With over 60% of its readers coming from outside the US and 80% of readers on mobile, HuffPost is strengthening its India team to focus on original reporting and more scoops. Lydia Polgreen of HuffPost talks about the portal’s content and social strategy, monetisation models and its unique positioning in India in conversation with BrandWagon’s Ankita Rai. Edited excerpts:
Following the split with The Times Group in India and under the new ownership of OATH, what is the focus area for HuffPost in India?
We have been through a period of turbulence and we are just starting to take off. There is a shift in our editorial strategy with a focus on original reporting and more scoops. The strength of HuffPost is its independence to tell a story without any political or business interest. Our mantra is to hold the unaccountable power to account — it could be political power, corporate power or celebrity power.
Technology, in general, is going to be a major part of our coverage as global platforms gain a foothold in India. With China being completely closed off to companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google, India is a big prize in terms of getting the next billion users online.
Fake news spreads like wildfire on social media. Does this require a rethinking of the news media business model?
There is tremendous concern that social media platforms are playing a powerful role in spreading fake news. HuffPost globally has been part of conversations that are happening with Google and Facebook around giving primacy to high quality news.
We have deep relationships with Facebook, Google, Apple and Twitter. Social is an important distribution platform despite all the noise. At the end of the day, you have to build audiences and to get as many people to consume our journalism as possible. You may find that the ability to monetise on different platforms is a challenge, but the point is, you have to meet the consumer where she/he is; then work with the platform in a partnership to figure out mutually beneficial monetisation solutions.
One of the trends globally is that search is really back as a main source of referrals. That’s true across the globe. One of the things we have been doing in the US, and would like to do more here, is to have a longer tail search strategy. We are focussed on creating useful evergreen content and speak of the things people care about more. Rather than chasing what is trending, we are focussing on making long term investments in content that people will be searching over a long haul, such as relationships and what is on streaming services.
How do you see branded content as a revenue stream? Do you plan to adopt a subscription model?
Partner Studio, which is now fully integrated into Oath’s RYOT Studio, was one of the earliest players in the branded content space. High quality branded content has a big role to play in underwriting high quality journalism. It is important that brand content is very clearly labelled and distinguished because otherwise you are doing a disservice to your audience. You become less valuable to an advertiser if you confuse your readers.
We find advertisers come to us for journalistic integrity. HuffPost is committed to the idea that news and information should be available to people. I don’t think a subscription or paywall model is appropriate for HuffPost.
Research shows mobile readers spend less time on the site compared to desktop viewers. How do you convert these into loyal readers?
At HuffPost globally, 80% of the audience hails from mobile — app and mobile web. Mobile is a constant companion. There is a tremendous amount of frequency of visits that make up for the overall length of visits. It is a myth that people don’t consume long format content on mobile. We found that our most engaged pieces of journalism on mobile are often the longest. Active scrolling makes it easier to read stories on mobile.
However, the problem with mobile is when you put a relevant ad adjacent to a piece of content. The adjacency in mobile is a very different thing. So you need to come up with new formats — visual and compelling, and they need to be seamless.
Is it possible to have all three together — good quality content, a positive cash flow and the elusive attention span of millennials?
You have to have all three. It is a virtual cycle. You produce compelling journalism and that draws readers, which in turn gets brands excited about advertising. We have gone through different iterations of how content works on the internet. There was a time when we were publishing lots of things to gain SEOs and lots of ads. That model worked when HuffPost was founded in 2005.
This model is now broken. The only path to success now is to create a deeper relationship with your audience, go premium in your style of journalism, increase the value of content and work with brands to create compelling stories of their products alongside journalism.
The race for chasing clicks and views has produced clickbait pieces. What is the way forward?
While we work with Taboola and it is an important revenue stream, we have really moved away from clickbait as it is a bad user experience. Every interaction that we have with the user is an opportunity to convert her into a lifetime user. We avoid clickbait but it is different than saying we are not writing on things that are trending. For example, everyone cares about the royal wedding or movie like Black Panther; so we produce a lot of content for that. But we don’t do clickbait for the heck of it. It has to have a deep meaning for our audience.
How do you plan to leverage video in your content strategy?
Video is a storytelling format. We have reduced the number of videos that we had earlier as it added little value in terms of monetisation and also the audience was not well served. We went through a period where everybody was doing everything, which means often chasing what big platforms were doing. For example, when Facebook Live was launched, people built dedicated teams for that. We are trying not to be reactive but proactive.
What you saw earlier was a proliferation of 30 second and 90 second videos on Facebook and YouTube. That phase is over. People want to see a proper in-depth story which takes at least 30 seconds to catch up. We found that we are getting good engagement from the weekly show series that we put on Facebook and YouTube, and our own platform. These are four to eight minute long mini documentaries.