfect content for them takes a big team. And that’s what we’re assembling so that we can make the content as powerful and relevant as possible.

And to the question about dating and “hooking up;” I think that general media always looks at dating apps from a “dating” perspective, because it kind of leans toward what the narratives have been for a long time. And what we (LGBT community) do online is different from what happens with straight people. We might go to a city, meet some friends, go on dates; hook up, and then leave the city and come back a year later. And what Hornet allows people to do is keep in touch. So, when you come back to the city, we’ve organized your address book by proximity, and you can keep in touch with those people. And your ability to describe yourself in a profile is a big part of what we’re doing.

So, allowing people to share ideas like content is part of any community. Unlike the straight world, you don’t need an app to find your community, but if you live in Iowa or Turkey, your online community is a really big part of who you are. There is this idea about physical places building communities, called the Third Place, and I’d argue that for gay people online forums and apps are a Third Place, so it’s definitely something more than “hooking up,” even if people do that on an app.

Samir Husni: So, how are you going to change that stereotype? What are some of the tools that you’re going to use? You’ve hired great journalists, such as the former editor of Tattoo; you’ve brought people from Brazil and Turkey. What do you think will be some of the challenges you’ll face in breaking that stereotype and showing people that if they use Hornet it’s a community; it’s much more than just two people hooking up?

Sean Howell: For one, we didn’t make this stereotype. The stereotype can exist, but I would say gay men easily understand this idea that they might go online and hook up with someone and that person becomes their best friend, and they can chat with that person online; sometimes you chat with people for years before you ever meet them. And that’s just a very common, gay, coming-of-age type experience.

Really, the stereotype that I’d like to change is what people can expect from an online experience. I think media today and print journalism have to adapt to new ways of doing business and someday there will be a new way for us. We’re not tearing down, we’re continually trying to make our product better and give people more and more resources as we grow as a company.

But there are a lot of things that already exist in Hornet that I think are quite different from other apps that are more about sex than we are. You know, 95 percent of our profiles have face pictures, and that’s not common on an app or a print list, where people are just meeting and anonymously for sex. They post a picture and we call them headless torsos. And we allow people to have an Instagram-like profile with multiple pictures and to paint different aspects of who they are, and tag the profiles with different interests such as who their favorite author is. And then that’s in their profile and you can click the author’s name and see who else might be interested in him or her.

I think we have a great trajectory ahead of us and this idea of community already exists inside of our app and we’re just continually expanding it.

Samir Husni: Recently, I read a study that showed the online advertising growth in the United States during the first half of 2016 was dominated by Facebook, with it growing 68 percent; Google by 23 percent, and everyone else was minus two percent. What is your business model? How are you going to make money from Hornet in order to survive?

Sean Howell: It’s all about premium advertising. You know, mobile is still new. Getting a CMO from Coca-Cola to change their advertising budget to mobile has been something the entire industry has been working on for a long time. There are a lot of powerful things that advertisers can do with their mobile ads.

But the first generations of mobile ads were very small banners; we just called them mobile banners, but their technical dimensions were 320×50, which is just a measurement of size. And really what we’ve built into our app is a native ad format that takes the imagery from the advertisers and puts it into the app in a natural way. And it has a beautiful effect and is something that an advertiser wants to buy or needs to buy.

In terms of our growth, we’ve seen the same thing. We’ve had probably 200 or more percent of growth in advertising revenue year over year, and we’re focusing on these native ads, which are more beautiful and more powerful for an advertiser.

Samir Husni: Do you think one day we’ll see a Hornet magazine on the newsstand, gathering all that great content and telling people that you want to create something permanent and not just online?

Sean Howell: I love beautiful magazines. One of my best friends is the editor of a super-small magazine, and I have another friend, Peter Cummings, who founded a magazine that closed and just came back to life, called XY. So, I love print magazines.

For us, we support other magazines. With XY, we’ve been advertising in them so that they can exist; it’s important that our community has these resources. But I think we’re really going to be sticking to our strong suit, which is a digital format. It’s possible that someday we would have some kind of “look book,” but I think the distribution model that we are focused on is something that is so used and so liked, and we’re focused on something much larger.

And much like the print magazine is a beautiful thing that you keep and cherish, we want to keep making both our apps and the ad units better than current industry standards, and that’s why we’re moving away from those annoying 320×50 ads and trying to create something that’s better. It’s possible that we would have a print magazine, but not anytime soon.

