Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The "New" AOL: Today's Vision of a Publisher's Portfolio?

The high-profile acquisition of the TechCrunch family of blogs by online veteran AOL has triggered quite a storm of buzz and second-guessing as to what it really meant. What it means is that...AOL bought one of the Web's leading blogs. If that sounds like less than scintillating analysis, then that's probably good news for AOL and for the Web as a whole. As TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington pointed out in his own blog post on the acquisition, he was getting tired of trying to flog his I.T. staff to implement the types of features that would keep TechCrunch growing. A company like AOL has the technical mojo to make those things happen. It's what helped AOL properties like Engadget grow when they acquired the Weblogs.com stable of blogs several years ago. Blogging is fun, until it becomes a business that has to grow. Ask paidContent.org founder Rafat Ali for details on this if you need some more details on this point.

What Arrington's post sidesteps, though, is the key asset that AOL brings to the table for TechCrunch: a company focused on making display advertising work on the Web for a wide array of sophisticated ad-supported Web properties. Yes, AOL has its home page and the vestiges of its email and messaging communities, but increasingly AOL is beginning to look more like today's vision of a media company that holds a portfolio of valuable online content brands that it can monetize effectively via high-value ads. AOL leaves search prowess to Google, social media mojo to Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks as components that can be blended into very well-designed destination content on a wide variety of topics. Much of its best content now comes from topic-focused blogs and communities such as  TechCrunch rather than from big-time mainstream media aggregation deals. Complementing this is AOL's Seed initiative for more focused search-savvy topic content and its growing network of Patch local news sites that are building unique content in cities and towns across the U.S.

All of these networks of destination content sites and services are being tuned for maximum display and interactive ad performance, some of them carrying the AOL brand prominently and others of them burying the AOL brand as a support mechanism for their own unique brands. It doesn't really matter which of these works best, as long as the content is designed to do what viewers and advertisers want. In other words AOL is doing today what most magazines and news publishers today should be doing if they were not so constrained by print-think that is preventing them from focusing intently on maximizing revenues from Web content. AOL, with no choice but to make the Web work, just dives in and makes the best of it with whatever tools are at hand, hoping to out-design, out-SEO and out-engage the next bit of content that might get someone's attention.

So whatever TechCrunch's sale may represent, it's not really a sell-out as much as it is a sell-up. AOL is mastering the art and science of managing portfolios of successful online destination content brands better than most any other major Web provider. Yahoo does many things well in this area, but it seems to suffer from a continuing identity crisis about what it take to be "number one" on the Web in a world that is rewarding Facebook and Google more than a Web portal that has poorly integrated and only moderately well designed content assets. The truth of the matter is that it really doesn't matter if you're number one, number ten or number five thousand on the Web.

If you're profitable and have a good plan to stay profitable, size really isn't that important. AOL is a well-sized company that is the true image of what a good portfolio of content assets should look like in the 21st century. If it is no longer the juggernaut that it once was, who cares - it knows what it is, it knows what it's doing, and it knows how to get where it's going. That's much more than can be said for many media companies these days. I hope that we see more right-sized electronic publishing companies like AOL building healthy portfolios of well-designed online content that don't give a hoot about yesterday's models for success and just keep on ticking along.
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