Jimmy gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the Huffington Post media empire. Learn how he uses real-time analytics to inform decisions, why mobile apps are overrated, what the two-click test is, and how social is the new front page for content.
→ Learn about the innovative strategies used by the Huffington Post to drive growth and success in online journalism
→ His thoughts about the future of journalism, content marketing and how to grow a massive site in a short time
→ An inside look into the performance indicators that are used to drive the website’s growth.
→ Uncover how to apply this insight and strategies to your own online content and marketing efforts to drive growth and success in your industry.
→ And a whole lot more
Ryan: Welcome to another episode of Growth Hacker TV. I’m Ryan Holiday and I have Jimmy Soni with us. Jimmy is the managing editor at the Huffington Post and we are going to talk about the Huffington Post innovations that he’s brought as the managing editor there, what the future of journalism looks like, what content marketing looks like, and how he’s grown this massive site in the short time that he’s been there. So I’ve known Jimmy for what we know each other like two or three years now.
Jimmy: I got on Twitters, I think. Yeah.
Ryan: And so we sort of connected one about journalism and two about books. Jimmy’s an author of an amazing book called Rome’s Last Citizen, which is a biography of of Cato, the Roman senator. So if you like this, check that out as well. But Jimmy is basically a really smart dude who’s the managing editor of The Evening Post. But that position is more than just editing articles, right? It’s more or less responsible for it. So it’s sort of like a CEO position with a content bent, right?
Jimmy: That’s that’s a pretty good description of it. I mean, a lot of it is, you know, in this day and age, you can’t just be a great writer. You’ve got to think about all of the different aspects of web publishing. And that’s my job.
Ryan: Sure. And so one of those aspects, of course, would be growth. You’ve got to unlike, say, The New York Times, where the editor might be somewhat unconcerned with subscriptions, which is sort of someone else’s problem, you’re your job is is to grow the site and to get more people reading and more people commenting and doing all these things. So in terms of growth, what are the performance indicators that you guys look at?
Jimmy: Yeah. We typically look at, you know, there’s a bunch of different ones. At the high level, it’s. It’s UVA’s unique visitors and PD’s Patriots. Right. Right. If you dove a little bit more deeply, the kind of growth I want is organic growth. And the best organic growth out there right now is from social channels. So what I the number I really study is social referral growth. And so that’s that’s a little bit, you know, a slightly deeper number. It a lot more baked into it. But it’s better to understand that number than just like you’ve and PVS in the abstract, not to mention the fact that like you be using PVS are a great metric. But it’s a little bit like looking at the final score of the game. You’re not actually going to know what happened in the game and understanding what actually goes on is pretty important.
Ryan: What about like time on site and like do we get total ad impressions? Is it sort of all those things holistically or is there what is it right now? It’s just social. That’s what matters.
Jimmy: Well, we look at time on site. So we look at kind of over time our people spending more time with certain sections than with other sections. Right. Because you can use that information to change, for example, like your your recirculation algorithms. So if you have articles at the bottom of another article and you note that people who read an article from say, Healthy Living are inclined to read articles from three other sections. You can make sure that the stuff that shows up at the bottom is actually from those three sections. So you have to study those kinds of things. I’m not on the ad side, so I’m not too concerned in my day to day with without impression numbers. That’s kind of there’s a pretty strong Chinese wall between editorial and marketing and sales. But the you know, the guys who do look at that stuff that they’re studying those numbers obsessively. For me, the reason I’m studying social referrals is because I think that that’s that’s where our ideal audience is right now. And it’s why I obsess over that number. And, you know, it’s one of one to say 10 to 15 numbers I’m looking at in a given day.
Ryan: And how do you how do you look at those numbers? How do they come to you? Is it automated reports? Do you have a screen? What do you how do you track that?
Jimmy: So I’ve got I’ve got three or four different tools. One is a report I get every morning about what happened on the site the day before. So I have up to the day audience metrics for every one of our verticals on the site. I know UVs, I know Ppvs. I know where they compare to where we were last month, so I can know whether or not we’re pacing to where we should be. Right. And that’s a nice like 10,000 foot. Here’s where the status of the site is. I get that every morning. It’s the first thing. It’s roughly the first thing I look at. There’s a more granular dashboard that I use hourly, and it’s something that we’ve built its proprietary technology. And basically what that tells me is what are the what is the state of the site in 15 minute intervals and in hour long intervals? So one of the things that smart Web publishers do well is they optimize incoming traffic. So if you can turn one U.V. that’s coming to you into into three Ppvs or four PPVS, that’s ultimately more valuable for you than if that person just shows up and leaves. And so part of what we can do is make sure that we’re promoting content that’s doing well so that we can get the nice boost from that. So, for example, that dashboard would tell me in the last 15 minutes if a pop article we published took off on Facebook. And I can tell right away if we’ve promoted that on our main Facebook accounts and if we haven’t, then we should. And those are the sorts of things that I can actually dove into on a 15 minute and hourly basis.
Ryan: So not to take this metaphor too far, but it’s like you have traffic. That’s what we call sort of offline visitors. And you’re literally you’re sort of sitting there and you’re like literally directing it towards where you want them to go in a way that benefits the site the most and benefits those readers. Because if they read one article, they’re probably happier if they read six.
