NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Five years ago Huffington Post launched as a left-leaning blog, featuring commentary from Hollywood heavyweights, political pundits and its co-founder, Arianna Huffington. Today, it counts more than 20 vertical areas, from religion to tech, 50-odd editors and, by ComScore's last count, 23.2 million unique visitors.
It also boasts ambitious plans for its business, having hired nine months ago Greg Coleman, a media veteran from the likes of Yahoo and AOL, as president and chief revenue officer. Ad Age sat down for breakfast with Mr. Coleman to talk about selling "social ads," the task of moderating three million comments a month and why the newest vertical will be big business.
Ad Age: What has been the biggest surprise for you in your first nine months?
Mr. Coleman: This company is known for its great editorial product, and it should be. But the biggest surprise is [the role of] technology and openness in enabling us to grow so fast. ... It's the whole content management system that our team has that enables editors to do their own search engine optimization and [content] sharing right at their desks and to get updates on how well their stories are doing every fifteen minutes. We had one of our really strong editors here leave to go to another news organization, a very large newspaper, I won't say which. When she was hired, everybody's like, "Do that magic the way you did at the Huffington Post." But without the technology, you can't spread your wings the way that she was enabled to do here.
Ad Age: Speaking of large, big, newspapers, how do you guys position yourselves to advertisers against traditional news outlets like, say, The New York Times?
Mr. Coleman: First and foremost, we are positioning ourselves as a social-media company, meaning that all of the great and powerful social marketing tools that have made the Huffington Post grow right now to 24 million unique visitors, we can now use those tools to help our marketers beam their messages throughout the internet, across the galaxy, the internet, and the world. So whether it's tapping into our Facebook Connect, tapping into our partnership with Twitter, our SEO, that's really our point of differentiation, and I'm hiring a number of people that we're calling "social marketing managers" that will, literally, project manage those tools for marketers. So we're doing that, and then of course, we're open for regular advertising, so we position ourselves as a fast-growing, high-income, high-education, highly opinionated audience with scale, and that's gotten a tremendous amount of recognition within the marketing community.
Ad Age: Can you give me an example of Huffington Post's view on social advertising?
Mr. Coleman: One example is a terrific project we did with General Electric, where GE has this whole campaign on "healthymagination." We allowed them to run advertising on anything tagged "wellness" across our site -- they were looking for positive health information. We then created a special share bar for GE, and any time you tweeted that article or retweeted that article or shared it, the ad module would go with it. So when you shared it with your friends on Facebook, the GE ad module would go there. When you retweeted it, [you'd get] the hashtag "GE healthymagination." ... We're trying to come up with the real metrics, but we believe that the reach of the campaign is far greater off of our site, as a result of the social tools on our site.
Ad Age: Can you give us a sense of how much inventory are you guys selling these days?
Mr. Coleman: We sell all of our inventory, and of course we have our direct reach sales and we have our ad networks, so Pubmatic is our optimizer for ad networks right now. We are blessed with a tremendous amount of inventory. We have no issues in "how are we going to get big enough to carry the advertising?" We went from seven people to 23 people in the last nine months. We're clearly positioning ourselves in the marketplace. I've just been given more resources for the second half of the year, a lot of it is in support and account management and research, but we do have more sales people coming on. So, because we are large and growing and focusing on 20 different verticals right now, we can talk to almost any marketer, we would make sense for them. ... In terms of our direct premium [sales], I'm not going to give you a percentage, but we have a lot of room to grow, and we're really moving the needle down in terms of squeezing some of the inventory away from the ad networks.
Ad Age: How true is TechCrunch's report that Yahoo wanted to buy Huffington Post?
Mr. Coleman: Of course we would never comment on those rumors. All I'll say is that the team here is having a ball. We are having what I would say is an incredible amount of fun. So, if there was ever an event, we would only consider doing it if we were allowed to continue to have fun and, generally, people don't write that into contracts.
Ad Age: What's the long-term vision? Three years from now, what will Huffington Post be?
Mr. Coleman: We've been labeling ourselves America's Internet Newspaper. With the brand we have online right now, if we're 24 million unique visitors today, if we have now almost 3 million comments per month, our guess is that, in three years, we're going to be a hell of a lot larger. We're already preparing for 5 million comments within the next year and a half, and that's required a whole layer of social badging with our users, who are actually moderating our site.
And moderation is really important to a business like ours, where we don't want profanity, we don't want people with conspiracy theories, you know, we have to keep it grown up. We'll never moderate for opinion, but you have some people out there that you need to curate and to moderate. ... We've had tremendous interest from other media forms, getting into the radio business, getting into the television business, because we have a point of view. And that is so important today, to have a distinct opinion and point of view, but to allow the users to be part of the conversation, that's what they want.
Ad Age: What's your next vertical?
Mr. Coleman: In terms of kind of breaking news, we're going to be launching our travel vertical on July 20, and that will make our 21st vertical. And travel is a natural for our audience. They travel a lot, but to get people to blog about their travel experiences is going to be awesome. And to be able to use the social tools, everything else that we get, for the travel part, and we'll have plenty of partnerships, it should be pretty exciting. It's a very rich advertising vertical as well.
Ad Age: How much does that -- the business opportunity -- inform what verticals you go into?
Mr. Coleman: It hasn't, really, to this date. In travel, I requested, can we do travel, but I didn't say, could we do religion? I didn't say, could we do college? Although college is providing us with very fertile ground for a number of advertisers.