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A Lesson In Effective Community Management – AOL & The Huffington Post

 

AOL just announced it is paying $315 million to buy the liberal news commentary site The Huffington Post; a move coming not long after forking out $25 million to buy TechCrunch, a Silicon Valley technology news blog.

Founder Arianna Huffington‘s decision to fold her ground breaking community-based news site into one of the web’s struggling legacy Internet companies came as a surprise to many, in the same way Michael Arrington‘s Big Announcement at TechCrunch Disrupt last year managed to upstage all the start ups at the event.

Why the Huffington Post?  It has been wildly successful due to several factors, including its ability to find stories across the Web, couple them with well-created headlines and ensure a strong audience sees them. It is also popular as a progressive American news website.Yet the main factor that attracted AOL could in fact be the Huffington Post‘s community.

In addition to columns by Arianna Huffington and a core group of contributors the site has over 3,000 bloggers. These range from politicians and celebrities to academics and policy experts to Digital Influence’s Kety Esquivel all of whom contribute in real time, on a wide-range of topics.

In any vibrant community, online or off, people connect with each other because:

  1. They can do so easily and confidently
  2. They keep coming back because they satisfy certain needs or wants by taking part
  3. They feel their contributions are valued and can identify with the wider community group and its goals

All factors which until now, have been prevalent at the Huffington Post during its five-plus years of existence, with over one million comments made on the site each month. However, it is this community management which is exactly where new owner AOL is walking a fine line.

Along with a community comes community management, an area AOL is not exactly well known for (Bebo anyone?). If it ignores the basic principles of working with a loyal group built up online over time, while Ariana is busy elsewhere, the Huffington Post could go down a very different path.

How?

  • Although all of the influencers working with the Huffington Post have benefitted from the association with one of the most cutting edge media outlets in the digital world. Yet they also poured their own personal brand equity into a highly evolved, select group of opinion leaders with similar ideals. They joined behind a strong lead in the form of Ariana Huffington. Who has now sold the community to make a lot of money and take a new role at AOL.
  • There have already been rumbles of disquiet at the HuffPo which started to become more regulated this year, in preparation for the AOL deal no doubt. This left some community members upset due to the lost value in timeliness one of the HuffPo’s biggest benefits. Now some articles have reportedly been delayed for weeks, not days, while they wait for editor’s approvals.
  • If a community’s members begin to doubt it is built on sound principles such as rumors that this deal marks the beginning of a bi-partisan effort and talk of a conservative HuffPo going live attrition could further increase, not ideal among such a highly influential group.

Yet it should also be noted, any change always sparks fear and disquiet; reflect on any change made at Facebook to see how a community quickly revolts when anything new is introduced.

Members keep coming back because the HuffPo satisfies their needs by enabling them to take part. Its new parent could be creating an amazing opportunity for the existing community, an evolutionary stage in reporting, underlining the fact that news is an exciting area and always will be.

If the Huffington Post continues to value its contributors and keep its goals front and center through its evolution, apply basic principles of community management, then it may well become the Trojan Horse that brought quality timely content to AOL, while keeping its valued contributors at its very heart.

Image: Will Lion

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