Jimmy: Yeah, I think it’s not I mean, it’s a lot of it is. It’s just sort of directing traffic to the extent that you can. Another way to think about it is I am taking stuff that our audience is telling us they are interested in and making sure it gets in front of as many other people as possible. So I’ll give you an example. You know, you’ve published a few blog posts on on the Huffington Post. And if I were to see one of those taking off, I can say, hey, you know, this is really doing well on its own. Now let’s give it more exposure by putting it on the front page to be able to do that aggressively. You don’t want to do that once a day. You want to do that every 15 minutes because you’re getting a new audience to your front page. So what I’m trying to do is optimize that incoming traffic by directing them to the things that are doing well or that I think are editorially important or that we know where is the breaking news of the day. And we’re constantly doing that. We’re finding that strategy.
Ryan: So on the one hand, that’s a very sort of analytical, almost sort of quant job. But, you know, your title is managing editor and so does the editorial part of that job come in. Like, so you’re getting this data, but if you’re only trusting that data, it would be one, it would probably be a boring job or two, it wouldn’t make for a great sort of publication or brand. So is it you’re sort of looking at your look, you’re seeing these numbers and you know, oh, that’s interesting. That’s doing well. That’s doing well. And then you’re making decisions on the fly based on your expertize, from having viewed and read and your content expertize to decide which one to put resources behind.
Jimmy: Exactly. I think they think it’s two things. One, I can use that information to know what our audience responds to from a headline writing perspective. Right? So like one of the biggest and most important things at the moment is because of the way Facebook surfaces, content, headline writing is more important than it’s ever been. And you know this because of the stuff you’ve done on on medium and catalog and all the rest. Like you have to write great attention getting headlines and that’s an editorial challenge, right? And how do you do that and not fall into familiar tropes? How do you do how do you balance the need to get someone’s attention without being gratuitous? How do you capture enough information about an article that they actually that the user actually get something out of the headline but still leaves enough that they want to click? All of that is an editorial challenge. The analytics support that challenge. They give you the information. It’s kind of like getting, you know, it’s just getting the data so that I know what my audience didn’t didn’t respond to. Did we do the best job possible with this headline? Did we do the best job possible with this image? Is the audience coming in through mobile? One of the biggest changes right now is I’m actually looking at mobile traffic and desktop traffic, sometimes separately some posts will overperform on mobile and in that is what we’ve got to do is go and say, Oh man, there’s a video in this person. The video doesn’t play well on mobile. Pull it out, pull it out. Or you can say to yourself, Hey, there’s a slideshow in this post, but slideshows don’t really work well on mobile right now. Pull it out so that that that user that’s coming to us from a mobile application is actually having the best possible experience. So it’s those sorts of like gradations of user experience. The other piece of the job that editorial is, you know, part of what your audience does, and if you understand your audience, they will tell you the things they care about that you didn’t expect that they would care about. So, for example, I’ll give you a few things that the Huffington Post audience really cares about a lot that you would never think they care about. One is trade policy. Our audience gets into trade policy. They love understanding trade. And if you can explain it to them in a way that that’s not I wouldn’t say layman’s terms, but certainly something like that’s not too wonky. You can have an article really do well on this site. Our audience loves to learn about 3D printing. 3D printing is just this thing that the audience loves to look at things like this, that if you study enough, you can understand what the audience is looking for and they’ll they’re telling you something by their clicks, right? They’re like giving you the information that you can then say, hey, you know what? Like, there’s clearly a contingent of people who care about this and we really want to cover it. We should continue to do this. If you publish things and no one sees them, it doesn’t mean that you don’t publish them again. It just means you have to think harder about what it’s going to take to get an audience to read it. That’s actually like if I have one sort of message for people, it is every single editor or writer now has to also focus on audience development, and that is strategy, it’s creativity, but it’s where the two intersect. And you can’t ignore audience development anymore as a writer, as an editor.
Ryan: Well, that’s interesting, because that’s something I talk about in the in the growth hacking book that I did. And when I talk to clients, it’s like someone will come to you with a book and they’ll be like, Oh, like, can you market this and make it successful? And it’s like if they didn’t write a book for if they didn’t build the audience development one into the book and two just into their platform, there’s like nothing that you can do. And so like I and I’ve published on the Post and all these sites, and what I don’t think people necessarily understand is that even though The Huffington Post does millions and millions of pages or hundreds of millions of pages every month, there is a solid chance that your article could be seen by zero people, right? Yeah. And so how how do what do people miss when they publish that? People who are consistently successful always do.
Jimmy: I mean, I think the most important thing right above all else and you and I have talked about this a little bit with books, is the content actually has to deliver, right? Sure. The content has to be there. The post has to say something or inspiring or counterintuitive or really well thought out or perspective that nobody’s seen before. You could write the greatest headline in the world, but if the content isn’t there, no one’s going to care about it. And we actually use a little saying what we say is, you know, the headline will get you the click, but the content and the packaging will get you the share. So you could put it out on Facebook and if you put out a great headline, people will click on it. But how many times and this has happened to everybody, how many times have you been to a site, clicked on a great headline, gotten to the post and been like, Well, that wasn’t worth the payoff. Right. Sure. If that happens enough times, you’re no longer going to come to that site because you know that they’re overpaid, overpromising and under-delivering. So the biggest thing I can tell people who are writing an article is, yes, focus on audience development, but make sure that the article itself is actually something that people want to read that is like bar none. 75% of a struggle in not remaining a 24.
