They Get It series is supported by CDW.
Note: This article originally ran on October 20, 2010 but given Huffington Post’s sale to AOL, we though it was appropriate to revisit the secrets that made them a $315 million success.
Jonah Peretti and Paul Berry are masters of getting content to catch on. So it’s no wonder the startup they helped launch, HuffingtonPost, gets so much traffic.
At the Hard Candy Shell-Fan Feedr conference, Berry, Huffington Post’s Chief Technical Officer, reminisced about his and Peretti’s viral creation, Dog Island.
Peretti and Berry promoted Dog Island, an imaginary place where dogs are sent and never heard of again, on Craigslist. They listed a Manhattan apartment for rent — in exchange for the tenant’s dog being shipped to their fantasy land. Within two days, the pranksters received an email from Craigslist: “We don’t know who you are, but your fake ads have made our employees waste entire days.”
When Berry began at Huffington Post just a few years ago, the site had 3.5 million uniques. Now, they’re up to 44 million and the site rivals the traffic of The New York Times.
To get hits, Berry says you need to take a lot of swings.
'You're not going to ever bat 1.000, so you need to have a system that allows you to take a hit.' According to the CTO, Huffington Post produces 600 to 1,000 pieces of original content every day. Out of all that content, between 10 and 100 articles go viral.
Berry says their content management system (CMS) is built to capture the content that is going viral, and it's constantly optimised to double-down on whatever is working. And they are constantly optimising, with at least one new tech release every day.
Another element of producing viral content, of course, is luck. Berry references their unintentional, exceptionally-timed sports section launch. 'Tiger Woods has been really good to us,' he laughs. 'Nothing could have been better than 25 mistresses.'
'Our process is fairly unique,' Berry boasts. 'We're very against 'tech has an order taker.' We've always been really scrappy and creative.'
Huffington Post has traffic editors who research daily news trends and make article recommendations.
Real-time content is also a major component of Huffington Post's magical formula. During all major events, Berry says their traffic surges, because people trust that they'll have the latest coverage.
In addition, Huffington Post editors are always looking for ways to get people from one of their sections (Sports, Entertainment, Politics, etc) to the front page and extend the visitor's stay.
Everything the company does is calculated; they're very metric-based. And when they find something that works, they put all of their resources into it.
Huffington Post's tech team is only 30 people strong, but they might as well be an army.
They have people all over the world; only one-third of their tech staff is based in New York. The rest are scattered in Chile, The Philippines, and elsewhere. Having their team spread world-wide and in different time zones ensures their news coverage, and tech updates, never sleep.
Their team is also great at creativity and multi-tasking. And all their employees, tech and edit alike, are great collaborators.
'We don't have task zombies, not in edit and not in tech. That's what's allowed for such a great collaboration between those two groups within Huffington Post,' says Berry.
'We have very creative editors who have ideas for new tech features all the time, but it's our programmers who have the best opportunity to improve the product. If someone thinks they've thought about a feature more than tech did, they're wrong, because it's the IT people that have to build the solution.' The teams work together to communicate new ideas and get them built quickly.
*Huffington Post has 186 staffers, and the tech team is spread world-wide. Most of their writers are based in New York or DC.
Their hiring process, for tech in particular, sounds almost as gruelling as Googles,' although Berry calls it an efficient and streamlined process.
'We'll get 60 resumes, and widdle it down to five people who will get beta access to our CMS. Those five are given a mini assignment. Some more drop out after that, and we see who wins. You're left with the guy who didn't just get it done. It's the person that made the product better than you thought.'
After this person 'wins,' they're still on a month trial employment period. Only then, if they're a star, will Huffington Post commit to hiring them.
Berry doesn't like making structured time-schedules and due dates for his remote teams.
'I don't' believe in counting hours and then coming up with a scope and asking why people didn't deliver,' says Berry. 'Whatever you realise on Monday, by Thursday you'll realise it's wrong, or something else should take priority.'
Berry manages his remote teams only through email. 'In seven years I had never heard some of our guys' voices. I had seen photos, but I had never heard all of our star writers' even on the phone.' Finally, after 7 years the company had enough financing to bring some of the remote workers permanently to New York. Only then did Berry physically see who he had been working with.
Keeping geographically distanced employees incentivized doesn't seem to be a struggle for Huffington Post either. 'We use the site as motivation,' says Berry. 'We'll say, 'this article took off, and you made it happen. All these people saw your work,' and that, in itself, is rewarding.'
Constant feedback is also important. 'People will work like a dog for people who give them positive feedback,' he says.
It's also important to give employees time off. 'There's the human factor. You have to give them a break when then need it,' he says.
Berry's process seems to work. He says he's only lost one employee in three years that he's wanted to keep.
According to Berry, Huffington Post feels their role in publishing is to think fast and to be fast.
'It's a very collaborative process that is ruthlessly metric-based,' he says. 'We measure everything, try a ton of stuff, pull out the stuff that works, and then take it even further.'
And they're always thinking two steps ahead. 'In order to be fast, we try to parallel develop everything. As soon as there's a new tech feature idea, I know our programmers will need to develop a SQL table for it. When we have an idea that we know is a core to our future, we start working on it immediately, so that it will be fully developed without anyone having to wait for it.'
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