AOL: Returning to the fray AOL's online women's magazine AOL's online women's magazine

Following some high-profile mishaps, AOL is back with a whole new strategy. By Sarah Shearman

After a number of years in the doldrums, AOL is attempting yet another comeback. Having failed as a broadband provider and then as a social network owner, it has a new goal: to become the world's biggest content provider. With the brand having recorded a $1bn (£628m) loss in the second quarter of this year, it is easy to pinpoint the motivation behind the change in strategy.

Last week, Marketing revealed that AOL is starting to roll out this fresh position in the UK: the first advertising for its recently launched online women's magazine,, goes live this week.

The site was created for 'super-stylish, forward-thinking women' between the ages of 25 and 44, one of three audience demographics that AOL is strategically targeting. The others are 25- to 44-year-old males and the over-55s. 'We are focusing on under-served, highly lucrative audiences, such as working mums who have more interests than simply recipes and fashion,' says Sarah Gavin, vice-president of communications at AOL.

The brand has also relaunched its music and news sites, and the attempt to claw its way back into the territory of rival internet giants includes an aggressive acquisition spree. Earlier this month AOL snapped up video website, social app store and technology blog TechCrunch, all on the same day. The TechCrunch acquisition is reported to be worth about $40m (£25m) and is part of AOL's plans to spark a resurgence by creating a portfolio of websites with growing audiences.

This all feeds into AOL's interestingly named 'Project Devil', which aims to create an impact by running digital advertising across its sites. It's worth noting that it is looking to do this with fewer staff: the company is completing the process started in November last year of making 2500 people redundant. The choices may be tough, but are necessary if AOL is to deliver on its aim of rebuilding the brand.

It faces significant challenges, not least the plethora of quality content already available on the internet, much of which is free, as Toby Horry, managing director at Dare, points out.

'With too much choice and plenty of tools through which people can filter it, it is becoming more apparent that brands need to do things that warrant peoples' time and attention,' he says. 'There is a danger that AOL will run out of money before it gets to a place where it can have a critical mass of valuable content that sets it apart.'

Mikhail Basman, head of digital products and search at Media Contacts, is more optimistic. He says that as paywalls go up, AOL's sites could attract the attention of those hunting for quality content but who are unwilling to pay for it. 'There is no doubt people will be interested in AOL's sites, but the real challenge will be in retaining this interest. If it does, advertisers will line up,' he says.

Acquiring companies is, put politely, not something at which AOL has a great track record. After its merger with, and subsequent demerger from, Time Warner came the significant loss it suffered on Bebo, which it bought for $850m in 2008 and sold for less than $10m (£6.2m) this June.

Of the latter, Jim Clark, senior technology analyst at Mintel, says AOL's failure was down to a combination of Bebo being 'oversold' to AOL, along with AOL not investing enough in it.

However, new management with increased vigour and more than a modicum of respect in digital circles may help AOL's chances. The Bebo debacle was a legacy of former chief executive Randy Falco. Its current chief executive, Tim Armstrong, whose career includes a tenure at Google, has set out a clear, long-term strategy and is treating the company as if it were a start-up. This should stand it in good stead by allowing for innovative thinking and giving the company an opportunity to start with a clean slate.

AOL's history suggests that yet another new strategy will emerge in a few years' time. Moreover, when many companies are struggling to make money from editorial, content may not seem the most logical route to pursue. Nonetheless, with the promise of true reform and visionary leadership, AOL has a chance, even if it never returns to the heights of its 90s heyday.

AOL timeline
1983: Quantum Computer Services (later named AOL) founded
1991: Quantum renamed as America Online
1992: AOL went public on NASDAQ
1995: AOL reached 1m members and extended its service internationally
2000: Survived the bursting of the dot-com bubble and merged with Time
Warner to become AOL Time Warner.
Mar 2008: AOL acquired social networking site Bebo
Dec 2009: AOL demerged from Time Warner
Jun 2010: AOL sold Bebo to Criterion Capital Partners
Sept 2010: AOL acquired TechCrunch and launched
Oct 2010: AOL and Yahoo could merge, according to reports


Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus
Brand Republic Jobs

subscribe now


Waitrose boosts content strategy with 'Weekend Kitchen with Waitrose' C4 tie-up
Hottest virals: Cute puppies star in Pedigree ad, plus Idris Elba and Fruyo
Amnesty International burns candles to illuminate new hope
Toyota achieves the impossible by calming angry Roman drivers
Tom of Finland's 'homoerotic' drawings made into stamps
YouTube reveals user habits to appeal to 'older' marketers
Ex-M&S marketing chief Steven Sharp consulting at WPP
Wolff Olins reveals new CEO after Apple poaches Karl Heiselman
Glasgow offers £30,000 prize to best digital idea for 2014 Commonwealth Games
Google's revenues surge but shares drop as it grapples with transition to mobile
Facebook beats Twitter to most 'marketing friendly' social media site crown, says DMA
Fableists believe children like Finn should be outdoors enjoying life
Homebase, Baileys and Camelot join the line-up at Media360
MasterCard renews Rugby World Cup sponsorship to push cashless message
Lynx unleashes £9m 'Peace invasion' campaign
Social Brands 100 Youth: Pizza Hut most social youth brand in UK
Cheryl Cole is wild and arresting in new L'Oreal work
Morrisons told not to show alcohol ads during YouTube nursery rhymes
O2 head of brand Shadi Halliwell departs after 23 years at company in restructure
Tesco hit by further sales decline as it turns to digital Clubcard and social network
Branding guru Wally Olins dies aged 83
Duracell short film captures epic Transatlantic voyage
Ash runs Tinder experiment to show smokers are less desirable to opposite sex
British Airways teams up with Gerry Cottle Jnr for summer of rooftop film screenings
Arklu says 'girls can be superheroes too' with doll design competition
Coke enters squash market with Oasis Mighty Drops
Virgin Galactic signs up Land Rover as space flight sponsor
Motorola marketer Andrew Morley departs as Google gears up for sale to Lenovo
US Airways apologises after tweeting obscene image at a customer
Mumsnet admits users' emails and passwords accessed via Heartbleed bug