HuffPo Stressing Direct Sales, Social Efforts on Path to Profitability

The Huffington Post’s editorial strategy is sometimes compared to a mullet: business in the front (i.e., lead stories about Afghanistan or the oil spill in the Gulf) and party in the back (slide shows about celebrity boob jobs, for example).

The same can be said of its advertising strategy, only in reverse. In its first five years, the site has been heavily dependent on ad networks and seed money to get by. Recently, it has tried to get serious about turning a profit by bulking up its direct-sales team and coming up with some cutting-edge sponsorship packages.

The site took another step toward the serious this week with the addition of nine people to its direct-sales team. Among them are Terry City, former entertainment accounts director of film and television at Yahoo, who joins as executive director of entertainment sales and strategy, and Mandy MacKay, formerly an account manager at the New York Times, who joins as senior manager of sales development.

This brings the total sales and marketing staff to about 35 people, half of whom are devoted to direct ad sales.

The hires come eight months after Greg Coleman left his eight-year stint as EVP of global sales at Yahoo to join Huffington Post as chief revenue officer. Upon joining the blog-cum-news site, Coleman announced his intention to double revenue in a year and turn a profit in 2010.

On Wednesday, Coleman said the Huffington Post was still on track to accomplish both those goals, thanks largely to major upswings in traffic. (The site logged 13 million unique visitors in March, according to Nielsen Online, a 94 percent increase over the same month last year.) He also laid out his strategy for getting there, a game plan that involves the creative uses of social media and new verticals to lure advertisers.

In the past several months, Huffington Post has launched sections on food, sports and religion (admittedly not a huge advertising draw, Coleman said), and will launch a travel section on July 1. Those new sections have lured the likes of Mercedes, General Electric, IBM, HP and Discovery.

But Coleman said it was social media programs where Huffington Post was “leading the industry.”

“What we’ve done is shown some of our customers how they can use some of the social tools we have that have made our site so big, and allowed them to start using some of these tools for promoting their brands.”

For example, HuffPo has incorporated Twitter feeds into some of its display advertising.

“Where we believe we’re headed is being at the forefront of showing marketers how to use social tools that the Huffington Post uses to grow their brands,” he said. “To get that sense where a friend shares a story with you and then, uh oh, here comes the ad with it.”

But what to tell advertisers who may be wary of the mullet strategy, who aren’t so sure they want to buy a finance package only to find their brand end up next to a slide show of Hollywood’s richest hotties?

“I talk about my consumption of media and my friends’ consumption of media” he said. “I don’t just eat meat. I have vegetables and I have desert.”

“So when it comes to being able to attract an audience the size of ours, I make no bones about it,” he said. “That’s the way people work.”

Follow Douglas Quenqua on Twitter at @DQuenqua.

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