The Huffington Post is the 58th acquisition by internet service provider, and now content producer, AOL.
News of the acquisition has created a buzz across many news, tech and media sites, and many commentators have raised questions about what it all means.
For starters, questions have been raised about the perceived politics of AOL and HuffPo. The namesake of HuffPo, Arianna Huffington, was once a conservative, whose first foray online was a website organised around agitating for Bill Clinton’s resignation. Huffington moved away from her conservative past and with partners and investors created The Huffington Post as a liberal alternative to the conservative Drudge Report. Hence, the Huffington Post brand is strongly associated with liberal leaning politics. Some are suggesting that HuffPo will attempt to liberalise AOL content.
On the other hand, many actual HuffPo users are furious about the deal because they feel the integrity of their political community is now threatened.
And then there are some enthusiasts belonging to the traditionally masculine tech sector who seem to be hesitant about having a female boss. Financially, HuffPo seems to be in better shape than AOL. AOL reported fourth quarter earnings of $66.2 million with revenue down by 26 per cent on the back of weak advertising sales and a decline in dial-up internet subscriptions.
What possible lessons can be learnt from the AOL and HuffPo merger for other media enterprises — in particular in the Australian context? Or, to put it another way, why did AOL buy HuffPo?
Here’s why. AOL wants Huffington Post’s organisational structure and demonstrated managerial competence for mobilising a massive number of users who have added value to the HuffPo media enterprise for free. To get to the more general point — to see how media enterprises are all becoming "emotional vampires" (who suck the enthusiasm out of us) — we need to properly understand what is called a "content strategy" for media enterprises.
The Huffington Post is core to our strategy and our 80:80:80 focus — 80 per cent of domestic spending is done by women, 80 per cent of commerce happens locally and 80 per cent of considered purchases are driven by influencers.
The HuffPo has a large share of the digital market with more than 8 million unique users and 24.3 million unique visitors per month. Beyond the raw numbers, HuffPo users tend to be better educated women with no children.
The metrics and the demographics do not tell the whole story, however.
AOL acquired the Huffington Post because the HuffPo content strategy seems to be financially viable. Until now AOL and Armstrong have been strongly criticised for lacking a content strategy suitable for the diverse number of sites that are part of the AOL group. They developed a content strategy called "The AOL Way", which was recently leaked and then distributed to all employees.
The AOL and HuffPo content strategies look very similar, at least superficially, because both focus on producing content designed for Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). If you read the AOL master plan, Armstrong wants 95 per cent of content to be SEOed. Media pundits have repeatedly noted how HuffPo and other media organisations work closely with Google search trends to tailor content to leading search terms. The recent Super Bowl provided a number of examples. There is a difference between the two strategies, however, and this is one of the attractions for AOL, as Paul Carr writes:
Arianna Huffington’s genius is to churn out enough SEO crap to bring in the traffic and then to use the resulting advertising revenue — and her personal influence — to employ top class reporters and commentators to drag the quality average back up. And somehow it works.
To a certain extent Carr is accurate in his assessment. By pitching "SEO crap" against quality reporting and implicitly locating himself on the "quality" side of the spectrum (in an AOL Tech Crunch post that was ironically, and unlikely unintentionally, SEO link baiting), Carr is trying to make sure he has a place in the new organisational structure.
Another feature of the HuffPo content strategy that has garnered attention is "curating" content. The curation of content means assembling and perhaps re-editing material for the purposes of being republished on another site. Curation is not simply aggregation, curation selects and organises content to extract the most valuable element from content published elsewhere.
An example of the HuffPo curatorial strategy is this piece by Steve Rosenbaum, CEO of Magnify.net ("a NYC-based web platform that powers content aggregation and curation"), on the importance of content strategy. It originally appeared on "progressive" business media outlet Fast Company and was then republished through the Huffington Post a few days later. Rosenbaum highlights the importance of having a coherent enterprise-wide content strategy. What his article also exemplifies is the organisational structure of HuffPo as being a primarily a curator, rather than a producer, of content.
Content strategy is not just about "content" it is also about the community of engagement that organises around content, and beyond SEO-tailored content is the social side of media production; this is where HuffPo spanks AOL in a big way. It is exemplified in the connection between HuffPo and Facebook. HuffPo has several communities of engaged users mobilising around various media brands — not only the Huffington Post brand, but the personal brands of celebrity bloggers, too. This mobilisation has an economic value as the enthusiasm for the myriad topics HuffPo users write and read about translates directly into surplus value in the form of site metrics and what marketers call "reach". AOL wants HuffPo’s organisational expertise in turning an engaged, curatorial content strategy into a profitable enterprise for its non-integrated media acquisitions.
It will be interesting to see which senior staff from the Huffington Post take up senior positions at AOL. Of course, all of this could spectacularly backfire if the HuffPo’s "citizen journalists" realise they are producing value for someone else to make money from.
Is there a local Australian equivalent to AOL, HuffPo or a similar mash-up of quality journalism, SEO-baiting, curatorial, user-generated "free" content? In a word, no. Instead, there are hundreds of Australian online communities smaller in scale relative to the US-based HuffPo, but they are not organised around a media brand, they are instead found on forums or niche media outlets.
The massive broadband internet and technology site Whirlpool is a good example. As well as having news curated on the front page, these forums are about the production and distribution of knowledge designed to do something — "know how" — in a social setting where it is valorised almost immediately by one’s peers. The site evolved from very humble origins. Creator of Whirlpool, Simon Wright, has dismissed questions of commercialising the site as it would change its character:
"We all do it for nothing because we love it and it’s actually part of the interesting conundrum of commercialising Whirlpool. These people do it for nothing, and it’s odd to say, but the outcome is better than it could be if Whirlpool was a company with employees."
Mumbrella operates in a similar way to HuffPo, but on a much smaller industry-specific scale, in that in combines link-bait heads, comment from industry celebrities, curatorial found content and plenty of free content produced by those who comment.
Sites and media enterprises that rely on free labour provided by users have two common operational logics. Either they are driven by normative community values, where everyone contributes and helps out (for example, Whirlpool), or they work according to an economy of exposure where some contributors are made more visible than others (for example, Mumbrella) and sometimes for monetary gain. Beyond the question of harnessing the amateur enthusiasm of users as a resource of labour, what can local Australian media companies take from the AOL and HuffPo example?
Firstly, they can stop trying to translate print-based media products into the digital market. Second and third generation digital natives do not care about, for example, an iPad app that gives them daily news, when the up-to-the-minute news can be accessed elsewhere.
Secondly, SEO or link-baiting is the wrong way to think about search engines. Discourse has become "Googlified" (so internet users have been trained to think in terms of search terms), therefore content needs to be created/curated that is similarly parsed. This is more Foucaultian than simply tailoring content for SEO!
Australian media companies should pursue social networks, not just 1990s-era "eyeballs". Sometimes this means paying an interlocutor to serve as a cultural bridge and sometimes it means producing a space within which people can be social and passionate about their interests.
And finally successful media enterprises are exceptionally complex. A hobbyist can have a blog, but a successful media enterprise has hundreds, if not thousands. Not only are they expected to capture a number of social networks by servicing their interests through niche online media (i.e. the point of AOL’s acquisitions), they also cross-leverage each other across media brands to diffuse operational costs and harness as much free labour as possible
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