Ryan: You know, you made a great article, but the difference between a great article that people share and then a great article that no one shares could just be that could be at five, 5% overall change. You know what I mean? And I’m not talking about window dressing, but it’s. It’s the way that you’re writing the tone that you are. Like, for instance, like I tend to what I always ask is like, why would anyone share this article? So yeah, content aside, but have you did you end it in a way or begin it in a way or position in a way that. Elicits that reaction. And I think people don’t think about that. They’re like, Oh, I just wrote something smart, but that’s not enough.
Jimmy: No, it’s not. And the other thing is, you know, this is where great headline writing is more important than ever because the true success, the true story behind the success of places like Upworthy or places like BuzzFeed is that their headlines really do evoke emotions. A lot of the times it’s humor, sometimes it’s rage, sometimes it’s just kind of it’s all.
Jimmy: Nostalgia. These themes have been well-documented, and really, they’re as old as time. Like, we’re not talking about anything that magazines weren’t doing on the cover and still aren’t doing on the cover of magazines in the grocery store. But you really do need to give some thought to your headline. Shouldn’t just be a sort of tepid summary of what the article contains. It should be the reason why someone should. Error about it?
Ryan: No, no.
Jimmy: Some places. But that’s a question you need to ask yourself. If I had no context for this. If I were seeing this headline on LinkedIn and I couldn’t read anything below the headline, if I saw this headline on Twitter, if I saw this headline on Facebook, is it enough to get me to care to click? And that one click challenge is actually the ball game because that’s what you have to think a lot about. The other thing I’ll say is, you know, one of the things we talk about a lot is don’t assume that when you press publish, people are going to come to you. You’ve actually got to go figure out where the audience for a particular piece is. Right. You and I have talked about this a little bit, too. If you’re writing a piece that’s directed at business people and you’re asking your friends to help you out, ask them to share it on LinkedIn, where there’s a more natural audience for that kind of stuff. If it’s about management, if it’s about leadership, have them shared on LinkedIn and in addition to sharing it on Facebook, but having them share on LinkedIn because there’s a huge audience on LinkedIn for that kind of content. It’s about being smart about who you get to promote certain content and where they promote it.
Ryan: Now that’s interesting because I imagine what you do every day is sort of a microcosm for what or whatever the word is, but in the way that you’re launching these pieces and then hoping they sort of virally becomes that, become successful. You’re doing everything you can to bring people to them. But you’re you’re recreating on a large scale what an entrepreneur is doing when they launch a company or someone, when they’re launching a book or someone when they’re putting out a video like they are, you’ve got to go find your initial audience. You’ve got to suck them in, and then you’ve got to find some way that they that that process scales itself and recreates itself and then ideally converts into a sale or an ad click or whatever your metric for success is.
Jimmy: Yeah. And for us, you know, we, we want to do all of that while also having first rate content. Sure. Like we’re we’re not just repeating the same patterns we see over and over again. What we’re talking about is a creative process informed by analytics. So what I’m trying to do is the site isn’t going to publish 20 articles about the same topic 20 days in a row. Right, because the audience pretty well catch on. The idea is like use what your audience cares about and then figure out other models for that kind of success. So on Healthy Living, we’ve noticed, for example, that our audience is really interested in kale. And so for us, we’re not going to write the same article about kale over and over again.
Ryan: You can take a look. Yeah.
Jimmy: Yeah, exactly. You got to find the new girl. And it might be Spirulina, it might be Bordeaux.
Ryan: I know what it is. I had this conversation last night. Brussel sprouts are the new kale. New kale? Yes. It’s all right. Well, we’ve already made an unlimited amount of combinations of kale related things, so we need a vegetable. And I think it’s going to be brussel sprouts.
Jimmy: Brussels sprouts. Well, I think they’re making a big comeback. The other thing that’s really hot is bacon. And I think bacon works better with brussel sprouts. Total kale. Right. And so you get.
Ryan: Yeah, because and I think, you know, well, whatever, we’re not going to talk about brussel sprouts, but they’re delicious. And I think this is a that’s an important this is an important viral element. When I go to a restaurant and like there’s some weird Brussels sprouts dish and I get it and it turns out to be delicious. I tell people about it because it’s unexpected. Because you grew up thinking they were disgusting.
