Early Adopter – Business Insider’s COO Shaping the Future of Online News

Julie Hansen ’03 anticipated the digital age long before it arrived — and, as president and COO of Business Insider, she is shaping the future of online news.

news-online-columbia-business-school.jpgTuesday, September 29, 2015, was a good day for Julie Hansen ’03. In a deal that was secretly brewing for months, German media conglomerate Axel Springer paid $343 million to acquire Business Insider, the digital news startup whose business operations Hansen has led since 2008. Topping the $315 million AOL paid for The Huffington Post in 2011, the figure set a record for the acquisition of a digital media company. As part of the deal, Hansen, Business Insider’s president and COO, and Henry Blodget, its CEO and editor in chief, received incentives to remain at the helm.

Ever since a friend showed her the newly minted Netscape browser in 1995, Hansen has been enthralled by digital publishing. The Yale English major founded the electronic publishing division of Penguin Books and then headed to Time Inc. to build Golf.com into the number-one website for golfers. Next, she led magazine website development for Condé Nast, including NewYorker.com and TeenVogue.com, before feeling the entrepreneurial itch “to move [even] faster and make things happen.”

columbia-business-schoolFortuitously, Blodget, a college acquaintance of Hansen’s, was looking to hire a “business person” to help run a rapidly growing blog about tech news. It was 2008 when Hansen joined him as the startup’s fifth employee. Over the next several years, as Blodget expanded the site’s editorial coverage, Hansen built and led the sales and technology teams, steering the company from zero revenue to tens of millions of dollars and more than 380 employees. By 2014, according to comScore, Business Insider had emerged as the most popular digital business publication in the United States.

Hansen played a key role in the brand’s global expansion, working with partners around the world to create proprietary editions. In 2014 she reached out to Axel Springer to discuss a licensing partnership; that led the German publisher to lead a $25 million investment round in the startup in January 2015. About the “marriage” of Axel Springer and Business Insider some eight months later, Hansen jokes: “We had been dating a long time.”

Looking back, how did you know Henry Blodget’s blog, then called Silicon Alley Insider, had legs?
“I knew Henry from undergraduate days and had been watching with great interest what he was doing at Silicon Alley Insider. He previously had a blog called Internet Outsider. In fact, in discussions with the New Yorker, which was contemplating this “risky new activity called blogging,” I remember holding that up as a shining example of a smart blog written by an interesting person that wasn’t about “What I Had for Breakfast.” I was a reader of Silicon Alley Insider and knew other people who were, and it was smart, interesting, and funny. It very much read like Henry’s voice, which is all of those things. When I joined, they already had three-quarters of a million readers and had only been publishing for about nine months.”

What do you think is most innovative about Business Insider?
“We’re built for the digital age. We embrace digital storytelling. We don’t try to take articles that were optimized for print and shove them into an online setting. The itch for innovation around here is relentless. I’ve never worked in an organization that learns as fast. Our newsroom is like an amoeba. If something is good and successful, if an article is very popular with readers or receives a lot of critical acclaim, it’s incredible how quickly that information disseminates through the newsroom and is assimilated and used again for the next effort.”

What do you think has been most important to the company’s growth?
“It’s very much a learning culture. We’ve learned from what’s worked and dropped what hasn’t, and that constant push for innovation and refinement has helped us grow. We’re also very much an analytics- and performance-oriented company, so we have tons of data that we put at our reporters’ fingertips. At all times, they can see how they’re doing, how their peers are doing, social media interactions — tons of data in real time — and we use that to refine what we’re doing. That is really powerful. And, of course, we’ve had great investors.”

What is your biggest takeaway from growing the brand internationally?
“It’s really important to pick partners very carefully. We’re going into licensing relationships, and that means entrusting the brand to a licensee, which is a big deal. These are not short-term partnerships. We ask a lot of our partners, and we provide a lot of support. The key is making sure that we’re choosing the right teams to work with and putting the necessary level of engagement into these decisions.”

