Questions for James G. Smith, Chief Revenue Officer for The Huffington Post

The Huffington Post holds a unique place in the online media sphere. Part original news outlet and aggregator, part blog and part community, the site presents celebrity punditry and political provocation side by side with salacious Hollywood fluff without batting an eye. Yet even as The Huffington Post breaks a new media mold, its revenue model follows that of many other smart Web pubs: partner, distribute, and most of all, experiment.

Chief Revenue Officer James G. Smith is guiding that process. Since starting in January, the former AOL and Advertising.com exec has overseen the addition of 10 ad and sales staffers. His mission is not only to bring in ad revenue, but also to develop supplemental revenue streams. He says sophisticated ad targeting is especially important for the site.

Q: What kind of ad formats and targeting are available on Huffington Post?

A: We’re [DoubleClick] Dart for Publishers -based, so we offer all the usual targeting that Dart for Publishers offers, so geo-targeting, etcetera. Interestingly we’ve also just struck a partnership with a company called Lotame. With them we’re going to be offering some pretty interesting behavioral targeting, and probably even more importantly, targeting levels of engagement.

For example, these are the consumers who in fact comment more than ten times on our site or these are folks that continue to go to entertainment stories time and time again… Let’s target them across the site, not just strictly in the content.

Q: And you’re talking just targeting within HuffPo?

A: Just within HuffingtonPost for now, yeah.

Q: That’s been a longtime struggle for behavioral targeting, the lack of reach when you’re just within one site or a small group of sites as opposed to a large behavioral targeting network like a Tacoda would offer.

A: We actually do work with Tacoda along with some other behavioral targeting companies… We know that some advertisers are much more interested in the folks that are coming here for entertainment than perhaps for the people that are coming here for politics and vice versa, so we want to make sure we offer them sophisticated buying tools on that side.

Q: What percentage of advertising is sold direct?

A: Well most of our inventory is sold direct at this point… That said, as part of my tenure at AOL I was for awhile head of publisher services at Advertising.com, so I certainly appreciate the value of the ad networks… We daisy chain a whole variety of ad networks… also Google AdSense and Tacoda and Tribal Fusion and a lot of others. So to answer your question directly, the amount of inventory that goes towards direct is far more significant than indirect is. I’m sure it was the other way around a year and a half ago.

Q: The typical concern voiced by companies about user generated content is, “We don’t know what our ad’s going to be next to.” Is that still a prominent issue?

A: I think in today’s interactive environment or community, interaction and dialog and conversation around the property is what truly makes it interactive. Advertisers are increasingly aware of the fact that that’s a positive, not a negative.

Q: What kind of advertisers are you attracting the most? Are there any you would like to have more of that haven’t gravitated to the site yet or you haven’t reached out to as much?

A: Early on, the first advertisers that jumped in were film and television and entertainment… They tend to be very aware of the non-quantitative positive attributes of a site like ours — the heat around our brand… Along with that comes auto advertising — same reasons — they’re launching a model, etcetera. Financials are very strong for us as well because of the affluent audience. Luxury goods for the same reason, and we have pharma, so a broad range.

If your question is, are there any we’re surprised haven’t jumped on, I think the most surprising answer to most people would be that we’ve had very little political candidate advertising.

Q: I did see AARP on the site today, so you do have advocacy-oriented stuff.

A: We also get a fair share of Oscar “for your consideration,” because there’s almost a trade play with the site as well. There are so many entertainment and political V.I.P.s coming to the site because their colleagues are blogging on the site or they want to see what’s going on.

Q: What do you guys do in terms of getting the word out about the site and promoting the site?

A: Of course we do some SEO and we have content distribution partnerships across many other sites including big ones like Yahoo, including vertical ones like TreeHugger in our green section or Variety in our entertainment section or Talking Points Memo in our Political section. But really what drives folks to the site is our content going viral. Either Digg picks up our stories or our videos go viral or Perez Hilton picks it up, or you name it… It’s a changing dynamic all day.

Q: You’re lucky in a way to have all that free dissemination. Those are things that didn’t exist years ago.

A: Well, that was the genius of the founders here understanding that part of being innovative would be not plastering the brand in very traditional marketing ways, but understanding how to let it disseminate across the interactive environment. It’s the advantage you have in being born on the Internet. We’re a news brand but we’re not a news brand that has any constraints or legacy that many other news organizations have.

Q: What’s coming down the pike for advertising offerings?

A: From an advertising standpoint, we continue to go into the marketplace and just better understand what the marketers would like from us… We’re like everyone else in the industry, puzzled about what to do with video advertising. We have a lot of video on our site. Pre-roll tends to work positively… people love to buy it. But as I mentioned earlier, our marketing is keeping everything viral and sometimes pre-roll prevents that, so we’re trying to figure out that puzzle.

We’ve only been doing this at full scale for eight months, maybe even seven, so we have a lot to learn about what we can bring to the marketplace.

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