Expect a lot of sniffy reviews of the Huffington Post today. That’s par for the course: a short, odd-looking interloper is bursting into a roomful of graceful, if elderly brands. Scrappy-Doo at a cocktail party.
It’s a tough crowd. With The Guardian having long ago signed up a number of leading voices to its Comment Is Free platform and niche networks, outlets from The Telegraph to the New Statesman having signed up many other major bloggers, and remaining high profile bloggers having enough traffic and profile to no longer need any help, HuffPo UK looks like it is fighting for scraps.
In the US Arianna Huffington was well known, and HuffPo positioned itself as a liberal alternative to a homogenous mainstream. It was an early mover – and still attracted enormous criticism, with the launch widely seen as a flop.
But success is in the eye of the beholder.
HuffPo UK is launching with a small and relatively low-profile staff, which puts it under less pressure financially and gives it room to look like a growing company.
It is focused on building a news platform from a network, rather than the other way round, which still makes it relatively unique.
And while there are plenty of similar networks covering niches such as science and technology, no one has yet attempted this at a mass market level. There may just be a gap for an effective networked aggregator in the notoriously competitive UK market.
The missing piece of the jigsaw is how much ad sales muscle there will be behind the site. There are some obvious economies of scale in selling ads through staff at both AOL UK and the US Huffington Post, but that approach has flaws. If HuffPo UK comes undone anywhere, it may be at the hands of a competitive UK advertising market.
But its major weakness – the fact that it doesn’t have much of a history – might also be its biggest advantage. The only baggage it carries is the acquisition by AOL. That is not insignificant, but neither is it insurmountable. It is free to build an identity around its users – and if it’s sensible, that’s what it will do. It can no longer pretend to be the outsider it once was.
Launching without a community manager in post is a problem on that front, but it also suggests that they take the role seriously enough to be prepared to take their time in finding the right person. They’ve done well to recruit dozens of bloggers without one, but they need a dedicated staffer on that front fast.
Without that person their approach to bloggers can seem slapdash, with little care paid to explaining why a blogger might want to sign up to the HuffPo UK project, what that project is, or who the people are behind it.
Building that brand, and those relationships, is going to take time. If HuffPo UK is going to work, AOL will need to allow for that, and not expect instant results.