Besides the increase of international editions, what areas of the company are especially poised for growth right now?
“We’re investing more and more in video. We’re creating videos specifically for Facebook as a way to grow the audience and brand awareness. We had 486 million video views in November, mostly on Facebook but also on YouTube and our own site. We recently launched social channels for our forthcoming site Insider, which will be a consumer general interest publication launching in Q2. And we have several more international editions in the works. Finally, we’re working on a consumer subscription service. That should be plenty to keep us busy!”

What are the biggest trends right now in digital media?
“On the business and editorial side, we’re seeing the growth of platforms as publishing vehicles. Distributed content or even “homeless media” is how this trend is referred to. We publish websites and mobile sites, and those are really important, and we have our apps, but now we need to think about instant articles and Apple News and Google AMP [accelerated mobile pages], and what does all this mean for publishers? Our philosophy is that we need to be where the users are, that consumer behavior is not something we dictate. But it’s certainly challenging to figure out how to monetize off-site content.

In the ad sales space, we’re seeing a profound shift toward programmatic buying, which is computerized purchasing of ad impressions. Ad viewability is something else that premium publishers have to address — making sure that you’ve optimized your web design and the technology behind the loading of ads to ensure that ads are 100 percent viewable. The truth is you can’t ensure that, but we are really, really close.”

According to Axel Springer, this acquisition brings its worldwide digital audience to 200 million users. How do you envision Business Insider evolving as part of this established global brand?
“Axel Springer is a terrific home for the company because they very much share our commitment to journalism and a free press. They are the most digitally savvy legacy organization we’ve ever encountered. I remember that from the very first time I met them in Berlin last summer. To be blunt, I thought, “Wow, this is so refreshing and so different from their American peers.” They now get the majority of their revenue from their digital holdings, which have primarily focused on the classified space and e-commerce. Now they’re looking to expand their digital journalism. That said, they already publish Germany’s largest online newspaper, BILD.

Axel Springer said early on, we want you to keep doing what you’re doing and remain entrepreneurial; so far, that’s been really true. Except now there is this sense that Axel Springer has certain capabilities that we could take advantage of. For example, we recently introduced a German edition that is operated by nanzen.net, an Axel Springer division, which is the leading business website in Germany. It’s a data portal that has 100 stock exchanges from around the globe in real time. They’re bigger than the German equivalent of the Wall Street Journal. So far, there are a lot of opportunities [like this] that have been presented, but not a lot of requirements.”

What do you most enjoy about Business Insider’s news coverage?
“It’s the mix. I love when we do really smart analysis and commentary, and I love when we do great, real-time blogs — like when Apple releases their new products and we cover them live. We’ll get hundreds of thousands of page views on that, which tells us we’re really connecting with an audience. I love that in digital we can write a two-sentence post that’s really satisfying or a 21,000-word story like one [Insider editor in chief] Nicholas Carlson wrote about Marissa Mayer.

One summer a number of years ago, Henry wrote an excellent analytic piece on Yahoo’s earnings the same day they were released. After lunch, he found some phenomenal photos of a whale breaching. I think they were from the New York Post. It had flipped out of the water and broken a ship in half. Henry published these incredible photos that same afternoon. [In addition to publishing original content, Business Insider aggregates popular content from other sites.] That got the same number of page views as this incredibly serious and important analysis of Yahoo’s earnings. I love that mix — and our readers do, too.”

Looking toward the next decade, what’s most important for publishers who, like Business Insider, target millennials?
“For our consumer web property, we think it could go all mobile pretty quickly. We put on a conference [on media and technology] every year called IGNITION, and for the past three years we’ve convened a great panel of New York City teenagers. It’s absolutely one of the best sessions every year. Last year, they all informed us, nonchalantly, that of course they write their homework and all their papers on their phones. Clearly, the mobile horse is not going back in the barn.”

By Simone Silverbush



Columbia Business School

Columbia Business School

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