NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The Huffington Post has started offering marketers the ability to inject their own paid comments among reader comments and place paid Tweets among the live Twitter feeds the site assembles around news subjects and events.
Marketers haven't bought in yet, but they seem likely to be intrigued. "It's interruptive, potentially, but it also presents an opportunity for the advertiser to say something worthwhile," said Ian Schafer, CEO of interactive agency Deep Focus. "In theory, there's more upside in doing it that way than in buying a banner ad. With those the default behavior is to ignore them. With this the default behavior may be to pay attention."
The main thing
The biggest question is whether marketers and the Huffington Post can execute the program without marring visitors' experience reading and interacting with the site. Most will make their peace as long as marketers' comments and Tweets are conspicuously labeled as such, Mr. Schafer said. "If it's a place the eyes go, I think we've all accepted that's a place where an impression is going to be served," he said.
Marketers will receive guidance on the best ways to join the conversations, said Greg Coleman, the site's president and chief revenue officer since September. An advertiser sponsoring a Twitter subject page around the World Series might interject with relevant baseball statistics -- just to earn a little good will and brand halo, he suggested. Or a health-care company sponsoring a Twitter page around health-care policy might post a paid Tweet "to bring to fore the facts" but in a neutral way, he said.
"You cannot use the social engagement for the purposes of really hawking your products," Mr. Coleman said. "The advertiser is really put in a position where they need to add value to the conversation that's taking place."
The offer is just one piece of a broader effort to get more serious about turning big audiences into big revenue from advertisers, an effort being led by Mr. Coleman, a Yahoo veteran brought in by Eric Hippeau, the CEO since June.
"I've been looking at the processes, the team, the tools that we have, the sales operation part, to be able to go to market with the gusto that I would imagine a brand like the Huffington Post should be able to go to market," Mr. Coleman said.
That's meant purchasing third-party research on its traffic for the first time, hiring four senior sales executives to be named around the new year, and developing new ad products such as the paid comments and tweets. All the activity should more than double revenue by next year and expand it more than six times during the next three years, Mr. Coleman said, although he declined to discuss actual dollar figures.
Mr. Hippeau has previously said the site could be profitable but is instead reinvesting its revenue in further developing the site.
Growth in visitors
The site's chief weapon in the battle to become a business, however, remains its sometimes surprisingly robust traffic. Many observers expected to see readership swoon after the presidential campaign concluded last November. Instead the number of people visiting the site has surpassed the 5 million seen in October 2008 (when a liberal candidate verged on capturing the White House) in at least nine months this year, according to ComScore. The data do not include November or December yet. Page views have declined from the 64 million generated in October 2008, but topped that level in March, when the site got 72 million.
As it turns out, the site is increasingly thriving on coverage of subjects far removed from politics. It says nonpolitical posts accounted for 82% of page views in November and 76% of page views in October, up from 48% in June 2007, when it first introduced sections devoted to topics including entertainment, living and business.
This year the site has introduced sections for books, sports, Denver, New York and, just this month, Los Angeles. In October it introduced the live Twitter pages around subjects such as the health-care debate and the World Series.
Some media observers have also accused the site of seeking traffic with posts that they say run counter to progressive politics: slideshows of swimsuit-calendar pinups and celebrity nipple slips.
"This is about objectifying women by reducing them to their nipples, which is, in my opinion, anti-feminist," argued Amanda Hess, author of Washington City Paper's "The Sexist" column, over the summer. "And personally, I would hope that progressives would make very basic women's issues like this a priority."
The site wants a mix of content, both important fare that doesn't draw a ton of traffic and lighter material that more readers often want, Mr. Coleman said. "If you take a story like Afghanistan, it will be very prominently featured even though it is by far not the most read," he said. "It's still critical for us to cover that and give it great position. But we have a blend."