Bio: Carolyn Kylstra was appointed Editor-in-Chief of SELF in December 2016. Prior to that she was Executive Digital Director for the brand. During her tenure, Carolyn launched SELF as the first health and wellness brand on the Snapchat Discover platform. Under her leadership, the site underwent a redesign, monthly visitors to SELF increased +145%,and total global video views increased +470%. Previously, Carolyn launched the Health vertical at BuzzFeed, spent two years as the site director of Women’s Health, and spent time as an editor at Cosmopolitan and Men’s Health.
How did you get into the wellness industry?
I come from a family of doctors, and I’m enormously fortunate to have had such direct access to medicine my whole life. One of the many benefits is I know how to communicate with doctors—not always the easiest thing! Those communication skills have been invaluable in my work in health journalism, where I’m trying to make complicated topics easier to understand and more helpful for people without a medical background.
When I was in high school I thought I might go to medical school and be a doctor (because of course), but in college I was far more interested in history and writing and journalism than in chemistry—I wanted to tell stories. I had a number of magazine internships during college, and then my first job out of college was an internship with Men’s Health at Rodale, in their Pennsylvania office. From there I’ve never really left the health and wellness media sphere. I’ve worked at Men’s Health, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, launched BuzzFeed Health, and now I’ve been at SELF for the past year and a half.
It wasn’t my plan to go into the wellness media industry, but it’s been a great fit and I feel lucky to do what I do. The wellness industry is a really exciting and fulfilling space to work—there’s so much potential to genuinely help people and make a real difference in their lives.
Any emerging wellness industry trends?
A few “trends” I spend a huge amount of time thinking about:
TREND 1: Emerging (and already existing!) threats to public and global health:
To name just a few off the top of my head…
• Climate change, and how it’s going to impact global and public health. I’m pregnant with my first child right now, and this one gives me legit existential dread, thinking about the world she’s going to inherit if we don’t get our act together.
• Lack of access to affordable healthcare. Obamacare was a step in the right direction, but tens of millions of people still don’t have health insurance—our system needs fixing. Unfortunately, the proposals and bills we’ve seen from Congress so far have been terrifying and inhumane and won’t actually improve access or affordability—and in fact could result in that number getting even worse than before the ACA was enacted in the first place.
• Political threats to reproductive healthcare access, both at home and abroad. Reproductive rights are human rights—and reproductive healthcare access is an economic issue as well as a social one.
• Deteriorating infrastructure combined with neglect, incompetence, selfishness, and heartlessness leading to genuine public health crises around very basic needs and RIGHTS, like access to clean water. Flint, Michigan, still doesn’t have clean water! It’s staggering and shameful.
• The very urgent need for criminal justice reform.
• The threat of antibiotic resistant superbugs, thanks in large part to the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, particularly in the food industry.
You know… all that fun stuff that keeps me up at night. It feels weird to call these things part of a “trend” but they’re all coming or are already here in some form or another and we are going to spend more and more time talking and thinking about them in the coming years. As we should. I try to stay focused on our mission of empowering people to make healthier choices for themselves, their communities, and the world, and remember that even small acts can add up to help affect positive change. SELF speaks to millions of people. There’s power there. The key is to figure out how to harness it for good.
TREND 2: Patients taking control of and being vocal about their own health narratives and medical care:
SELF published a story about this back in September—about the rise of women using social media as a way to share their experiences living with certain health conditions. It’s a new form of activism, in a way, that helps to shed the stigma around disease, vulnerability, disability, or so-called imperfection. It helps people feel so much less alone in their experiences, and a little less scared or embarrassed.
Social media and the internet in general have helped people have greater access to information about their own health than ever before, and while the combination of Dr. WebMD and community message boards can be a dangerous and neuroses-exacerbating rabbit hole, access to information and support communities at this scale is a huge net positive. Getting proper health care can be really hard and complicated to begin with, and that’s even before we get into the real and awful history of the medical establishment mistreating, ignoring, disbelieving, abusing, and manipulating women, trans people, people of color, and other marginalized groups. With these online communities and digital resources, there’s a never-before-seen strength in numbers, in knowing that your symptoms aren’t just in your head (in the very least!); and there’s strength in coming prepared to a doctor’s appointment with a baseline understanding of what’s going on with your body. It’s fantastic.
