Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with CTOs from very different digital media companies to understand how they think about the role, what they have in common and where they differ in approach. You can read earlier interviews with the CTOs of companies such as AOL, The New York Times, Mashable, Buzzfeed, Vice, Salon, Shutterstock, Digg, News Corp, MLBAM and Hearst here.
Next up is the CTO of The Huffington Post, Otto Toth. The Huffington Post is close to its tenth birthday- the site was founded in May of 2005. Today the AOL-owned company is focused on international expansion. As Digiday recently noted, that may run in the genes of its leaders: “Arianna Huffington, is Greek-American, CEO Jimmy Maymann is Danish, and its chief technical officer, Otto Toth, is Hungarian.”
On top of hopping from country to country, The Huffington Post has also completed a shift to mobile, with more than 60% of the site’s traffic coming from devices. I met with Toth- who is, by the way, now a US citizen and therefore a Hungarian-American- at his office at 770 Broadway on the same day Apple announced its new watch product, which figured into our conversation.
Today Apple will announce its watch, and the media industry will then respond. Is that how you see change in the industry- being driven by these events?
It definitely has an impact on the development cycle. When there is a new device launch or an update to an operating system, that sends us back to the drawing board. Yes, these events have a serious impact. Companies like AOL have to pay close attention and work closely with platforms like Apple and Google, because if you sync up with them, there is real value to the business from cross promotion. For instance, the year before last, when iOS 7 came to the market, we were a launch partner. Our app was selected as a highlight. In seven days, we had one and a half million new downloads.
Do you anticipate the Apple Watch having an impact on your business?
Nobody knows yet. I think that the first version of the watch is more of a fitness centric device. I don’t think that anybody could really read for more than a quick news highlight on a watch. I have been using the Pebble, the one I’m wearing today is the second one I’ve owned, mainly to get a kind of feeling about what this technology can do for you. There are some situations where it is awesome. It’s winter time, you are walking, you get a notification and you don’t want to pull out your phone. You don’t have to take off your gloves, you can just have a glance. It’s really nice to see if it’s an important email or whether it can wait.
I think the watch will work if you can control the what, when and how of notifications. Perhaps I can choose only to get notifications from my VIPs, or the watch may recognize differences in context. If it notices that I’m running and I don’t to need a notification until I’m finishing my workout, that would be awesome. It’s really a question that what kind of notifications do we want.
How important are over the top and video delivery on devices like the Apple TV or Roku to The Huffington Post?
We are on the Roku, but we are not yet on the Apple TV. It’s still an early phase with those boxes. There are lots of cable cutters of course, but the content we have is not exactly optimized for these boxes. For now, I think that mobile devices are more important.
You started in mobile at The New York Times. How did you get into mobile at that point?
Just before the iPhone came to the market, I took a break. I traveled around the world for a year. Previously, I was president and CEO of a company in Silicon Valley, and I said “Okay, I’m on the top, so what’s next?” I was in New Zealand when the first iPhone was announced, and the first time I saw it I knew that it was something I want to pursue. So I started to learn mobile programming before it was officially supported. I had an app in the app store on day one.
What was that app?
It was a timer app. It was nothing special. At the end, before I stopped, I had about thirteen apps published in app store. The first one, it was a paid app. In five years it drove about $30,000 revenue, so it was a satisfying project, but it was never so satisfying that I would give up my real job.
How much of The Huffington Post’s traffic is mobile at this point?
It’s stable at 60%. It’s more than the desktop, permanently. It started about a year ago, when mobile on certain days was taking over desktop. Then, it was always weekends. As of today, even on regular working days, mobile is exceeding desktop. Partly because of the strong presence of the social services: The Huffington Post is really strong on Facebook and Twitter and that drives traffic. On mobile about 96% of the traffic is coming through side doors. They are coming through search and through social.
That presents its own challenges. For instance, the engagement level is much higher on the native app. We’ve done a lot of work to improve engagement on the mobile web.
What drives engagement- is it more tech than content, or is it both?
It’s both. The content is very important, and obviously The Huffington Post is really strong in content generation. But one way we’ve optimized for mobile from the tech side is to put the mobile preview first in our content producers’ workflow, so that teams think about what a piece will look like on mobile first. The editors learn what is playing well on mobile.
What are the technologies that are now coming into your operation that are new that you’re focused on?
Machine learning and customization. Learning user behavior without forcing them to fill out long sheets of data or selecting millions of tags. That’s really important, because most of the users don’t like to spend time on customization, but they would like to have the news that is relevant to them.
You have about 80 engineers and designers working for you. How do you think the composition of that team will change in the next few years?
We are focused on bringing in new knowledge. The machine learning team is part of the stats team, which is part of the tech team. So we have a larger team of developers working on analytics and statistics and real time analytics for the newsroom. Part of this team, a smaller group, is focusing on machine learning. There are pretty basic things what we started with, such as automatic tagging for content. We are using this team to integrate a kind of automatic personalization into a new app.
So that’s a prototype that you’re developing internally?
Yes, we plan to release the first version for the 10th anniversary. It will support the Apple watch. It will be the first attempt. We hope it will be successful right from the beginning, but it’s a learning process. It’ll be the first integration.
Recently there was an article in the New York Times about natural language generation. The writer wrote about Narrative Science and automatic content generation and related technologies. Can you imagine such technologies playing a big role at The Huffington Post?
It can be part of the process. It cannot replace the process, because the human procuration, the human factor is the important thing. That’s why Beats Music has great potential to be successful, because they have human curation. Machine learning is good, but you still feel that something is a little bit off. So that final touch, I think, is still human. It can help the editors create the content. It can help to bring attention to things. It can shorten the discovery phase of content generation. I think it’s just a tool.
If I sent you back to New Zealand, and said go back to the wilderness and think about reinvesting yourself for coming back into industry with a new idea, what do you think would be the thing that you would regard as hottest right now?
My feeling is that it will not be hardware. It will be content. That’s the piece that’s not settled yet. Content production is still rooted in the past. I was at the New York Times when we had transition from the print to web, and it was a long and painful process for the editors. Now we have a similar transition from desktop to mobile which probably doesn’t seem to be such a big change, but it is a big change. It’s actually a much bigger change in a way.