Christina Norman's comeback appears under way, with a little boost from another powerful female media executive, Arianna Huffington.
The former CEO of Oprah Winfrey’s struggling OWN network was bounced from her position last June. And while she landed on her feet in August as executive editor of HuffPo’s BlackVoices, it seemed to be a step down from running a cable network. But Norman, also a former MTV president, has taken a property flush with potential and run with it.
By September 2011, BlackVoices was reborn, loaded with new social media integrations and fueled by a voice that expertly combined HuffPo’s blend of serious news and heavy-duty fluff. Since then, the BlackVoices’ audience has jumped 22 percent to 3.6 million unique users in January, its biggest month ever, according to comScore.
Even more impressive are the loyalty/engagement numbers. Daily visitors have surged by 73 percent to 318,000, while monthly page views have spiked by 19 percent. And much like the mothership, BlackVoices has embraced being a social publisher, with referrals from social networks climbing by 42 percent.
“We needed that faster Huffington Post metabolism,” said Norman. “At the heart of it, I’m a content person. I just needed to wrap my head around content for an online audience.”
Besides harnessing HuffPo’s powerful socially infused content management system, BlackVoices has adopted Huffington’s famous big-name-friends-blogging-for-free strategy, landing contributors like Rev. Al Sharpton and filmmaker Sheila Johnson.
Norman has also embraced AOL partnerships, such as a Black History-Month-themed History Quest, which leverages MapQuest’s platform and localized content produced in conjunction with AOL Patch.
At the end of the day, though, said Norman, BlackVoices’ mission is to be “a great news and entertainment site” that celebrates black culture.
“She’s just a great brand person,” said Richard Gay, evp of strategy and operations, MTV & VH1. “And she’s a very clear and decisive figure. It doesn’t surprise me at all that she’s bounced right back.”
At OWN, Norman took the fall for early low ratings. “I don’t think anyone could have done any different or better than she did,” said Michael Hirschorn, founder, Ish Entertainment, and who had run programming at VH1 under Norman. “It was obviously very political.”
The looming question, however, is can BlackVoices turn its traffic gains into ad dollars, particularly as AOL struggles to recover? The site has such advertisers as Toyota, Coca-Cola, Ford and Procter & Gamble, yet most mainstream brands don’t have dedicated African-American budgets—meaning BlackVoices often has to compete with the rest of the Web for dollars. But for those that do, BlackVoices is a core buy, said Marla Skiko, evp, director of digital innovation, SMG Multicultural. “There are more and larger budgets for Hispanic [these days]. But for us, it’s extremely relevant. We’re looking for more of it.”
In the meantime, Norman is enjoying her new gig, far removed from cable. And what does she think of what’s happening at OWN? Norman said, “I don’t really follow it anymore.”
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