Samir Husni: From a reader’s point of view, a consumer of gay publications; why do you think some of the mainstream magazines that have been with us for years and years are folding, yet we have a new slew of magazines coming to the market, such as Jarry, the magazine for men+food+men. Or FourTwoNine that Maer Roshan just started editing, and XY, Peter’s magazine. As a reader, are you seeing a shift in the content delivery of those publications?

Sean Howell: Jarry is a great, cool niche magazine that’s a beautiful art book, essentially. And I think it’s beautiful, but I think there’s a difference. I think there’s a way for us as a large platform to support them. I’m not going to speculate as to what Jarry’s circulation is, but it’s a very niche publication.

And we could slice and dice our user base in a way where we could help identify gay chefs, for example, which is the focus of Jarry, the urban, gourmet life. I think these are all great publications, driven by smart people. I don’t know that they indicate a shift; they’re a bit of a sign of the times; how quickly a magazine can adapt and grow.

As far as readership, I think that digital is often really important to print publications and sometimes they’re really ignored. A publication like Jarry is probably best-served in print form. I don’t know that the reason those magazines exist is anything other than they’re quality products. If you make a quality product, people are going to want it.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening, what would I find you doing; reading a magazine; reading your iPad; having a glass of wine; watching television; or something else?

Sean Howell: Definitely a glass of wine or an Armagnac. We just opened an office in France, so I’ve graduated from cognac to Armagnac; it’s my new thing. Now we have so many great stories that we produce. We just did this really interesting one with 100 LGBT people emerging from around the world; it’s so global. We had contributors helping to create that content from Taiwan, Japan, and Brazil; just all over the world. No one has this super-international newsroom. The whole idea is, to some previous large magazine like Out or something, they don’t have the means to do that, or even have rejection. If they don’t have readers in Brazil, why create content in Portuguese? We’re creating content in several languages now: French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. There is just so much interesting stuff.

I do get magazines and they do often change my opinions on things. I get Reason magazine and I get The Humanist and I like to read them side-by-side. But right now I’m having trouble. A lot of the people that we hired as journalists are people that I really enjoy, but they’re somewhere in Scotland and I really wish that I could give this guy a full-time job; he’s totally not being utilized as well as he could be.

So, I like to read and I’m a real media junkie. You’ll find me with some Armagnac and reading a lot on my phone in the evenings.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Sean Howell: I’m so excited to be talking about media and the fact that we get a chance to produce it. I think that the rapid growth that we’ve had often even surprises me. And the fact that we get to bring on these journalists at a really critical time; such as Stephan Horbelt from Frontiers, a magazine that shut down, but many of these journalists who worked at magazines that folded still have a home with us. LGBT reporting by LGBT people is just absolutely critical. And having a newsroom that isn’t one designated token LGBT newsroom, but a whole group of people that are international and multiethnic changed the conversation within that newsroom; I believe that is something that we’ve just peeled the first layers from. It’s going to be a deeper and richer experience with great content.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Sean Howell: Right now it’s really the fate of the world on several topics. One, I’m really concerned about the fact that the U.S. has been the champion of LGBT rights for the last four of Obama’s eight years, with Randy Berry as the special envoy for the LGBT community. I think we were making strides. We had eight openly gay ambassadors, and now I just worry that we won’t get to continue that. And if not, we’re really looking at international issues, something that could help prop up that movement. And in countries where it’s already difficult; they don’t feel the green light, it could make it even worse.

There are 72 countries in the world where being gay is a crime and I thought sometimes that we were making progress, but we have a long ways to go. And HIV, that’s really an important issue and one we take super-seriously and we have a full-time person who is our health innovation strategist who works on that. And while a lot of HIV statistics look good around the world, with incident rates dropping, unfortunately, if you really look at the number around key populations, there are inglorious lists of drug issues and incarcerated people. The rates in many countries have increased dramatically and the CDC plays a huge role in the global response; the president’s fund for HIV plays a huge role; the global fund plays a huge role. I’m worried that HIV won’t get priority funding and that could be a huge problem where there isn’t access to treatment.

We really need to pay attention to global policy on each of these issues this year. Our 18 million users are 100 percent gay men and their access to treatment and especially prevention should be a human right and not denied to us. We need to be increasing awareness and not decreasing.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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2 comments

  1. Reblogged this on hornetapp.


    • Thank you… all the best, Samir



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