TREND 3: The growing fear and rejection of traditional medicine and science:
This one feels a bit like the flipside to the previous trend—as people seek answers to their health concerns in communities, and as they begin to trust their friends and members of their communities more than the medical establishment and genuine credentialed experts, many of those answers aren’t going to be based in science—and may in fact do more harm than good. I’m talking about the growing anti-vaccine movement; blanket fear of chemicals, toxins, GMOs; belief in non-medically recognized diseases like adrenal fatigue, or in so-called “cures,” like detoxing and cleanses; of the rise of expensive products for consumption that are meant to help you feel better but aren’t backed up by research, like activated charcoal drinks, hydrogen water, fancy supplement lines. To name just a few! I keep a close eye on this trend and it’s something we talk about a lot on the team—how to address it responsibly and without condescension.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
People are more interested in self-care and tending to their own well-being than ever before. Wellness is a huge buzzword right now, and that is an incredibly positive thing. The key is to harness that energy and help people understand what’s genuinely going to help them, and to help them differentiate the helpful from the noise and nonsense.
Two big ones!
First, women’s lifestyle magazines have some real (and well deserved) baggage. We all have to contend with a history of perpetuating and making money off of harmful stereotypes about bodies, about relationships, and about what a person needs to do in order to live well. We need to earn back peoples’ respect and trust, to a degree, whereas new media digital-only brands generally don’t have the same baggage. This is a good challenge to have, because it means we need to be kind and thoughtful in our approach, in how we talk about bodies, in the types of bodies that we choose to highlight or show, in how we address certain audiences compared to others. Being conscientious: not a bad thing.
Second, the way we talk about “wellness” right now in our culture is really focused on exclusive and commoditized wellness for the wealthy, and often in a way that is blatantly anti-science—I’m talking about expensive (and often unnecessary) products and experiences to spend money on that may not even help you feel better in the first place, and in some cases may even hurt you. The truth is that you don’t actually need to spend money on boutique fitness classes and fancy juices to be healthy, and you really shouldn’t spend money on some of the more anti-science trend stuff that can have negative consequences, like taking certain supplements for non-medically recognized diseases, or detoxing with expensive wellness waters, or what have you. So the challenge here is kind of two-fold: How can we talk about wellness in a way that’s genuinely helpful to more people, and not just the wealthy? And, simultaneously, how can we address this anti-science/pro-commoditization-of-wellness trend responsibly and in a way that still resonates with a lot of people? How can we compete with the brands peddling pseudoscientific nonsense?
At SELF, our goal is to empower women to make healthier choices for themselves, their communities, and the world. To be effective in accomplishing that goal and overcoming both of these challenges, we need to connect with our audience and give information that is a. genuinely helpful; b. based in science; c. accessible (meaning, not just for wealthy people); d. positive and inspirational, and, more than anything, e. that they trust and believe in.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
SELF launched in 1979 as a women’s wellness brand, with the goal of helping women take better care of themselves and feel their best. I have always loved SELF—it’s been one of my favorite brands for years and years. The wellness media landscape is a lot more crowded than it used to be, but the core values are more resonant and important than ever.
My vision for the business is to take this legacy brand that’s already a well-established wellness authority and make it even stronger and more resonant than it already is. That means building and nurturing an even more engaged, dedicated, and loyal audience across various platforms, and strengthening our reputation as being a fantastic and trustworthy source of useful, actionable, and no-bullshit health and wellness information.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
Condé Nast made the decision to refocus SELF as a digital-led business back in December, when I became Editor in Chief. The past few months have been a very exciting blur—we’re transitioning from a print-led business model to a digital one, and that requires rethinking how we do everything, from our editorial pitch process to how we engage our audience to how we make money.
