HuffPo’s new ‘Conversations’ will improve comments — and make money for AOL

I’m not a regular reader of the Huffington Post(s aol) but when I go there, I’m astounded how many people leave comments on a given story. Last week, for instance, more than 20,000 readers offered their two cents on HuffPo’s account of Hillary Clinton and Benghazi — and this was just in the first two hours. Such numbers are impressive but it’s never been clear how a reader can navigate this teeming mob of voices nor how all this chatter helps the HuffPo make money.

Now, though, the Huffington Post’s comment strategy suddenly makes a lot more sense in light of “Conversations,” a new tool that surfaces discrete discussions within the comment stream and then lets readers read those discussions on a separate webpage. In the case of the Hillary story, for instance, the first comments that appear at the bottom of the story will now be “conversations” sparked by popular members of the existing HuffPo community.

The new set-up should make it easier to jump in on a given debate about the story that’s of interest. In the Benghazi story, for example, groups of people can find each other to discuss specific facets of the story — whether the US should be in Libya; whether the incident was Hillary’s fault; whether Hillary is actually a Muslim agent sent from Mars to destroy America and so on.

The fact that the “Conversations” will now have their own URL also makes it easier for people to share them and invite others into the discussion. The feature in some ways resembles the buzzy start-up Branch which lets people grab existing conversations and continue them in new places (though, unlike Branch, HuffPo’s system is not invite-only). To get a better idea of what HuffPo is doing, here are two screenshots from a recent story. The first is an existing conversation (I’ve circled the button that takes it elsewhere) and the other is what the conversation looks like on the new URL:

Screenshot of HuffPo conversation

HuffPo conversations screenshot

Huffington Post CTO, John Pavley, explained in a phone interview that the site relies mostly on algorithms to parse comments and to identify worthy conversation leaders but that it uses human moderators too. HuffPo’s inspiration for its comment system comes in part from Reddit, the popular group-reading site, he added. (The move also comes that at a time that publishers led by Gawker’s Nick Denton are re-evaluating the philosophy of comments in general).

The share-a-conversation feature serves to make order out of the comment chaos, but could also turn into a serious money maker for the Huffington Post. According to Pavley, the company will use parent company AOL’s ad platform to serve up relevant ads next to the conversations. This is significant because the HuffPo will not only have more pages to monetize; it will also be able to offer advertisers the promise of “hyper-engaged readers.” This type of audience is being touted by companies like Disqus as extra valuable because readers are more likely to engage an ad if it’s next to a subject they’re passionate about — the idea is that, if they’re taking the time to comment, they presumably are engaged.

HuffPo is rolling out Conversations slowly and, for now, the feature is only appearing on the site’s World and Gay Voices sections. It will appear across the whole site soon.

(Image by siSSen via Shutterstock)