HuffPost Publisher Janet Balis: Balancing Premium Content, Ad Tech, and Network-Driven Strategies
ADOTAS — In early February, when AOL announced its first revenue growth in 8 years, its Huffington Post Media Group figured prominently in the discussion. No surprise there, since the group “is responsible for creating marketing strategies for AOL’s blue-chip advertising clients such as Coke and General Motors,” according to Crain’s New York Business.
When AOL acquired it for $315 million in February 2011, the Huffington Post had nearly 25 million unique monthly visitors; that figure has doubled in the two years since. Over that time, HuffPost has launched a number of local and international editions, as well as several mobile-centric products. In 2012, it became the first commercial U.S. digital media enterprise to win a Pulitzer Prize, and, at the height of a media-saturated presidential campaign, it ranked No. 1 on the 15 Most Popular Political Sites list by eBizMBA Rank.
AOL corporate veteran Janet Balis became publisher of the Huffington Post Media Group in May 2012, and has presided over a period of tremendous growth in content, audience and revenue. But when we spoke with her shortly after AOL’s positive earnings announcement, she deflected talk of any role she might have played in the parent company’s resurgence.
ADOTAS: AOL [recently] had its first revenue gain in 8 years. Is the rebranding of AOL finally complete?
JANET BALIS: In my capacity as publisher of Huffington Post, I probably should only comment on Huffington Post, but what I would say is, for AOL, more broadly, there is a lot of excitement and energy in the company, and the hard work is paying off.
From an advertising standpoint, what was your approach to making HuffPost so profitable, and such a big part of AOL’s current success?
Well, I think the first strategy for Huffington Post was really to capitalize on the incredible dynamics of our audience. It’s an incredibly rapidly growing audience. We are now at 50 million uniques on a comScore basis, and we’re able to capitalize on the extraordinary influence of the audience. We’ve got an audience that, I think, advertisers really value, that are early adopters, that are socially connected, that skew higher for both household income as well as literally the influence they have within their various circles. So I think that first and foremost it was important to tap into the dynamics of this extraordinary valuable set of consumers.
The second piece was really to enable marketers who increasingly are focused on really large scale content-marketing strategies to enable them to be able to tap into our content, our technology, and our audience, and we’ve had a really strong set of partnerships that continue to demonstrate our ability to do that effectively. We built on the success of partnerships like Johnson & Johnson and the dedicated section we created around global motherhood, and throughout the last several months there’s been this really steady drumbeat of these incredible partnerships that we’ve been able to develop. From Cisco and our launch of Impact x at the end of last year, to the recent announcements by Arianna Huffington and Lloyd Blankfein around our joint efforts to tell the story of what is working with small business. So I think those deep partnerships have also been a tremendous source of growth.
And I then think third, looking into the future, we are really deeply focused right now on unleashing the power of our approach to both content, social and technology … on taking literally our technology suite itself, married to the expertise and understanding we have on how to use it, and bringing that to brands, to agencies, enabling them to tap into many of the very powerful dynamics that have driven our own growth in audience engagement and social action.
Is the success of the content-marketing aspect primarily owed to the magnitude, the popularity and awareness of the brands?
I think what’s driving our growth, first of all, more broadly is this trend in the industry where brands are really embracing the idea of their digital strategy — not solely focusing on the paid media channel, but really working to tie together powerful owned strategies, amplifying those with strong social strategies that do earn media then ultimately using paid to make those stories bigger. I think that’s a larger shift that’s happening in the industry and obviously we’re incredibly well poised to help deliver that owned/earned/paid solution to marketers.
But specifically I think why our business around content-marketing solutions is thriving is, first and foremost, the influence and the scale of our audience, and second, our deep commitment to real-time content production. We’ll publish literally thousands of articles in a particular day. It gives us a tremendous volume of content and context to be able to build around a marketer’s story.
And in order to function around the pace of Twitter you have to have this tremendous volume and commitment to the pace of that storytelling that I think has been a very wonderful opportunity for the Huffington Post.
And third, I think our content marketing solutions are growing because increasingly as marketers move beyond brand and publisher to really accelerate their efforts and think almost more like a newsroom, I think they are increasingly needing technology as part of that content solution to help them manage it across all these multiple channels in real time, across multiple facets of the organization, and I think we are helping them solve a problem there, too.
AOL’s acquisition of the Huffington Post enabled AOL to become an instant media company, which it hadn’t really been. It was trying a little bit to move into the media world, but the acquiring of the Huffington Post legitimized AOL as a media company. Can you speak to that — what that transformation has been like?
Well, I’m fortunate to have a little bit of a long memory on AOL, having worked with the company leading sales development nationally from 2004 to 2007. I would say AOL has gone through a variety of emphases, many of which were very focused on content and media, and other phases of which were taking full advantage of the strength of our ad technology as a platform. I think that what’s really spectacular about this moment in AOL’s history is an incredible ability to tap into our deep commitment to creating extraordinary premium content while also being incredibly cognizant of the power of advertising technology and the power of more network-driven strategies. I think we’ve really struck an extraordinary balance. Huffington Post to me, within the deep commitment to premium content, has been a wonderful anchor for AOL’s commitment to premium content to a tremendous scale of content creation, and obviously this incredible quality with a brand that, in 2012, won a Pulitzer Prize for original reporting. So I think it’s obviously one of the key anchors to AOL’s strategy around original content and premium programming.
What does the immediate, short-term future hold in terms of strategies or implementation of new plans?
In terms of where we are headed as a brand at the Huffington Post, first and foremost, a big focus continues to be our expansion globally. We are now fortunate to be in France, Spain UK, Italy, and Canada. We’re going to be continuing that expansion very aggressively in the coming months and it’s been a tremendously successful strategy.
The second piece will be to build on the extraordinary innovation of HuffPost Live, which Mashable named the number one most innovative media experience of the year at the end of last year. So as that 24/7 experience continues to build as we program 12 hours of live video content from our studios in New York and Los Angeles, and as we continue to build an audience with tremendous scale, I think that our focus is continuing to double down on the innovation of the investment we have there and really capitalize on that opportunity, both for consumers and advertisers.
And then the third piece is to continue to unlock the value of our underlying technology as we start to bring new technology and platforms solutions from the Huffington Post directly to brands and agencies that move beyond media solutions to fundamental content technology solutions.
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