In 2006, Martha Stewart was at the lowest point of her personal and professional life. The queen of all things homemaking had built a multimedia kingdom out of a farmhouse restoration project, and in the span of 25 years, turned it into a billion dollar conglomerate.
But that all came crashing down. After taking an illegal stock tip and saving a relatively paltry $43,000 and change, a judge sentenced her to federal prison for insider trading. Some skeptics believed it would be the end of the domestic diva. But they didn’t count on her resilience, guts and intelligence — or her love of technology.
Stewart is a wealthy, middle-aged woman with a knack for decorating and cooking. But don’t mistake her with her on-air persona. She walked into prison a broken woman and walked out wearing a convict-crocheted poncho around her shoulders. Stewart, or “M. Diddy” as she was known in prison, made comeback plans behind bars, honing her steely resolve and gaining the respect of her fellow inmates.
This time around, it wouldn’t be with renovating and redecorating a drafty old farmhouse. In 2004, during her sentencing, Mark Zuckerberg was building Facebook. Not long after her release, another social media powerhouse, Twitter, was ramping up. Then, in 2010, Apple released the iPad — three powerful channels that prove timing is everything.
With Apple, Stewart published her magazines on the iPad, reaching a whole new audience. With Twitter, she gained an intimate connection with new customers and old. With Facebook, she shared news in a large venue with fans that gathered and spread her message.
Fast forward and the unthinkable has happened. As one critic said, Stewart didn’t just make lemonade out of lemons, she “made lemon souffle.” And it turns out, she doesn’t just love chopping and cooking and growing things in her garden — she really loves technology. Technology has helped her restore a career, reinvent herself and stay relevant, while taking her brand and successes to ever-increasing new heights.
An Early Adopter
Stewart doesn’t sit back and let technology come to her. When it comes to gadgets, she’s an unabashed early adopter who hops right on them. “I want to get them before anyone else has them,” she said. And Android vs. Apple? She loves them all. She recently bought a Samsung Galaxy.
“I just decided that my best use of this Android, to start out, is just movies,” she added. “I’m going to upload a whole bunch of movies to it because the resolution is excellent and it might be a little more comfortable to hold than the iPad. But, we have all of our magazine apps on the iPad and they’re great. Now we’re working on the Android versions.”
She was one of the first publishers to embrace technology for her magazine, keeping it afloat and profitable while rivals were declaring bankruptcy. Her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, was one of the first publishers to transition print magazines to the iPad, even before the tablet became such a prominent part of culture.
“We are trying to save you time and be innovative at the same time,” she said. “There are things you can do on digital that you can’t do on the printed page.”
In all, three of the Martha Stewart magazines are fully digitized, but that doesn’t mean it’s just PDFs of print pages. No, she made it a priority to use digital-specific content for iPad subscriptions, adding colorful photos, special fonts and music soundtracks for a beautiful engaging experience.
“All of our editors are really into it and making covers come alive,” she said.
It’s not just on the iPad, either. Stewart’s released an app, called “CraftStudio,” that lets you create scrapbooks without having to buy all those supplies. At $5 a pop, millions are downloaded. Want different patterns? That’s another $2 a pack. CraftStudio surged to the top of Apple’s lifestyle category — selected as an editor’s choice.
Yes, the app is pricey — but fans don’t mind paying because Stewart makes sure she offers something unique, a vital fact rivals have seemed to have forgotten. A lot of newspapers and magazines release iPad apps, but they’re often just tablet versions of print, which you can buy for a lot cheaper. Martha Stewart Living, Martha Stewart Weddings, Everyday Food and Whole Living are all still available in print, as well as digital and app formats; the company also offers special issues, books and utilities.
Her apps create an experience. Not only can you read a recipe anywhere and cook from it, her apps cook that recipe with you, making you part of the experience — you won’t get that from a magazine.
Embracing Social Media
But gadgets aside, Stewart loves social media, embracing it fully to get her message and brand out to the masses. She understands people won’t buy your product if they’ve never heard about it — and let’s face it, you can only get so many people through a television show. Since her primary audience is women, social media is tailor-made for her. Women dominate social media, particularly Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, and are very loyal to brands that serve their needs. But to really connect with the public, you have to go where they are — and that’s online. And of all the platforms out there, Stewart’s favorite tool is Twitter.
“I love Twitter,” she said at this year’s BlogHer conference. The annual event, which targets female bloggers and their use of social media, showcases the trend setters — and Stewart is certainly one of those.
“From the minute I heard about it, it made sense to me,” she said. She doesn’t just use it to share recipes, but also “for research, to do instant surveys, things I’m curious about what people know. I really love knowing what’s happening out there.”
And unlike many celebrities who hire “experts” to do their tweeting, Stewart’s tweets are her own. She says she only tweets a few minutes a day, but she gets thousands in return.
“It’s not fabulous,” she said, “But the instant feedback is. We get lots of great answers.”
She’s also learned that to connect with people, you have to fully connect with them, and let your personality shine. But people who share themselves also need to know where to draw the line. “If you make a political comment, you can lose half your audience,” she said, for example. “So you can’t be political, but you can be personal.”
BlogHer co-founder and COO Elisa Camahort Page said Stewart has created “a brand that is all about quality and perfection, and what you are able to show through social media and your show are the foibles that happen.” Page noted one famous example — a hospital trip that included stitches to Stewart’s lip. The incident ended up on Twitter and gathered thousands of comments.
“The most page views I’ve gotten are the personal ones,” Stewart said. “It’s nice to see people care and they respond.”
It’s All About the Customers
Stewart established her company back in 1997 — well before the Internet connected the masses, and before anyone even dreamed they’d have a handheld tablet to read their magazines on. But Omnimedia was not just a simple term — and where Stewart’s dreams only took her to print, television and radio back in those days, she’s embraced technology not just a hip tool, but as a channel to spread her message and brand to the people themselves.
“You have to be where the customer is,” she said. “That’s been another very important part of our business — try to be where the customer needs you and wants you. Always try to satisfy the customer.”
Stewart added it’s important to use the skills and interest of your fan base — and technology makes that easier to do. For example, she shares the crafts from Etsy.com marketers on her television show, noting the importance of finding talented contributors and showcasing their work. She also uses technology to build her brand in creative ways.
“We have the magazine — we show how to make the perfect omelet in the magazine,” she said. “Then on TV, I can also show how to make the perfect omelet. Then we have the video. Then people trust us because our recipes work so well, they also want to have the omelet pan I was using. So why not make the omelet pan? So we design the omelet pan and find the retailer that wants to sell our product.”
Embrace the Future
Most of all, Stewart encourages people to invest in the future, and don’t dwell in the past. She could have easily remained in the past, sinking into a bitterness during that little side trip to prison — but where’s the money in that?
Not only is there a lot of great tech gadgets out here, but Stewart knows firsthand that staying relevant for decades means changing, adapting and growing, no matter what the technology or tools at hand.
“You must invest in the future if you are going to be in the future,” Stewart said. “That’s very important for all companies to pay attention to. You’re not going to retain your employees if you’re not investing in the future.”
No doubt, as technology continues to evolve, so will Martha Stewart — and you can expect she’ll stay at the edge of the next exciting thing to come out of Silicon Valley. After all, she’s an unabashed early adopter, and one tough, M. Diddy-style businesswoman. ♦