Not too long ago, AOL’s future looked bleak. One of the original internet titans, many assumed it was living on borrowed time after its nine-year marriage to Time Warner – forged through the biggest media deal in corporate history at $164 billion – fizzled out at the end of 2009.
Emerging from the split was a business still reliant on its internet dial-up services, where subscriptions continue to fall, and scarred from its disastrous $850 million foray into social networking with Bebo, which was later sold for around $10 million.
Under chief executive Tim Armstrong, AOL has sought to reposition itself primarily as a media company, with a strategy based on content and international expansion. It’s early days, but the move appears to be paying off, with AOL achieving its first revenue growth in eight years in the fourth quarter of 2012.
The strategy underpinned the $315 million purchase of The Huffington Post, the acquisition of TechCrunch and the creation of the hyper-local platform Patch. All now sit within AOL’s growing Brand Group division, alongside the likes of AOL.com, StyleList and MapQuest.
A less visible part of the newfound success is the evolution of AOL Networks, the business unit for publishers and agencies that now houses the branded content specialist Be On, as well as Advertising.com, Adtech and Pictela.
The division enjoyed 37 per cent growth last year, and revenues of $183.5 million in the fourth quarter places it in the same ballpark as Brand Group’s entire $213.2 million – a welcome addition to the $230.8 million still generated by AOL’s dial-up business.
One part of AOL Networks’ success has been its video service, Goviral, bought for $97 million in 2011. This week’s launch of Be On consigns the Goviral brand to history, but AOL fully intends to build on its heritage.
René Rechtman, the former chief executive of Goviral, still spearheads the operation as the senior vice-president of AOL Networks, EMEA.
He says video remains core for AOL and notes how longer-form content provides the opportunity for the company to generate more revenue from advertising.
"We are targeting television budgets, absolutely," he tells Campaign. "We can offer premium content created by AOL Studios at a fraction of the cost of traditional spots."
Be On launches with a campaign for AS Roma, the Serie A football club. Rechtman calls the asset a "great example of the power of storytelling for brands" and it has the potential to reach 900 million unique users in more than 90 countries.
Be On holds opportunities for smaller investment too, with its Screens player offering brands the chance to enhance any piece of video to make it fully interactive across all screens.
Starcom MediaVest Group is among the first to trial Be On to promote Samsung’s Galaxy S4. Its digital activation director, Jon Harris, says it will initially repurpose TV creative but has plans to develop bespoke content. It’s an area he imagines another client, Heineken, could be interested in exploring too.
"In many ways, AOL’s Be On reflects SMG’s ‘human experiences’ culture," he says. "We fully believe that content people enjoy, in a quality environment and increasingly directed towards users’ own interests, represents a real opportunity for brands."