She Workin: Geneva S. Thomas, VP Of Digital Audience Growth At Essence, Shares How She Broke Into Digital Media
Meet Geneva S. Thomas, a seasoned journalist, and digital media executive. Thomas has built an international career from working at top-tier companies, among them Topshop London and New York, Macy’s Digital, Viacom, BBC America, InStyle, Food & Wine and more. Before getting her start in digital media, Thomas was a graduate student at NYU studying journalism. After jet-setting around Paris, London, Scotland and South Africa, she got her Master’s in journalism and became a contributing writer for Vogue Italia.
Although she achieved great success from being a journalist, Thomas decided to make a career pivot to delve into digital media as an effort to combine her love for both storytelling and strategy. Passionate about infusing culture into digital practices, Thomas has embarked on a career to shape some of the world’s most venerable fashion and media brands including the iconic W Magazine at Condé Nast. Fast forward to 2018 and she has transcended barriers and exceeded expectations within the digital realm to become the Vice President of Digital Audience Growth at ESSENCE, as there are very few women of color in audience development and digital strategy, that are consistently making an impact. Thomas and I spoke about her career arc, love for digital media, why companies should invest in a strong digital arm and the importance of doing the work first.
Dominique Fluker: As a seasoned journalist and digital media executive who has worked for noted companies, what led you to a path of executing digital campaigns and spearheading strategies?
Geneva Thomas: My professional path has always been a balancing act of storytelling and strategy. Earlier in my career on the agency side at Publicis, I was empowered to have a seat at the table on go-to marketing strategy, and I developed a keen understanding of the power of mobile and users’ connection to brands through storytelling. I saw the tipping point of the mobile-social revolution and as an editor, I knew it was timely for me to pivot to the strategic side of the business through social media marketing, and other tactics to build audiences.
Fluker: From earning a Master’s in journalism from NYU to heading digital audience strategy for W Magazine and Architectural Digest at Condè Nast, share your career arc.
Thomas: At an early age, I’ve always known media was the path for me. My mother gave me a journal when I was seven and she told me to write every thought and dream I had then—it activated my imagination and I spent a lot of time writing as an only child. I can’t say with certainty that my mother was molding me into a writer with intention, but ultimately that’s what happened. Getting in the door of a magazine wasn’t easy, even with a graduate degree from New York University. It’s taken a lot of sacrifice and relationship building but beyond that, I learned to master how to message my value as an editor turned digital strategist very early on before brands themselves understood the value of having a digital investment. That wasn’t an easy position to be in at that time but it’s paid off for me and a lot of peers on this side of the business who could forecast where media was going and how people would begin to seek information. For me, it was asking myself: How are you advancing digital and driving impact?
If you don’t have a digital business you don’t have a business. Mobile and social are the new front doors to every brand both media and consumer.
Fluker: Give us a snapshot of your day. From developing and translating digital media strategy into a scalable consumer business to managing a team of content curators, how do you increase scale?
Thomas: Being in digital media is non-stop. It’s a competitive numbers game, so I’m often occupied with the data. I’m looking at dashboards and seeing how we’re performing cross platform but there’s a lot of vision building and planning months ahead for the next launch or platform we’re going after. It’s not simply about scale, it’s how you’re driving loyalty and building out a distinctive content strategy designed to dominate a particular conversation. A lot of brands avoid the importance of loyalty—especially if they don’t have consumer product with a point of purchase. Time spent, return visitation, and cross platform engagement is all increasingly critical beyond a ComScore number. These are metrics advertising partners are becoming increasingly invested in.
Fluker: Why is it important to have an expensive digital arm at a company? How can digital media strategy propel a business forward?
Thomas: If you don’t have a digital business you don’t have a business. Mobile and social are the new front doors to every brand in both media and consumer. Having a strategy across content and distribution are tremendously critical to business success and year-over-year growth.
Fluker: Dispel the misconceptions about working in digital media not being a viable career. How are you carving a lane for women of color who are interested in digital audience development?
My assignment within the culture is to lead by example and life as I climb.
Thomas: Is that still a thing? I remember not even 10 years ago; digital editors would get treated so differently. I remember interviewing talent for Vogue Italia and the publicist completely isolated the digital editors from print editors. I said to myself: you just wait and see! Historically there’s been a presumption digital professionals aren’t really working, and all digital journalists report false news. There is still a lot of that out there but there is an abundance of digital-first professionals who have extensive education and preparedness to be change agents for themselves and for the brands they work with. We’re solidly in that moment right now. Companies who get it are investing in digital-first leadership.
There are very few women of color in audience development—the field itself is very new and people who land in audience development come from an editorial background like myself, analytics or traditional marketing. The role is at the nucleus of digital media—the very intersection of content and business. My assignment within the culture is to lead by example and lift as I climb.
Fluker: What are you looking for most as the new VP of Digital Audience Growth at ESSENCE?
Thomas: I received two offers, one with the biggest tech company on Earth and ESSENCE. There was no doubt in my mind where I belonged. I did my senior thesis on the magazine in undergrad—the legacy of the brand today at nearly 50-years old stands solidly on the shoulders of Black women, and arguably no other brand has centered us so fiercely. In this new era for ESSENCE, I look forward to partnering with the team on charting out a global audience strategy to celebrate and elevate the lives of Black women throughout the diaspora.
Fluker: Share tips for the millennial who’s interested and passionate about delving into the world of digital media.
Thomas: Do the work and seek out mentors but don’t make it transactional. Your resume is your brand and unfortunately, the value of hard work and process has depreciated. I also have to say, it’s easy to get preoccupied with instagram likes and how your brand appears on social. I encourage 20-somethings to work first and brand later.
This interview was originally written by Dominique Fluker for Forbes.com