Huffington Post tests global media brand strategy in Canada

Arianna Huffington's Canadian experiment sets the stage for expansion.

 Arianna Huffington (Norm Betts/Bloomberg/Getty)

Le Huffington Post Quebec went live at 5 a.m. on Feb. 8, its lead story about facial-recognition technology in Montreal casinos. Coming just eight months after the launch of its Canadian sister site, it made this country the first in the world to boast two versions of Arianna Huffington’s rapidly growing online news and entertainment aggregation machine.

The Quebec site shares plenty of content with HuffPo’s new outlet in France, one of 10 international markets into which the website plans to expand in 2012. HuffPo sites will launch in Spain in March and Italy in April, with the likes of Turkey and Brazil on the horizon. But Canada was the market chosen for the website’s first international experiment—and as HuffPo and its parent company AOL stake their future on building a global media brand, there are signs at HuffPo Canada it’s a strategy that could work.

According to the online audience measurement service comScore, HuffPo Canada has built its audience from about 1.2 million unique monthly visitors—essentially the Canadians who used to read the U.S-based site—to 2.2 million. Among Canadian media outlets, it ranks just below The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star, at 3.6 million and 3.2 million respectively, and ahead of the National Post’s 1.89 million. AOL Canada general manager Graham Moysey puts even more stock in the amount of time Canadian readers are spending at the site, which he says has gone up 240% since HuffPo Canada’s launch. “That’s a testament to [our] content, the aggregation model, the blogging and commenting.”

Huffington herself credits the success of the Canadian launch back in May with accelerating the company’s international plans. “For a relatively small team, it’s been amazing how fast we’ve grown in such a short period of time,” she says.

Despite strong numbers overall, though—as of December, the number of monthly unique visitors to the main HuffPo site had grown by 47% year-over-year to 36.2 million—analysts say it has yet to deliver the display advertising revenue AOL was banking on when it paid $315 million a year ago for Huffington’s burgeoning web empire. The rapid international expansion planned for 2012 reflects not just the brand’s popularity with audiences, but also an urgent need to extend its reach in order to build ad revenue.

Benchmark Capital’s Clayton Moran says AOL had been hoping for growth in line with the overall display advertising market in the second half of last year, somewhere around 10% or higher. HuffPo actually came in closer to 4%. “The combined operations have underperformed initial expectations,” says Clayton. “But it is still early.”

To help boost those revenues, HuffPo has introduced sponsored sections and brand-generated blog posts. And just a week before the Quebec launch, it revealed plans to offer 12 hours of live streaming video a day in the U.S., featuring discussions about HuffPo stories and more.

With moves like these, Evercore analyst Ken Sena says the outlook is positive, despite the lack of ad bucks generated from the brand’s big bang. “HuffPo is creating a better user experience which should bode well for AOL over the long run.”

And Canada may again soon serve as a test market for HuffPo: there’s a good chance we’ll see more regional editions beyond Le HuffPo Quebec. While Moysey won’t talk about specific plans for Canadian expansion, he did admit it’s on the agenda. And if it succeeds in Canada, look for AOL to try it elsewhere. Anything to sell more ads.