Jimmy: Yes, exactly. And there’s a little bit of that. I mean, you you are trying I at the end of the day, want every piece to be so good that people don’t just click into it. They actually like it or they share it. Sure. Earning two clicks. Earning two clicks is a very hard challenge. Like that is a very tough thing to do. And you’ve got to sort of I say that like the way I do because you have to respect that two clicks from your user is a big ask, right? Like it’s actually not a simple thing. And when they share something, they’re advertising something about themselves on their Facebook page or on LinkedIn or on Twitter. It’s why so much of celebrity content is tough to take off on social. Everybody what? No one wants to tell their friends that they care about, you know, the the inner workings of the mind of Kim Kardashian. Sure. But they read content. They may not share it, but they’ll read it. And so you have to think about what the post is going to do when it shows up on someone’s Facebook wall. What is that going to say to their friends about them? And a little bit of that psychology in your piece can help you think about how to write. It can help you think about what the headline should be and help you think about what the image should be. And it doesn’t pollute the creative process. What is it? What it does is strengthen it because then you’re saying to yourself, okay, this is what the audience is going to care about with respect to this piece.
Ryan: So so when you say getting two clicks from user, you don’t mean this sort of maybe I would say this is the first innovation in published in online publishing, which was, okay, we get a click, how can we turn that click into as many pages as possible by like breaking up the article into five pieces or making it a 20, you know, picture slideshow. That’s an easy click to get, right?
Jimmy: That’s a really easy click. And to some extent it’s kind of a it’s sort of a it’s, it’s a I, I guess I think about it like not as strong an endorsement of. Your site as someone sharing an article, right? I love it when people stick around on the site and I love it when I see our time on site. Numbers grow and they have grown and that’s a great thing. But hopefully that’s on the strength of the content, not on like a gimmick tech solution. The final thing I’ll say about this is that anybody who’s doing any kind of publishing these days, if the first or second question they ask themselves, is not, well, how is this going to show up on mobile? Then they’re shooting themselves in the foot. And the problem with a lot of the tricks you just described it to increase pages is they don’t work on mobile phones. And so you can’t actually get away with a lot of this stuff in the same way. And you’ve got to be a lot smarter about what you publish.
Ryan: Interesting. Okay. So so that that that may be segments of the next part or Segways. The next thing we should talk about, which is you’ve been having to post to two years now. A little over a year. How many years?
Ryan: Just about. Okay. So what’s the how is that changed? You see, you saw this sort of the first wave of my peers, you journalism and SEO, and now we’re moving into social. What what do you think the biggest changes and where do you think it’s maybe going?
Jimmy: I think that the two biggest shifts in my time, there have been the kind of rise of Facebook as everybody’s newspaper and the rapid increase in mobile traffic to publishers. So like the former trend right. Has just especially this year, been the focus of everybody’s time and attention. How do you do? Well on Facebook? How do you create Facebook accounts that people want to use, want to like? What we say internally is social is the new front page and we sort of preach it. Social is my.
Ryan: Friend. You mean it’s the new HuffingtonPost.com because people are interacting with you on facebook.com rather than go to post dot com.
Jimmy: So we’re we’re lucky in that our front page still generates a huge amount of traffic. But it is definitely the case that Facebook has substantially more people. We’re talking about an audience of 1.2 billion people. And the thing about virality is virality is potentially infinite. We still do really well on Google and we still care a lot about Google because typically when breaking news happens, the first place that people will go and for the most part, if they’re not going to a publisher is they go to Google and they type in whatever words they think are related to whatever’s going on to try to find an article that is still a very valuable thing. We still get a lot of our traffic from Google and I’m more than happy to get that traffic. But the thing about Google is you’re capped by the number of people who are searching for a given term at a given time. Right. So you have a there is a threshold at which you’ll reach your peak and what traveling you can get from Google on Facebook. Really the curve is asked some topic. It could you could get up if every single person on Facebook saw your post, you’d have 1.2 billion people who saw your post. Right. But virality has a sort of infinite quality that search doesn’t. And that’s the thing that’s been the biggest shift, is thinking about how publishers can get very, very smart about what they’re doing on Facebook. And it’s been a huge change for for us as well. I mean, HuffPost was always a leader on search. We were always a leader on social. But social has grown and changed so much. If you look at the stuff that Facebook done in the last three or four months with respect to changes in the newsfeed, they made images a lot bigger. All of these changes effects affect publishers in pretty profound ways. So, for example, we’ve had to say, well, what’s the right image for this story? Like what image is going to show up on Facebook? What’s the difference between the headline you see when you get to the article and the headline you see on Facebook? All of these kinds of decisions were decisions we made over the last two or three years. So that’s one big shift. Second big shift. And it’s something I cannot emphasize to people in the content business. Enough is there is going to come a time when your mobile traffic will exceed your desktop traffic. And if you have not thought about that, that coming like that is a huge problem. But you’re going to have to really think hard about what it means for you that mobile will grow faster than desktop is growing. There’s a really great slide share deck called Mobile is Eating the World. I recommend it to everybody. It’s truly scary what’s happening, but scary in a good way. Like you’ll actually get the chance to be more creative. You’ll get the chance to think about a totally new medium of consumption. It’s just that most people aren’t thinking about it.
Ryan: Sure. Now that makes sense. So would you say that that what you’re doing on the social that is you’re looking to compete in infinite markets rather than sort of constrained finite markets, which is, hey, I want to know about financial news. There’s only so many people, whereas, yes, theoretically anyone could be interested in this Upworthy story kind of approach.
