Huffington Post Gets Down to Business

The Huffington Post has enjoyed meteoric traffic growth since launching five years ago, and buzz to match. Now it’s time for the site’s business side to catch up.

Industry veteran Greg Coleman, who became the site’s chief revenue officer last September, said the goal is to double HuffPo’s revenue this year and next—a goal he expects to exceed in 2010 (publisher reports put the site’s 2009 revenue at $15 million).

Since being hired, Coleman has brought on 18 experienced sales executives who have helped land dollars from General Electric, Siemens, Mercedes, HP, and most recently IBM and Discovery. But HuffPo is still under the radar at some agencies, despite reaching 22 million unique users in April.

“We have world-class editorial [and] world-class technology, but our ad sales operation is virtually a startup,” said Coleman. Upon arriving, he found a small sales team with little experience and no syndicated research. “The way business was conducted in the past, we’d wait for RFPs to come in. That was it. What we are doing [now] is introducing the brand to a lot of people.”

According to CEO Eric Hippeau, HuffPo will be profitable in 2010 for the first time. Until recently, “we’ve been in investment mode,” he said.

That’s quickly changing, according to co-founder and editor in chief Arianna Huffington. “We’ve hardly touched our last round of investment,” she said. “First of all, we tried to build edit and community. We had to do it in order. Now advertising is growing dramatically. We’ve made a great investment, and Greg’s now bringing in the kind of advertising we want to see on the site.”

By design, HuffPo has never overused banner ads. “My sense is they don’t necessarily want to be considered a traditional publisher,” said Chris Curtin, vp of digital strategy at HP. “They want to have an ad approach that is as unique as their editorial one. That’s attractive for brands.”

According to Huffington, another key factor in attracting more brands has been her team’s ability to change the early perception of the site–that it was just a left wing blog outlet for a handful of her celebrity friends. “We put a premium on traditional journalistic values,” she said. “And it became very clear very quickly that we were going to cover the Obama administration fairly. That got us a lot of credibility.”

Plus, the site has pushed well beyond politics, now publishing 20 different sections ranging from Colleges to Sports to Comedy that generate 75 percent of the site’s traffic. New sections focused on Arts and Travel will soon launch, and a syndicated radio show may be in the works.

“That was a genius move, expanding beyond politics,” said Heidi Browning, evp, global digital officer at UM.

Yet HuffPo still has its critics. “There isn’t a shortage of news online,” said one buyer. “If they are just selling banners alongside news content, and trying to get a premium for it, I can get that in a lot of places for a lower price.”

However, what has the potential to make HuffPo far more attractive to advertisers is its social nature. For example, the site has incorporated Facebook Connect, publishes a unique Twitter edition and now awards its most active commenters with “badges.” Hippeau said that Huffington Post was always conceived as a place where individuals could express themselves and share news.

“What we didn’t anticipate was how social media would change news,” he said. We’ve been riding that wave. Again, what we are doing is nothing different than what people do in real life when they share content with friends. We are just providing them tools.”