November 28, 2018

What Do Users Want? HuffPost Seeks Answers

By Kinda Awad, MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media student

Inflatable palm trees, a giant blow up pizza slice, a rubber ducky collection, a foosball table, conference rooms that look like living rooms— it doesn’t sound like a workspace, but it is. NYUSPS MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media students were amazed by HuffPost’s cool offices on a recent visit. Our host was Anna McGrady, the company’s Senior Editor for Growth and Analytics, who warmly welcomed us and gave us some insights into her many responsibilities: audience development, SEO, social media strategies, newsletters, data analytics, and more. She also gave us a snapshot of the history and evolution of HuffPost from its early days founded by Arianna Huffington and other tech leaders to its current status as one of the media brands owned by Verizon. She then introduced us to a panel of inspiring staffers helping to grow one of today’s most successful tech and news companies.

Video, of course, is huge at HuffPost, and it was great to hear from Will Tooke, Senior Producer, who explained the role of visual storytelling: "We are very conscious that we don’t want video to give exactly the same experience as the article," he explained. In the rush to populate the site with great video, the challenge, says Tooke, always is to make sure that "quality is not sacrificed for timeliness."

Students sitting around the HuffPost conference desk about to eat lunch

Maintaining the highest journalistic standards is key for all news coverage at HuffPost. "We have all these talented reporters and producers, but making quality journalism known, seen, and accessible, is always a challenge," concurred Jared Greenhouse, Associate Editor at HuffPost. He further explained that "the story will stay the same but how you present it and how you optimize it is different [depending on] the platform." A story that is searchable on Google may be different than one on Facebook. "We try to tailor every story to that [specific] platform."

Continuing that conversation, Christine Liang, Global SEO Manager for HuffPost, noted that the unlimited resources and vast audiences on the internet mean that her team members "create specific niche strategies for each specific platform." As Liang explained, "Modern websites require a lot more than you think. It’s not just a couple of pages on the site anymore. Ours feels like five billion thousand pages. So we think about how to keep that clean and working for our users, making that experience rich for them."

Adding to that, McGrady noted the importance of "finding ways to make audiences more attached to the community [so that they] sign up for a newsletter, or download one of our apps. It could also be something as simple as commenting."

During the sensitive socio-political times we live in, storytelling requires the thorough creation and crafting of content with all constituents in mind to avoid insulting anyone’s belief or affiliation in a world full of contrasting values. Consumers are more sensitive than ever to the way stories are framed in media, especially when it comes to diversity and human rights. Taryn Finley, HuffPost’s Editor of Black Voices, faces the continual challenge of accurately representing the misrepresented, "because in our times, when we look at the media landscape, our voices are either skewed, or underrepresented, or not told," she explained. It’s very important that HuffPost (and all publications) make sure, as Finley noted, that "we’re doing a good job of seeing where we can cover stories differently, or interjecting different perspectives into different stories."

Hundreds of black marker signatures on a white board, along with a flat screen tv broadcasting MSNBC

An important strategy for HuffPost is building innovative partnerships to expand awareness in a way that might not be achieved independently. HuffPost, for instance, recently partnered with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History on a project around racial justice, as well as with MIT’s Sloan School of Management, to create a live learning platform about how economic systems change initiatives. The challenge, said Matthew Krumholtz, Head of Philanthropic and Strategic Partnerships at HuffPost, is "figuring out where there’s a common ground. What will benefit us editorially in term of brand reputation, but also benefit our partner?"

New products are another way to reach wider audiences and generate revenue. Working on research, testing, font scaling, back-end development, and many more tasks to improve the user experience, Candy Bigwood, HuffPost’s UI Product Director, is currently exploring how the company can create deeper experiences for readers, both on the web and through their mobile devices. Handling the big responsibility of designing apps for all audiences, based on who the consumers are and what they need, she asked a relevant question that publishers still need to answer: "What do users want? What can you bring that’s valuable to people, that they might pay for?"

She cautioned that "we don’t know yet." Still, specifying users' needs in uncharted high-tech territories, and at a time where political and social content is intensely controversial, is the biggest challenge facing media brands today. Echoing a common sentiment in the conference room, Will Tooke noted, "The challenge is what keeps it interesting."

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