Jimmy: Exactly. And it’s also you can make substance sell on social, right? Like like, yes. There’s a certain degree of like viral cat videos that do well. But to be honest, one of the most amazing things about what we do is we’ve made topics like meditation, topics like trade policy go viral. We had a story on Iraq that went viral this past week. So what I like is when we’re able to take something we really care about and package it and do the sort of thinking about the audience in a rigorous way, and then when we publish it, you know, a ton of people come and see it. And so I. Think that there’s been this sort of false distinction between virality and substance. And I think that’s a that’s a bunch of hooey. You can make something substantive, go viral. You just have to think hard about when you publish it and how you publish it.
Ryan: Do do you recommend that people do that then that they try to compete in categories that they can own rather than going like, oh, Upworthy is doing these kind of things. We’ve got to make more stories like that.
Jimmy: I think you’ve got to do people will see through you if you’re trying to pick up a cheap carbon copy of Upworthy or BuzzFeed or Huffington Post. Right. And there’s been a lot of satire out there about like the Upworthy headline writing or the HuffPost headline writing or the BuzzFeed headline writing. And and, you know, some of that is just like gentle ribbing, but there may be like a kernel of truth to some of this. Like these new publishers who are coming out and essentially trying to, like, do the same model. Exactly the same. I don’t think they’ll go very far. I think one of the things that works well is when you as a publisher decide that there are certain things that you’re going to do that no one else is going to do. So, for example, I know that one of the things that HuffPost does incredibly well is health and lifestyle content. Sure. And BuzzFeed doing all of their lifestyle content and maybe they want to. But I really think we are doing things and health and lifestyle content on Facebook that no one else can do. And that’s because of the team we have. They’re an amazing team. And so my thought is for for people who are in this space, if you’re thinking about which audience you want to go for, like you can do a certain amount of targeting. What’s nice about Facebook is even if you choose not to target, you might attract an audience you didn’t know you had. Sure. Right. That’s actually kind of an interesting thing, which is that share is an endorsement of you that could be carried to eyeballs you never knew you had.
Ryan: So in terms of trying new things and experiment in over your three years there. Can you maybe tell us something that you tried that didn’t work, that you maybe you thought was going to be awesome or something? You guys sunk a lot of resources or investment in or time and energy or whatever. It doesn’t have to be money. But you thought like, Hey, this is the future, we got to do this. And then it’s like, Hey, Mobile came along and now it’s irrelevant.
Jimmy: You know, I, I don’t think there’s any one thing that we have done where reported a ton of time and resources and realize it didn’t work. I think that one place where we probably could have been a little bit better is we put a lot of time and investment into our mobile apps, and that’s important and that’s like a dedicated audience. It’s a really loyal audience. But the truth is, because of the way that people use phones and because of the apps they use on their phones, you’ll get a lot more traction as a publisher if you focus on mobile web than if you focus on mobile apps. Because the people who download, the people who download your app are like your hardcore loyalists, right? They went through that very cumbersome five step process in the App Store and waited for your app to download and then opened it up and then opened it up again. That number, the number of people who do that is very small. Most it’s I’ve heard some numbers about like 80 to 85% of apps are never opened after their first open. So like you’re never going to get like you have an 85% drop off right after the first time that someone opens an app. I don’t know if that number is exactly right, but I suspect it’s pretty close. And it’s one of these things where everyone wants to say they have an app because an app makes you feel like you’re taking digital publishing seriously. Right. But the truth is, apps that are most popular on phones are apps like Facebook, Google Maps, Twitter, email. Those apps are going to direct people to your mobile web presence, not your mobile app presence. And if they direct people to your mobile app presence, you’ll probably end up making your readers a little bit annoyed. And so my and my encouragement for anybody who’s doing this is when you’re thinking about mobile, think about mobile web, not just mobile apps. You can’t just say, Well, well, if I ask you the question, what are you doing on mobile? And you say, I have an app, I know you haven’t given thought to the mobile audience.
Ryan: Sure. Okay. So what’s it what’s something that you have rolled out that maybe had an unexpected impact on traffic or on engagement or like like, for instance, having it like I believe, you know, Mashable does this, too, but isn’t isn’t the Huffington Post homepage like Infinite Scroll? Now, was that like a big innovation?
Jimmy: It’s not infinite scroll, but it’s a lot longer than it used to be. The article the article pages on mobile web are Infinite Scroll, and that’s an innovation that we rolled out that had a pretty substantial impact. So when you get to the end of an article on mobile web, you just get an endless stream of great content and we’re going to hopefully have something there that appeals to you and you can click on it and check it out. I think that a lot of publishers are experimenting, experimenting with an infinite scroll for the same reason. One thing I’ll say that we did that worked really well was, you know, part of thinking about content and thinking about social is making it stupidly easy for people to share your content. Like what? No barriers between them and the share button. And so one of the things we changed like a year and a half to two years ago was that we made our you know, we made our share buttons floating. So they float with you as you’re scrolling down the screen. We did this on Mobile, too. And it’s it’s a kind of people think like, well, could that have that dramatic an impact? You’d be surprised even having a persistent share button, tweet button like button, comment button, email button will lead people to take a behavior. And because they don’t have to scroll up or down to do it, they’re more likely to do it right.
