The Huffington Post a Year Later: Media Disruption, Personal Branding, and the Future of AOL

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Article ImageMuch attention is focused on the struggles of traditional news media brands to profit from the transition from print to digital. One often-discussed issue faced by media companies is the vast quantity of free alternatives-which range from bot-driven headline scraping to one-person blog sites and a whole generation of new media brands. Among these new media disrupters are an increasing number of operations with reputations for timely targeted news and content quality that have begun to rival those of some of the most venerated traditional media brands.

High on that list is The Huffington Post.

The Huffington Post (often called HuffPo or HuffPost) was founded in May 2005 by Arianna Huffington, who had already garnered some notoriety with her sites Ariannaonline.com and Resignation.com (which called for the resignation of President Bill Clinton). While Huffington's name is the brand, the site was co-founded by Jonah Peretti, whose latest new media project is BuzzFeed, Inc., and Kenneth Lerer, a former AOL executive who runs an angel fund.

Huffington herself has been named in 2006 and 2011 to TIME's list of the world's 100 most influential people and has been a prominent force in politics and culture for decades. Thus, it is not surprising that HuffPost's roots are also firmly planted in politics. However, with the launch of the site she is best known for today, Huffingtonpost.com, Huffington signaled her desire to make HuffPost an all-purpose "digital newspaper."

With its combination of staff-written, aggregated, contributed, and highly publicized celebrity-written content, The Huffington Post brand has broadened its scope beyond politics to include topics such as technology, sports, business, environmental issues, college life, and food.

Growing Seed Capital Into a Multimillion Acquisition

Huffington and Lerer are credited with providing the company's initial $2 million in seed capital. The company raised an additional $5 million in August 2006 with existing investors being joined by SoftBank Capital and Greycroft Partners, LLC. Another ex-AOL executive, Robert Pittman (who created MTV), also took a stake in HuffPost at that time.

This same group of investors reportedly generated another $5 million in investment in 2008, and a third round of funding was held in December 2008, with Oak Investment Partners reportedly providing $25 million. These investments followed steady and impressive site traffic growth by The Huffington Post, with this last funding round predicated on an expected jump during the election cycle. That jump was even larger than anticipated: The Huffington Post saw a 474% increase in traffic during September 2008 over September 2007.

Yet despite much speculation that The Huffington Post would quickly overtake established news brands, according to comScore, Inc.'s Top 50 Properties report in February 2011, The Huffington Post ranked No. 42 while The New York Times Digital ranked No. 15. In that same month, The Huffington Post was acquired by AOL, Inc. for $315 million. AOL ranked No. 5 at the time.

Nine months later, with HuffPost factored into its comScore ranking, AOL retained its spot at No. 5.

AOL and The Huffington Post

When AOL announced that it had not only acquired The Huffington Post but also named Arianna Huffington president and editor-in-chief of a newly formed Huffington Post Media Group (HPMG), both Huffington and AOL CEO Tim Armstrong made bold predictions about what the union would bring.

In the AOL press release, Armstrong said, "Together, our companies will embrace the digital future and become a digital destination that delivers unmatched experiences for both consumers and advertisers."

One thing many industry watchers speculated that AOL was looking for in its HuffPost acquisition was a focused direction. Many felt that AOL as a brand had lost meaning to consumers, making it a hard sell to advertisers. Certainly, despite retaining traffic numbers, AOL struggles to sufficiently monetize its audience.

As Kara Swisher, co-executive editor of AllThingsD.com put it at the time of the acquisition, "AOL doesn't really stand for anything, it doesn't have a brand or an image, and they've just bought themselves the most valuable profile on the internet." Looking back at the first year, Swisher says, "AOL properties were always dull" but now, she says "maybe they are less so."

Swisher says that "AOL is a well known brand, one of the best known on the internet ... but AOL doesn't mean high quality content and it is hard to transform a brand. People have relationships with brands that don't change very easily."

Ken Doctor, media analyst for Newsonomics and Outsell, Inc., says that Armstrong's "words about ‘igniting a content revolution' may make sense in terms of marketing. But I don't see that they are really doing that."

According to Swisher, Armstrong "talks things up a lot and creates high expectations. He talked up this deal a lot so it will be hard not to under-deliver."

Doctor also believes that better-known AOL media brands such as AOL News and AOL Money "stand on their own with consumers and will continue to do so." While he sees a lot of reorganization around news products formerly known as AOL, he notes that "they have not succeeded in making Huffington Post News a bigger voice in American news and that The Huffington Post has not built a new following for AOL."

Global Ambitions

Arianna Huffington, however, was not merely aiming for a bigger piece of the American news media pie. One key area of growth she wanted to see was the addition of international sites to take her brand global. Armstrong supports this ambition, and just after the acquisition, he was quoted as saying he hoped the union between AOL and The Huffington Post would "create a next-generation American media company with global reach."

And reach they have: In 2011, HPMG announced plans to launch an international Spanish-language version of HuffPost and partnered with Le Monde Group and Les Nouvelles Editions Indépendantes to begin work on Le Huffington Post. The year also saw the launches of HuffPost UK and HuffPost Canada.

The launch of the U.K. edition was met with some criticism, particularly from British media pundits. It was viewed as a minor offshoot of the American version with not enough attention to Anglicizing it in terms of language, culture, and news coverage. The approach that The Huffington Post has chosen to take with its French edition in partnering with established French media brands may well be reflective of lessons learned through the U.K. launch.

Doctor thinks that it is still rather early to evaluate the objectives set out after the acquisition. He says, "It appears that they are just starting to integrate things. They haven't yet brought the pieces together into something that makes sense from a consumer or advertising standpoint." Doctor describes Huffington as "a wannabe Citizen Kane of the digital world. But the impact of what she's doing is still unclear."

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