August 2007 - The Web’s Strongest Voice?


In just two years, Arianna Huffington has built her political-opinion website into one of the most recognized brands on the Internet. Could a product marketer adopt her model?

By Jack Gordon (PHOTO (c) Art Streiber/Corbis Outline)

Arianna Huffington is rarely at a loss for a strong view on a subject. As a television commentator, columnist, author and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post-a news-and-opinion website that is among the most visited destinations on the Internet-she has made a career of opinionated outspokenness.

But on one question, her answer is a thoughtful “maybe.” Could The Huffington Post serve as a good model for marketers-that is, sellers with commercial agendas rather than political or social ones-who want to use the web to build interactive communities of highly engaged customers?

“One of the main draws of The Huffington Post is the immediacy of our content and the fact that it is constantly being refreshed,” Huffington reflects. “That’s why so many of our readers come back multiple times in a day. I’m not sure that is replicable on a commercial site. But it could be if the products offered create a broad enough arena for people to blog about and to report on.”

Debuted in May 2005, HuffPo, as the site is familiarly known, met with almost instant success, quickly developing into a well-known brand with a growing and loyal following. Today, HuffPo is cited almost daily by the mass media.

The site now claims more than 3 million unique users and over 70 million page views. As of June, it ranked as the fifth most popular blog on the web, as measured by the number of links to it, and the first among political sites in actual visits, according to the Chicago Tribune, citing ratings by Technorati and Hitwise.

HuffPo is built upon a collection of blogs, most focused on politics and the media, with a left-of-center point of view. In addition to Huffington herself, featured bloggers range from Al Franken and writer Nora Ephron to fashion designer Donna Karan.

The site continues to grow and evolve. A recent $5 million infusion of capital from Softbank fueled a June redesign that added sections on business, technology, entertainment and “lifestyles” to the site’s political and media coverage. Huffington says she also intends to add more video, more original reporting, more material aimed at women and more “satirical content.”

In “On Becoming Fearless,” Huffington writes of becoming bold, of achieving freedom from self-doubt in order to reach one’s potential.

Born Arianna Stassinopoulos in 1950 in Athens, Greece, and educated in England, Huffington is a self-described “former right-winger who has evolved into…a progressive populist.” She published her first book, “The Female Woman,” in 1974, but gained wealth and fame in the United States in the 1980s and early ’90s as the brainy, articulate, and conservative wife of California millionaire and former Republican Congressman Michael Huffington.

Her 1997 divorce roughly coincided with a shift in her political ideology. She remained a fixture on the TV talk circuit (”Hardball,” “Larry King Live,” etc.), but began to argue from the liberal side of the fence. She was among the candidates who ran against Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2003 recall election to replace California Governor Gray Davis. She finished fifth in a field of 135, according to Wikipedia, despite having withdrawn from the race weeks before the election. She is currently a syndicated columnist and co-host of National Public Radio’s political roundtable program “Left, Right & Center.”

With ready access to forums ranging from CNN to The New York Times opinion pages, and from Oprah Winfrey to Bill O’Reilly, Huffington did not lack outlets to express her views. So why launch The Huffington Post?

“I realized that the conversation that mattered was moving online,” she says. She was attracted to the “immediacy” of the web environment-the sheer speed with which news and opinions could reach a mass audience, and also the speed with which that audience could respond.

The venture was well served by her wide acquaintance with famous people. How did HuffPo come out of the starting gate in 2005 with featured blogs by the likes of Walter Cronkite, the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and “Seinfeld” creator Larry David? “A lot of them were friends,” she explains. “And once they started doing it, they saw how great it is to go immediately online, have people respond, and have other media outlets pick up on what you say.”

For all the other famous names associated with the site, however, Huffington ensures that her own voice and personality remain front and center. HuffPo’s home page features links to news sources from the Wall Street Journal to Al Jazeera, and to columnists from Christopher Hitchens to George Will. But equally prominent are links to “All Things Arianna,” including her upcoming schedule, her speeches and her archives.