Ryan: So so how do those ideas maybe maybe we could talk sort of internal politics for a second, because this this show has a lot of people who are growth hackers who who maybe they they’ve they’ve watched the show or they’ve read books or articles and they’ve got ideas, but they’re having trouble selling them inside the company, especially at bigger companies. So how did those innovations come up to someone like you or someone else at Huffington Post? And how can people do a better job getting them selling the leaders that they need to sell them to so they can be rolled out?
Jimmy: I typically we’re going to win an enviable position and that we’re a pretty flat organization. And the distance between myself and someone who works on my staff is fairly, fairly limited. And so I hear about this stuff all the time just on the NEWSROOM floor. Right. If you’re in a position that’s a little bit bigger. My recommendation is to use data to prove it right. And the nice thing about social is it’s the ultimate feedback loop. You can point very easily to something that succeeded or fail, and you could do that with data. And so you can say, hey, we published this article with this headline. We published this article with this headline. They’re fairly similar. And look at how how much this outperformed this. If you’re thinking about how to spend your marketing budget, like I would really think hard about Facebook advertising and how you can maximize Facebook advertising. Think about those sorts of viral campaigns. The second thing I would say is going to what other people are doing right? Like your competitors presence on Facebook and Twitter should be something you study with the same discipline that you study. What your competitors do in a store. Right. Like that is just as important. And the thing about most Facebook accounts is they’re badly underutilized and they’re badly managed. If you can create a presence on Facebook as a brand that is better than your competitors, you will get organic traffic growth and organic impressions to your products in a way you couldn’t if you were just buying advertising. Right. Right. Because everyone knows that the kind of click through rates on traditional banner advertising is really low. But if you can create a robust Facebook presence for yourself that has great content independent of the actual product you’re trying to hawk, when you then when you send that audience something you are actually trying to get them to click on, they’re more likely to click on it because they trust you and the content you put out on Facebook. But, you know, I fall back in most cases on data. So when someone tells me, well, no, no, no, no, no. Mobile apps are so, so important. And you’ve really we’ve got to pay attention to them. I say yes. Yes, we do, because it’s a loyal audience for us of a lot of people. But the mobile web audience is 80 times the size of the mobile web audience. So let let’s like use the data to inform our perspective of what we’re going to do. Now, I think that’s the big thing, is the people who are growth hackers typically also tend to be data oriented people. And what I always tell my editors and I tell everyone I work with is try to be unsentimental in your approach to some of these things. Like you, if you are unsentimental in how you look at information, then you’re going to be honest with yourself and with your staff about what you can and can’t do. So if you say sorry, good.
Ryan: No, no. But what I was going to say is I imagine that in your industry, although you’re a young company, people are very sentimental about what they do. And there’s this sort of narrative about journalism and and the truth and how reporting should be and how it was done in. The Washington Post in the Watergate era. And so how do you I imagine it’s harder to sell some of the stuff like I have this quote from you where you said, you know, in the 21st century, in 21st century, journalism editors have to think like technologists. I imagine that’s like the worst nightmare for a lot of journalists. So how do you sell people on that and how have you I imagine you’re you’re as successful as you have been because you think that way, but maybe not everyone is sold.
Jimmy: You know, I think it’s a matter of when. When you’re trying to convince people who do creative work about why the kind of growth hacking and audience development and focusing on, you know, traffic patterns matters. What the thing I try to tell them is when you write something, do you want a hundred people to read it or do you want 100,000 people to read it? Right. And so ultimately, in some cases, if you’re working with an A publisher or you’re working on marketing and you’re controlling a marketing budget, you’re reporting to somebody who wants to use their limited dollars. Well, the question I would ask them is, do you want 100 people to see the site or do you want 100 million people to see this ad? And if you want 100 people to see this ad, we’ve got to think about where there’s the possibility for 100 million people to see it. And we’ve got to think about where that audience comes from and how we get to them. When do we publish it? Do we publish something at 9 a.m. or at 9 p.m.? When is Twitter traffic highest? When it’s Facebook traffic highest. All these sorts of things that go into that consideration set appeal to people who do creative work, because creative people want people to see the stuff they do. And so that’s the easiest way to cut through a lot of the resistance is just to say, you know, we are in the business of creating great content, but we want as many people to see the content as possible. And it’s not enough in a very crowded media environment to just publish something anymore. It just isn’t. You have to think about how you promote. And so that’s that’s the easiest way to do it. Also, you know, one other thing about this is a lot of people who are going to be watching this are probably in positions where they can hire people. Right. So they have the ability to build a staff, build a staff and a culture that reflects these values. Like, I’m in the I’m in a very creative business. We hire people who are hugely creative, but I like creative people who are also entrepreneurial. So for Huffington Post, when people apply, if I see that they built their own WordPress site and then thought about how to drive traffic to it, I love that. I don’t I don’t care if they drove a thousand people to it. Right. But if they can to be the day on which they got the thousand people, what article actually led them to do that? What they learned about that so that they could use that in the future? That’s fantastic. If you’ve built any kind of product, if it’s a website, you immediately have a leg up in my book, whether again, whether that’s you had a band and you try to get people to come to your show, you had a website, you tried to write traffic to it, you had books you had to book out and you tried to sell it. That tells me when you can do that kind of experience that you’re thinking about how an audience comes to something that you don’t treat, the work you do is so precious that like, you can’t be bothered with the idea that like, you have to think about your audience.
