Lessons From HuffPost Live's Bold Web Launch

AOL Property Attempts to Re-imagine a News Network in the Digital Age

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The Huffington Post has been nothing if not bold since its launch in 2005. Last week, the AOL-owned property upped the ante to audacious by reimagining a TV news experience for the digital age. HuffPost Live is an online-video network that streams live 12 hours every weekday. First-week results were hit-and-miss. Technical difficulties are much more common than TV news viewers would accept -- not surprising, considering hosts and guests are often talking through Skype or Google+ Hangouts.

But to call HuffPost Live a news network wouldn't exactly be accurate, either. It doesn't plan to send journalists out into the field to report, and not all of its segments involve actual news. While Week One included interviews with New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and an inspired debate about a possible no-fly zone over Syria, it also included segments with titles such as "Lessons from Drag Queens" and "What's a Union?"

The business potential of this vast experiment is not yet clear. After hoping for five or six launch sponsors, the network has settled for two: Cadillac and Verizon. There will be no traditional commercials during live segments. Instead, sponsorship deals -- which cost somewhere between $1 million and $5 million and run through the end of the year -- consist of logo branding on the platform, pre-roll ads on the video clips that HuffPost cuts from the live streams, and future custom-marketing integrations that are expected to begin appearing within live programming in the coming weeks.

Roy Sekoff
Roy Sekoff

Halfway through HuffPost Live's first week, we spoke with its president, Roy Sekoff, to discuss early lessons.

What's going well, and what can you do better?

I hate to be too positive here, but it's really gone better than I had hoped. The community reaction has been phenomenal. They come and are engaging. In fact, people are leaving video comments and we're inviting the best ones to come on live. Of course, there are always glitches and hiccups, especially when we are building everything from scratch. We just had a meeting about what we want to be better.

For example?

We want to try to make it easier for hosts to grab good comments and use them live on the air. We built our own CMS and dashboard... and one of the things we're trying to do is add a quick feature so as the stream of comments comes in, the host can click it and automatically have it pop up in a side window on their screen and then click again to go full-screen. So two clicks to go from the comment stream to the host showing it live.

Why 12 hours a day?

It sounded audacious, and I wanted to do something audacious. As we were thinking about it -- I developed and co-created it with Gabriel Lewis -- there were many a night where we looked at each other and said, "Why don't we start with four hours?" But four hours felt like [the length] of a show. And then we said maybe we'd do eight, but we thought everybody would do eight. So we said, "Why don't we do 12?" And also I half joke, because we also wanted to be on through the workday of both coasts. So we're on 10 to 10 on the East Coast and 7 to 7 on the West Coast.

Google+ Hangouts is getting prominent placement on the video and hosts are also calling some chats "hangouts." Any money changing hands there?

You would think if we were smart. We're just being transparent. Very transparent. So for Google Hangouts, we say "hangout," when we use Skype we say "Skype." There's no deal, no money.

The programming has seemed at times all over the place. Is that intended?

We're completely committed to being iterative. I want to try things. For instance, I woke up this morning (Wednesday) and I thought we should try a community chat (on camera). So the first thing I did when I walked in was say to the executive producer, "Let's do a community chat. Let's just try it." People want to be on the show, and the community really enjoyed it. If it falls flat on its face, then we'll do it a different way. The good thing about 12 hours a day is you've got a little room to play. So I guess it's kind of all over the place, but that 's kind of the point. If you look at the homepage of HuffPost, it's kind of all over the place, too.

I understand you told the staff you made a polished sizzle reel to introduce the HuffPost Live idea to the board, and that the product as it stands today is decidedly less polished. Was that reel reflective of how you expected the product to turn out or was it more or less made to sell the concept?

My background is in comedy. I like to have fun. That was also misinterpreted. I didn't say anything was done to trick anyone; it wasn't a bait and switch. We had to make the sizzle reel to show the board what we were thinking because my verbal skills were not good enough. Obviously [the real thing] wasn't created yet.

And the reason it looks so different is we didn't have any clue in November what it would be. This thing has changed and for the better. That [sizzle] had a big beautiful screen at the top and then at the bottom just a little social stream. But we decided if we really believe all the stuff we were saying philosophically about community and engagement and the era of participation, then we got to walk the walk. That's when we made the decision that engagement would be equally as important as consumption. I think it looks just as polished as, if not more than, in that reel. I don't think it's at all a diminution."

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