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June 16, 2016, 9:25 a.m.
Audience & Social

The Huffington Post’s new product head wants to help readers take action on the stories they read

“We don’t want the story to end when the article or video ends.”

One of the hallmarks of Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post ownership is the broad spirit of experimentation that has taken over the company. The Post over the past few years has operated essentially as a startup, rapidly building and iterating new products even if there’s a strong chance they will fail.


That spirit, which has revitalized the Post, is one that Julia Beizer, the Huffington Post’s recently hired product head, wants to build on at her new company. Beizer, former director of mobile product at The Washington Post, jumped over to The Huffington Post in March. She was one of the minds behind Trump Cards, a new embeddable feature that highlights some of the more outlandish remarks by the presumptive Republican nominee. Beizer has also overseen the deployment of The Huffington Post’s homepage redesign, which aggressively integrates video and better highlights content from the 100,000 contributors using The Huffington Post’s platform.

I spoke to Beizer about how she approaches the idea of product, how that’s changed in the age of distributed content, and how she wants to use a product mindset to help readers take action on stories, rather than just read them. Our conversation, edited and condensed for length and clarity, is below.

Ricardo Bilton: You’re just a few months into your new gig, but what’s the biggest problem you’re looking to solve?

Julia Beizer: What’s interesting about this brand, and what attracted me to it, is that the way we write, the way we shoot video and cover stories — it all has a really active voice. I want to extend that sensibility throughout our products. That’s a big challenge — how to make news articles feel as active as the writing on the page is.

Bilton: Are you building any specific products around that idea?

Beizer: We’re taking a deep look at how we can give users a chance to take that next step of action. We don’t want the story to end when the article or video ends. We don’t want people to read something and get fired up about it but then just give them the option to just leave the site, share or whatever. What other options can we give them?

Bilton: How do you think of “product” today, when so much of publishers’ audiences are coming to them via third-party platforms rather than via publishers’ sites directly? How does your approach to product change when the traditional core product isn’t as important?

Beizer: It starts by thinking of audiences on-platform as very different from those off-platform. Obviously, we would love it if off-platform users came back and become more daily users, but if they don’t, we still have a great opportunity to think about these audiences very differently and create different experiences for them.

Bilton: The Huffington Post is one of those rare sites that still sees a lot of its traffic coming in directly. We’ve been talking about the decline of the homepage for a while. Has the role changed?

Beizer: One of the benefits of distributed is that content always finds its audience, which gives the homepage a little more freedom to be about how we want to say what we’re about in the world. That’s a really powerful thing. It becomes a brand statement. And so the editors who work on our home page have an incredibly strong point of view and news judgment in that vein. Giving them the freedom to not feel just like they’re promotional arms for the newsroom, but to feel they control how we present the most important news of the day — that’s a real opportunity. 

Bilton: What about product on platforms like Instant Articles, Apple News, and Snapchat? As a publisher, you don’t control the entirety of the experience. How does that change what you do?

Beizer: There’s the basic idea of publishing off-platform and making sure your content looks like your brand, feels like your brand, and has the essence of what you’re going for. That’s table-stakes distributed content, and publishers have to do more than just that. Just today, we were talking about how to integrate some motion into our Instant Articles by bringing GIFs into our storytelling, which we thought would be compelling because the experience there is so fast.

If you looked at last summer in the new product universe, everyone was scrambling to get on the platforms, asking, “How do we get there? How do we optimize our sites for all of the many places where our content can now be distributed?” Well, now we’re there, so the question is what we’re going to do with what we’ve learned. To me, that’s product work. That is looking at your audience, catching the trends, and seeing where you can improve experiences for them, create new experiences for them, and optimize the ones you already have.

Bilton: Speaking of user experience, adblocking is another topic the industry has been very concerned about, even obsessed with, over the last year. From a product perspective, that’s an issue that’s the result of a basic uncoupling between the editorial experience and the advertising experience. What has to change in the industry to fix that?

Beizer: I’m not the first to say that I don’t think we’d be in this situation if ads weren’t contributing to a sub-par user experience across the board. Out of something that is a bit scary, publishers and their partners in sales and at agencies are being forced to look at how they’re creating these ad experiences, which is a good thing. You look at something like the latest Snapchat update and how they’re integrating ads directly into your friends’ stories. I think that that experience is one where, while you’re seeing ads, those ads fit in with the way you are experiencing the content that’s less objectionable.

Bilton: What about the general approach you want to bring to how The Huffington Post creates new products? How do you want to change the thinking there?

Beizer: I’m trying to orient our teams around user-facing products, as opposed to the technology stack. I’ve worked in both ways of thinking, where you organize your teams around a platform and how you want to scale that platform, or you organize your teams around a product and how you want to build it for users. I think that second path is the way I want to go here: To make sure we’re set up to continually ship and iterate. That’s very much in the DNA of the newsroom here, and I want to build on it.

POSTED     June 16, 2016, 9:25 a.m.
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