Ryan: You don’t think it’s someone else’s job.
Jimmy: No, and it’s not. And to be honest, like I think that you do, you’re sort of disrespecting your audience if you think about it any other way. Like these are think about every person on Facebook is somebody whose attention you’re competing for with their aunt’s photos from a year ago and the article that everybody is sharing. You have to play in that space and if you choose not to, that’s fine. But you’re kind of turning your back on the problem rather than dealing with it head on.
Ryan: Yeah, well, that sort of steps on my last more of my last questions, which is you hire people who help you grow the site and what is it that you look for in those people I get? So when you’re hiring for writers, you’re looking for writers who are going to be natural marketers just to make things easier for you. But if you are looking for a technologist or someone to if you were trying to grow your business vertical and you wanted to bring someone in whose job wasn’t necessarily just to write articles, they might be crafting content, but they’re not necessarily just a creative person. What are you what are you looking for? Who is that ideal candidate?
Jimmy: I mean, I think there’s a lot of overlap in what you just described. Right. Like, I want the sort of. Bottom threshold in every publishing organization is you have to be able to write no matter what job you have. You have to be able to put a sentence together. So that’s kind of a given. Like, if you can’t cleanly write, we can’t we don’t have the time in most cases to teach you that we can edit you to make you better. But we can’t teach you the basics. There are there’s three or four things I’m looking for. One. Are you someone who gets the bulk of the news and content you get from the web? Right. You don’t have to be a Web expert. But if you if you tell me that you start your day on Twitter and then you check Facebook and then you see what your newsletters have sent you, and you save all of that on the pocket, and then you go somewhere else and you’re like, Oh, this site’s doing really well. I’m going to take a look what’s working. That tells me that you have at least started the process of figuring out how people consume content on the web. Which means when you publish something in HuffPost, you’ll have all that knowledge in the back of your mind, right?
Ryan: You’re not starting with the Wall Street Journal printed print edition.
Jimmy: Exactly. And not that that’s a bad thing. Like if that’s how you want to start your day, go right ahead. But that means that you might not be consuming content in the same way that our audience is. And I really need people who are thinking about our audience. That’s number one. Number two is I like people who have had to build something, like I like entrepreneurial people. Like, I don’t again, it doesn’t matter what it is a business, a book, a band, anything. I like it when you’ve had to take a project from start to finish and get people to care about it, because that is a you’ll have to repeat that process a thousand times on the job. You’ll have to create something and get people to care about that. And that’s like there’s no substitute for that kind of thinking. The third big thing I look for is going to facility and familiarity with social networks, right? Like we say, shows was a new front page, partly because it’s just such a huge audience. And if you think about Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and all of these and emerging social networks like Line in Asia, if you think about all of these. In a critical way, and you can demonstrate that you think about them in a critical way. You’ve got a huge bonus in the interview. Like I’ve interviewed people who literally spend all day long on social media and enjoy it so much, and they’re great people to hire because they understand the way the modern web works.
Ryan: You’ve got to be plugged into that if that’s how your audience and your content is distributed.
Jimmy: Yeah, I mean, I’ve reached the point, Ryan, where I can’t go on Facebook anymore, because if I do, my instinct is to think about why I would click on articles. Sure. That’s how I approach Facebook now. It’s no longer like an enjoyable experience. It’s a behavioral psychology experiment all the time.
Ryan: Right. You’re like a movie producer who can’t watch movies anymore.
Ryan: So so let’s sort of go out on that note in the sense of, so you’re a smart guy, you study these things, you’re looking at what your competitors are doing. You’re looking at what you know, smart people are writing about. Where do you get your information? What? Who are you then? Some of the smartest people out there. And what are you excited about and where do you what do you read every day?
Jimmy: He’s always pointing me to stuff that I’m not finding elsewhere. Right. Like, I don’t see a lot of this stuff on Facebook. I don’t see a lot of it on Twitter, at least not on any Twitter outside of Jason Hirschhorn. He managed to dig up things that I might otherwise find, and I kind of rank newsletters by like the extent to which they’re able to do that. Right. Like, if a newsletter gives me something that I didn’t find, then it’s added value. If it gives me stuff that I’m already gonna be looking at, then why am I cluttering up my inbox with it? What I love about Jake, I would really, for anybody who’s just trying to get the one on one on how this business works, I would subscribe to Jason Restaurants newsletter and pay a lot of attention to it. You know, the other the other things I do, I have a number of people I like to follow on Twitter, but people people can basically self curate their Twitter feeds. I think another thing that people could start to do is just read like reading good books about kind of the creative process and about psychology. Like you, you really ultimately the mediums through which people consume content have changed a lot, but it’s not as though the the kind of content that people respond to has really changed all that dramatically. Like you’re still appealing to the same human emotions that speakers thousands of years ago were trying to reach or writers thousands of years ago. We’re trying to reach.
Ryan: Recommendations book wise.