Right now I’m focusing primarily on two things:
• Solidifying the brand identity and values, and then figuring out how to translate that across a ton of different platforms. How can we communicate our core values in different digital languages? The way we talk and present information on Snapchat Discover is different than on Facebook, for instance, and those are both different than how we talk to our newsletter audience.
• Exploring diversified revenue sources, beyond advertising. In April we launched a digital subscription service called SELFstarter that provides a new four-week healthy eating meal plan every month, as well as offers cash back on purchases at thousands of retailers. We’re also launching an e-learning course with Udemy; exploring licensing opportunities for SELF-branded products in a retail environment (think workout equipment in Bed Bath & Beyond); testing out affiliate marketing; and building partnerships with cool digital companies to create new experiences for audiences on entirely new platforms altogether. And that’s just the beginning—we continue to look for new strategic partnerships and ways to create new revenue streams that are brand enhancing and help provide further service for our audience every single day.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
I am always strategic when investing our time and resources into a project, so everything we are doing is a priority. That said, innovation and continuing to evolve our brand as the world around it changes is extremely important right now. For example: we launched on Snapchat Discover in late March. We’re the first and so far only health and wellness brand on the Discover platform. It’s incredibly cool and exciting to reach a totally new audience, and learn about what they’re interested in. It’s also really affirming: No matter the platform, no matter the audience demographics, everyone has the same general concerns and interests. We all want to feel good. That’s a great place to start.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
On a personal level, it was really bittersweet to transition our business model from a print-led to a digital-led business. I was psyched about the direction and eager to take on the challenge, but I grew up reading SELF in print, so I mourned that change from a regular print subscription model to a digital-led model with special issues in print, and felt enormous sadness over no longer working with the incredible team of editors who had worked on the magazine. I was also anxious about how the change would impact the business, or impact peoples’ perceptions of the brand.
The great news is that my fears were unfounded. Site traffic has never been higher, video views are up over 3000% year over year, we were the first health and wellness brand on Snapchat Discover, Q1 digital revenue is up year over year. And more than that, being digitally focused means we now have the flexibility to put resources toward exploring new brand extensions, and adjusting and adapting to new models quickly. Business is good, the outlook is good, and the brand just keeps getting stronger.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
I want anyone who interacts with SELF, no matter what platform—whether that’s on Instagram or Snapchat or in any of our special print issues or the website—to come away from it feeling better informed; better seen, heard, understood, supported, and encouraged; and armed with the information they need to take action in their life. I want people to recognize SELF as welcoming, accessible, inclusive, warm, smart, and genuinely useful.
How do you motivate others?
Managing (and motivating!) a team is hard, and even though I’ve done it for five years now at various places, I’m still learning. I try to inspire and motivate people by publicly and regularly praising good work (we have a team meeting every week where we highlight stories that were really impressive and thoughtful); being honest and direct with feedback and expectations, so people don’t have to guess how I feel or what they’re supposed to be doing; having honest and straightforward conversations with people about what their goals are and what they should be doing to set themselves up for their own paths to success; and rewarding great work.
Beyond all that, I try to hire kind and thoughtful people, so everyone on the team actually likes their coworkers. I also try to maintain a flexible work environment, so people don’t feel like they have to choose job or life. You can work from home if you need to, or you can even live in another city or state if that’s better for you, as long as you can get your job done and do it well.
Career advice to those in your industry?)
Work your ass off. Know your worth. Don’t put up with nonsense any longer than you need to. Take every interview you’re offered, even if you’re not at all interested in leaving your current job—it never hurts to meet new people and learn about new opportunities. If you’re going to bring up problems to your boss, try to also have solutions to recommend, at least as a jumping off point. And be nice to everyone, because media is a teeny tiny industry and everyone knows everyone else and you will very likely end up working with some of these people repeatedly in different contexts throughout your career.