What a long, strange trip it’s been for AOL.
The more than 20 year old company that was once at the forefront of Internet community building and defined the online experience for many early Internet adopters, is now experiencing a bit of an identity crisis.
AOL has moved far beyond its famous “You’ve got mail”catch phrase/punch line/movie title. So, then how does AOL define itself ? Is AOL an Internet provider, a media and entertainment company, an ad network, an email provider or a Web portal?
While it’s all of those things in one fashion or another,the company is working toward positioning itself as just one thing – a next generation ad network.
“AOL has reinvented itself so many times. It is hard tokeep track,” says Adam Schlachter, senior partner at media and communications consultancy Mediaedge:cia.
AOL’s ad strategy comes at a time when Jeffrey Bewkes,CEO of Time-Warner, acknowledges there is no future in the dial up Internet. There is increasing pressure as media companies and Web portals aplenty are starting and the future is buying or promoting networks as the next step toward”one-stop” shopping for ad buyers.
In an attempt to reinvent itself, AOL has spent about $1 billion acquiring ad-centric companies over the last several years. (See sidebar). AOL’s first big step into the ad market was its 2004 purchase of Advertising.com for $435 million. Advertising.com made a name for itself selling ad space on websites at a time when few were doing it and is the largest third-party display advertising network.
In 2007, AOL bought contextual advertising company Quigo. It alsosnapped up Tacoda, a behavioral targeting company. It bought Third ScreenMedia, a mobile advertising network and maker of mobile software. It also acquired Germany’s Adtech AG, an international online ad-serving firm and added Lightningcast to its roster of companies. Lightningcast delivers advertising for on-demand, live and downloaded video content on the Internet.
The buying spree continued this year. In February AOL acquired Buy.at, an independent affiliate network based in the United Kingdom, with more than 9,000 international affiliates and merchants such as Butlins, Carphone Warehouse, Capital One, Egg, John Lewis, M&S, Powergen, TMobile and Virgin Media.
In March AOL made a step into the Web 2.0 world by acquiring Bebo.com, the fourth largest social networking site, for $850 million. With more than 40 million members, Bebo’s user base is a far cry from the space’s leader MySpace with 109 million.
The Platform Play
AOL’s Platform A division brings together all of AOL’s ad-related silos under a single umbrella. Formed in September 2007, the division has already experienced a series of executive shakeups. Since November, several Platform A executives have exited including Kathleen Kayse, vice president of marketing; Lance Miyamoto, head of human resources; and Dave Morgan, chief ad strategist.
Curtis Viebranz, CEO of Tacoda, who was brought in as president of Platform A, was removed in March. Lynda Clarizio, a nine year AOL veteran that was previous president of Advertising.com, took over the reigns of Platform A.
Clarizio, for her part, has reportedly jumped in with both feet. She is known to have reveled in the start up culture of Advertising.com. PlatformA insiders say she is looking to infuse the many AOL ad groups with that same startup work ethic. And up until recently, the acquired companies had so many department heads with similar roles that many insiders claim various parts of Platform A were essentially competing with themselves for the same clients.
Clarizio has publicly said she will structure teams so that there is only one sales team, technology team, product and operations team, marketing team and publisher services team. She has also combined the overlapping search marketing efforts by Advertising.com and contextual targeting shop Quigo.
In recent interviews with the media Clarizio focused on the short term goals of the group, rather than the executive turnover and claims of integration difficulties.
“As our technology has continued to advance, we’ve gotten better and better,” Clarizio told the Associated Press.”We can handle a lot of demand from advertisers.”She also told the Washington Post that “this is probably the most dynamic industry in the world right now, the online advertising space. To compete effectively in this space, you have to be constantly pushing, innovating new products.”
Some analysts are giving AOL the benefit of the doubt as it works though integrating all its acquisitions.David Hallerman, an analyst at New York-based eMarketer, says, “It takes a while. This is not just buying technologies. It’s buying human constructs, and it takes a while to work out.”
While Platform A is still in its early stages, its reach is already significant when accounting for all the once-disparate units. According to comScore MediaMetrix, Platform A counted 167 million unique visitors in February 2008 and claims 90 percent of the U.S. online audience. However, AOL as a whole, however, ranks fourth as a Web portal, behind Google, MSN and Yahoo.
AOL’s ad revenue is still growing but not at the same clip as previous years. Its ad revenue for 2007grew 12 percent, off the 37 percent growth AOL experienced in 2006 and the 38 percent growth in2005, according to eMarketer.