Jimmy: Yeah. You know, like one of my one of my favorite writers is a guy named Tobias Wolff. Yeah. He’s he’s done some extraordinary work in memoir writing and in short story writing. And I, I recommend him to anybody who’s looking to improve as a writer, because he’s just a very clean, very, very smart writer. But he’s got a lot of elegance in his writing. And so there’s there’s something there for everybody. And his memoir, This Boy’s Life, is something I’ve read a bunch of times. He is just one of these people who is truly exceptional with a pen. And there’s a lot in his books that, like it has it reveals a lot about life. And he’s not a life that, you know, he was in the military. He served in Vietnam. He’s taught people for something like 40 plus years. He’s done a lot of stuff in his life, and I really enjoy his work. And then for me, I’m a little bit like you. I love history and I love biography. And if I were going to start, if I if someone asked me sort of, you know, give me a great set of biographies to read, I would probably point them in the direction of Robert Caro and book his book, The Power Broker is fantastic. His books on Johnson are fantastic. And there’s a lot again, there’s just a lot there. There’s like management lessons, there’s leadership lessons, there’s lessons on writing and lessons on life. There’s a whole bunch of stuff in this book. But what I like about Caro is it’s not just the book. It’s like the sheer amount of discipline that went into creating each of his books. Because each of his books takes about ten years, he really pours his soul into it. The rumor, or I guess it’s been reported that he actually wears a tux every day or so, and it wears a suit every day to an office that he has rented out so that he can write these books. And he does that, I think like seven days a week or at least five days a week.
Ryan: And he’s like, any of yours?
Jimmy: All Yeah. And people have this, like, romantic notion of, like, writing in your home office and, like, taking a break when you want. He treats it like a job, and I respect that a lot. And so I the and by the way, the work the work proves that it shows like it’s stuff is just such a cut above other people that are out there. They’re long, but they’re worth it. So I would give those two recommendations, read, read some Tobias Wolff and read some some Robert Caro.
Ryan: What about that Notre Dame journalism stuff? Is there anything that you would point people to?
Jimmy: Yeah, I’m trying to think, you know, there’s a great book by Jonah Berger called Contagious. That’s pretty good for someone who wants kind of a one on one on what makes things go viral and what makes kind of social behavior happen. Contagious is really good because he talks to you through like specific examples of, you know, getting you to think about what emotion was evoked by this thing that made people want to share it. And that that’s a really, really smart book. I’m just taking a look at my my show. I would.
Ryan: Also recommend. Bill wasn’t the guy who invented flash mobs. He has one called. And then there’s this, which is very similar to contagious. That’s probably worth looking at.
Jimmy: Yeah, there’s a couple of others that are, you know, I, I think trying to think of something that will be, like immediately impactful for people. There’s a couple of books on, on psychology that are incredibly smart. I’m going to say. You know, there’s I can’t think of anything like I’m not looking at anything off the top of my head that completely revelatory or anything. But, you know, there’s a few there’s a few books on behavioral psychology just as a topic. I think behavioral psychology is working. And so I like books like Nudge and a couple of others where you sort of think about human behavior, because this is ultimately like content marketing and content in general, especially now, is about, again, thinking unsentimental about human behavior on the Internet. Right. And if you can think about like think even just ask yourself the question when you’re sharing something, why did I share this? That is itself a kind of powerful way to practice these skills. And I ask myself that all the time. I’m like, why did I share this? Like, what? What made me do this? And what does this say about me? And why would other people repeat the behavior? Even asking yourself that can be a sort of useful exercise?
Ryan: No, I think that’s perfect. And that’s that’s of course, I if I.
Jimmy: Buy the book, trust me, I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday, which is that’s an extraordinary meditation on the media and all the terrible things we.
Ryan: Do well. And don’t forget our roles last citizen about a lot of us in this room in order.
Jimmy: Yeah, that’ll really help people with content marketing.
Ryan: I think so. And if you want to kill yourself in a very dramatic, gratuitous way, there’s some good advice there. Yeah, I will quote thanks, Ben, for doing this. I think, you know, Jimmy’s work and what I would impose is doing, you know, sort of putting aside whether you like their political viewpoints or you like what they like, their journalistic approach. They’ve built a massive media brand in less than a decade. That’s reached literally billions and billions of people. And I think you’ve got to think about, you know, sort of even if you’re not doing something in that space, how have they managed to activate people so much? How can they I mean, what’s the most comments on a single Huffington Post article? There’s the one that’s done like 150,000 comments, right? Like I got it right. How can you create something that people for free will write the equivalent of several books in response to anonymously in the comments below? That’s super powerful, and I think you ought to study the themes and the triggers that they’re activating and see how you can apply those to your own projects, whether you’re marketing something, whether you’re a growth hacker or whatever. And so that’s why I wanted to talk to Jimmy today. You have a blog, do you?
Jimmy: Not at the moment, no. People who want.
Ryan: To find me can post every once in a while. He’s got a great Twitter feed you can follow. And I strongly suggest that you read his books. His book, it’s very timeless and it’s actually philosophically very enlightening as well. So I’m Ryan Holiday. Thanks, Jimmy, and I hope you enjoy the next episode of Growth accurately.
Get the strategies, motivation, and in-depth interview with all the details every week!