Responding to digital change: Insights from The Huffington Post

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To take advantage of the widespread use of social media and smartphones, publishers need to “understand how to get news out to the largest possible audience”.

This is the advice of Jimmy Maymann, president, content and consumer brands at AOL, The Huffington Post’s parent company.

The outlet turned 10 years old in May and revealed its plans yesterdayfor an ambitious overseas expansion in the next decade, building a global newsroom across 50 new countries.

Maymann served as chief executive of The Huffington Post between 2012 and 2015.

He outlined some of the key changes that have been shaping online news in recent years, and how The Huffington Post has responded to them, speaking at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism memorial lecture on Monday.

News sources

News websites used to be the main destination for readers looking for stories, before they were overtaken by web search and social media in recent years – the latter now accounts for between 30 and 50 per cent of traffic for news sites, said Maymann.

To capitalise on new technology in the newsroom, Huffington Post editors started monitoring performance data in real-time and created dashboards that helped journalists understand what stories did well and test headlines.

For example, a story posted at 5pm would be revised at 9am the next the day – changing the headline and including additional images where appropriate could gather up to 2,600,000 social interactions in 24 hours, he explained.

Devices

Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2015 found that 46 per cent of people in twelve countries surveyed now access news weekly on their smartphones – a growing percentage in the US, UK and Japan.

“Stories should be written for mobile and then they can live on desktop,” said Maymann, “because if you do it the other way around, you will lose your audience.”

In 2014, 53 per cent of mobile traffic came from mobile browsers and the other 47 per cent from native news apps, said Maymann, quoting comScore figures calculated as an average for the top five online news sites.

But most major news organisations are still developing new apps or tailoring existing ones to become more personalised. The comScore figures also showed people were spending considerably more time in apps on a monthly basis: 113 minutes per unique visitor, versus nine minutes in the mobile browser.

“People who download your news app are essentially acting as your ambassadors,” Maymann added.

“It’s not [publishers] in the driving seat anymore and we need to become part of the conversation people are having, but they won’t embrace us unless we meet them on their terms.”

As a response to news consumption in mobile browsers being largely influenced by social media, The Huffington Post changed its page design to improve the user experience, allowing readers to share specific parts of a story.

The way in which content is displayed on a smartphone also depends on how people are arriving on the page, for example, showing the audience more visual stories when they come from Pinterest.

Formats

“We are at the point where people expect us to do a lot of video and if we don’t reinvent the way we think about it, someone else will,” said Maymann.

News outlets are now competing for attention with services such as Netflix, which has increased its video on demand offering by four times in the last five years, also releasing multiple episodes at once.

Huffington Post Live, the outlet’s first big step into video, was launched in 2012 and came with the realisation that “we had to invest a lot of money into this, it wasn’t just about putting a team of four people in the corner”.

Since then, The Huffington Post has focused on expanding its video operations on different levels: through premium licensed video content partnerships with companies like NBC Universal; by creating original videos for live streaming and on demand; and developing Outspeak, its platform for user-generated video journalism.

Platforms

More than 50 per cent of people aged 14-24 in the US found news through social networks and other distribution channels, according to a Deloitte Digital Democracy Survey from 2014.

Social media referrals are the largest source of traffic at The Huffington Post, said Maymann.

“It matters what media brand you’re connected with on Facebook, but far more important is who your friends are and which of their posts you interact with,” said Simon Milner, Facebook’s policy director for UK and Ireland, also present at the lecture.

“You’re much more likely to read a story, no matter who the publisher is, if it’s been recommended by a friend.”

But considering the rapid pace of change, how should news organisations find the balance between intuition and research when embracing new trends and platforms?

Maymann said it comes down to regularly monitoring your audience’s behaviour and adjusting accordingly.

He advised publishers to manage change in three ways: create content for each platform individually; capitalise on traffic by developing apps and adapting to initiatives like Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages; and look to monetising strategies beyond advertising, such as native content or partnerships.

“It’s not like [The Huffington Post] got all these things right on the first try, but I believe we’ve created a culture where we learn from mistakes, move on and get better at understanding these trends.”