This raises a question for marketers who wonder if The Huffington Post’s model might be adapted for their purposes: Could a site very like HuffPo have succeeded without an Arianna at the center of it? Whether to feature a celebrity in a marketing campaign is an old question in the direct-response world, but it applies in this case whether the “celebrity” is an actor or the marketer himself. How important would it be to have a recognizable, individual personality driving something like this?

“Very important, I think,” Huffington says. “What happens online is personal and intimate. It’s hard to be personal and intimate without a person.” To build a successful online presence, “you have to be very clear about your identity,” she says. Honesty and accuracy also are important. “Many people claim you don’t have to be accurate online. I think that honesty and clarity are more important online than elsewhere.”

It takes an individual to supply “the attitude and the values” that bring a site to life, she says. “People respond to values,” whether they are political or have to do with a product you’re selling-be it a car, a diet plan or a piece of exercise equipment, she adds.

If a commercial website set out to become a destination and rallying point for a customer community, rather than strictly a place to conduct sales transactions, Huffington suggests three keys that would make or break the effort.

First, the site would require “compelling content.” Second, it would have to be refreshed regularly. Third, and perhaps most important, would be “establishing a clearly identifiable attitude and point of view.” The Internet enables you to “establish a brand-and brand identification-far more quickly than in the past,” she says. “[But] that brand stems from having a voice and point of view that connects with your community.”

This leads back to her description of the online experience as highly personal. “[Marketers] are just beginning to realize that the online world works differently,” she says. “The more personal and intimate the environment, the more intimate the selling has to be.”

That means, she says, that while you can talk to people via computer, you can’t do it effectively in language that “sounds as if it were written by a computer.”

Chicago Tribune writer Steve Johnson made that very point in a June essay highlighting a key virtue of HuffPo: “Many of the web’s news aggregators (Google News, Topix) and even some original news sites have the feel of ’shovelware’-a series of headlines selected and shoveled onto the page by computer algorithm. What The Huffington Post does extremely well is select and highlight its stories to [create] the feeling that there is active human intelligence making choices.”

Johnson suggests that sustaining the human feeling in something bigger and more complex than a personal blog requires more than an individual with a strong point of view. “The real stars of The Huffington Post,” he writes, “are the anonymous editors who put the package together.”

That might serve as another tip for a marketer looking to build loyal communities on the web.

Asked if she knows any commercial sites that at least attempt to function in a manner similar to HuffPo, Huffington mentions erstwhile-bookseller-turned-online-supermarket “Amazon has focused on the community aspect of its shopping experience for a long time-and it shows,” she says. “Its ‘recommended products,’ consumer reviews and editors’ blogs are all compelling and enjoyable parts of the Amazon experience that I imagine lead to greater customer loyalty and increased purchases.”

She notes that the site continues to branch out with features such as its “Amazon Fishbowl” video series. So clearly, she says, Amazon is trying to “engage customers with more than just low prices and free shipping.”

Regardless of their interest in the web’s potential for community building, direct response marketers want to use it effectively as an advertising medium. HuffPo is an advertiser-supported site, so Huffington’s advice in this area may be biased. Still, she raises a point worth considering.

Asked to name the biggest mistake committed or opportunity missed by advertisers on popular sites such as her own, she points to a myopic focus on click-through rates as the only indicator of an ad’s value. She argues that an advertising campaign on a site like HuffPo should be judged by more far-sighted criteria. “Our community is valuable for more than just its ad-clicking behavior,” she says.

“Our bloggers and readers are educated thought leaders who are able to influence a broader audience’s purchasing habits. Too many advertisers still don’t place value on those sorts of attributes. As a result, they miss out on reaching a very valuable and elusive audience for their brands.”

That kind of thinking is urged upon general advertisers more often than direct response marketers. But a brand is a brand. And Arianna Huffington has demonstrated quite an impressive talent for building one.

Jack Gordon is editor at large for Electronic Retailer magazine. We would appreciate your feedback. To submit comments, please e-mail the magazine at [email protected].


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