“AOL appears to be feeling pressure from aggressive sales targets set against the backdrop of a slowing economy,” says Greg Sterling, analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence.
Advertising.com recently lost its biggest advertiser, University of Phoenix, whose ads accounted for $215 million in 2007 and $157 million in 2006- that’s about 17 percent of AOL’s ad revenue growth last year.
There has also been repeated speculation that Time-Warner may sell off AOL and that the recent acquisitions and formation of Platform A is meant to make the company look more attractive to potential buyers or as a spin off company.
And with Microsoft’s bid to buy Yahoo rejected by Yahoo shareholders, AOL is once again mentioned as a potential merger partner with both of those companies as each seeks to thwart Google’s continued dominance online.
Last September there was talk that Platform A itself could be spun out and become public with an IPO. There was also wide spread speculation in the blogosphere that with the dial up business and its Web portal stagnating AOL might change its name to Advertising.com in an effort to clarify its focus to outsiders.
A Big Plan
A key element in AOL’s ad network strategy is the purchase of Bebo.com. Some industry observers say that in a best case scenario, Bebo can leverage the behavioral targeting capabilities from several of the PlatformA companies to better target certain demographics,and will be able to scale to reach a larger audience with AOL’s Instant Messenger.
While revenue from ads on social networks is likely to reach $1.6 billion this year – up from $920 million in2007 – the lion’s share of that money was from MySpace and Facebook.
“It’s hard to know what AOL is getting,” says Ryan Jacob of the Jacob Internet Fund, a firm that invests in Internet companies.
At the time the Bebo.com/AOL deal was announced inApril 2007 there was some debate in the press that AOL was overpaying for the network, given that Bebo’s traffic over the preceding three months had been relatively flat.The Silicon Alley Insider reported that many AOL senior managers were against the deal and that AOL president Randy Falco and COO Ron Grant alone pushed hard for the acquisition. AOL did not speak with Revenue regarding those issues.
AOL has also faced challenges on the search front. In2007 AOL went from a results page with links for copy, images, song files and other elements to a cleaner page that looked more like Google’s. Reportedly, the reasoning behind the change was that the diversity of search results was slowing down the pages from loading and that had an impact on revenue per search.
But revenue on search in the new format actually dropped to $156 million from $232 million in a previous quarter.
At the time, the top brass at Time-Warner claimed the search improvements would be good for traffic growth. But traffic in the following four months dropped with unique visitors down 0.2 percent from March to May 2008, to 30.6 million in November 2007 from (what), according to comScore.
“It’s troubling that they didn’t know what the impact of the search change would be,” Richard Greenfield, analyst at Pali Research, says. “This raises serious concerns about their ability to run the business and turn it around.”
From a content and functionality point of view, AOL maintains a variety of strong offerings. Its Truveo video search engine sports 100 million videos to search and is on track to total 1 billion by 2009. Its TMZ.com gossip site is on fire with 10 million visitors per month and a spin off TV show. AOL Music’s free music has an array of videos, news and concert tour information and is second only to Yahoo’s music portal.
AOL TV is the only site that hosts shows from all four of the major broadcast TV networks.
One AOL insider, who asked not to be named, says part of the problem is that AOL is unlikely to gain the same type of dominance it once enjoyed and being held to that old standard is unrealistic.
Before the dot com bubble burst in 2001, AOL’s userbase at its height was estimated to be more than 27 million people (it’s now about 10 million) all paying about $19 per month to stay connected. Its biggest coup was the much ballyhooed merger with Time-Warner in 2000. However, things quickly soured and by 2002, the combined company wrote off $99 billion. And, by 2003 the media giant had removed the”AOL” from its name and AOL head Steve Case from his chairman’s seat.
In 2006 AOL seemed to be making a comeback. It became free (it’s all ad-supported) and saw 46 percent ad-revenue growth in a single quarter, 49 percent the following quarter. Its stock seemed to spring back, too, rising as much as 40 percent in a six month period. At it’s height in 1999 AOL’s stock hit about $147. It currently hovers around $15 per share. AOL revenue in 2007 was $5.2 billion and its websites still draw 112 million visitors per month. Plus, it continues to have one of the most recognizable brand names on the Internet.
“If you just look at what AOL has accomplished in the last three years, it is amazing,” the source says. “I just don’t know how anyone can see that as failure. Most companies would kill to have achieved this level of success in online advertising.