Almost everyone is aware of the fact that Arianna Huffington sold her online newspaper to corporate giant AOL for a substantial sum (somewhere around $315 million). She’ll be taking over as AOL’s chief editor, and no one’s quite certain as to what will happen to the aggregate news site. The Huffington Post started in 2004 and has since grown a loyal following.

Due to Huffington’s reputation as a commentator as well as her propensity for hiring liberal writers, the site’s become synonymous with left wing politics in the minds of many. AOL’s acquisition is reportedly motivated by heavy traffic, admirable retention rates, and solid advertising revenues. The company is hoping to focus primarily on the marketing opportunities within a thriving digital community. Yet, many Madison Avenue executives are expressing concerns over the implications of the acquisition in terms of AOL’s brand.

This situation raises interesting questions concerning the intricacies of long term branding efforts. Buying or partnering with an established company always carries risks related to status. Consumers don’t always associate a distinct name with another associated company, even with lots of publicity surrounding collaboration. The same can’t be said for advertisers, though. Industry professionals tend to steer clear of controversial content, especially of the political persuasion. While politics only accounts for roughly 15% of the Huffington Post’s content/traffic, the site’s best known for dirty muck racking. It doesn’t really matter whether or not this characterization is valid or not. Advertisers may not want to risk offending potential customers or they could have personal objections to the site’s ideological inclinations. Either way, AOL’s lucrative plans would go belly up.

AOL’s never been known for generating fiery political rhetoric; in fact, the once dominant ISP doesn’t have much of a public persona anymore. It’s possible that the company hopes to revitalize itself via Huffington and her media-savvy. After all, the Huffington Post is also notorious for delivering an exciting, highly interactive format to its readers. The blogging based interface facilitates real time discussion in a natural way that keeps visitors coming back for more. From this standpoint, the Post is an advertiser’s dream come true.

Still, there’s another side to this issue that’s worth exploring. Madison Avenue may very well embrace the Post, but will its user base tolerate a corporate merger? Browse the site for a few minutes and the level of discontent becomes abundantly clear. There are accusations of censorship, staffing incompetence, and serious credibility problems. Virtual communities often resist change despite their devotion to a dynamic medium. Perhaps the commentators ought to contemplate the situation from a different angle. It’s entirely possible that AOL’s brand will tarnish the Post’s standing as a voice of the American left.

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