AOL must reposition with top content

After a year that has seen a sell-off of its ISP business in the UK, twinned with comings and goings at senior management level, AOL's future as an online player is under scrutiny. James Livesley reports.

It has been something of a turbulent time of late for AOL in Europe. Last year, the Time Warner subsidiary decided to sell off the ISP parts of its business in the UK and on the Continent.

The leadership of the company has not been a steady ship either. All this has posed questions over how the remaining business can find a new position in the market.

In October, the £370m sale of its UK internet access business to Carphone Warehouse was completed and the remaining AOL portal, still owned by Time Warner, is currently remodelling itself into a web property that is more capable of competing against online rivals, with more premium content.

Last year, the company went through three European chiefs. In January, AOL Europe chairman and chief executive Philip Rowley retired, to be replaced as head of Europe by Dana Dunne. Prior to this, Carlo d'Asaro Biondo, AOL Europe president, left to join French group Lagardere, just six weeks after being promoted into the role.

He had replaced Karen Thomson, the previous UK chief executive, who stepped up to a European role to guide the company through the ISP sale.

The UK portal is now run by former Express Newspapers managing director Andy Jonesco, after he stepped up from his role as vice-president of audience to the newly created role of managing director. In short, the times they are a-changin'.

Content provision

With Time Warner behind it, can AOL improve its position to become a premium and popular destination for internet traffic? Or will it flounder in an increasingly competitive marketplace?

It is important to remember that Time Warner has a wealth of content at its disposal - HBO, New Line Cinema, Turner and Warner Bros.

Entertainment is certainly in its armoury. But, as Dave Katz, buying director at interactive network Media Contacts, points out: "For years they have been part of Time Warner, but really they have seen very little benefit of that content. OK, six years ago it would have been impractical. They are starting to do it now, but it is pretty much do or die."

AOL Europe chief executive Dana Dunne describes the new business model as "web services" and he insists that what we are seeing in Europe will replicate what happened in the US, where "content and products have developed much further".

He cites examples of a more robust e-mail experience, video, social networking and drop and drag "my pages".

Despite the change of its business model and sell-off of its access services, previous ISP customers still get its products, such as e-mail, through an AOL site.

Carphone Warehouse's TalkTalk customers are being directed to a new AOL/TalkTalk website when they go online. According to one industry source, AOL is now claiming this contract is "in perpetuity".

This relationship would seem to indicate that AOL can retain some of the traffic it benefited from as an ISP, but Media Contact's Katz has some doubts. "In the past, the proposition to the market was its unique audience, people you could not reach anywhere else," he says.

Part of AOL's success has been that subscribers could carry out nearly everything they needed to do within AOL services. "But, now there is no walled garden, they are a portal like everyone else has. If they can't provide unique content, they really are in trouble," adds Katz.

Antiquated approach

This "walled garden" approach to guaranteeing online traffic is something Starcom's director of digital, Nigel Sheldon, believes the company has lost.

However, Sheldon believes the industry sees this approach as "quite antiquated". AOL must realise the importance of its content, but also think about how it can entice consumers, he says, using video and social networking tools, pointing to the example of News Corp and My Space.

AOL's Dunne admits the walled garden has indeed come down, but is confident that the size of the company's resources will now propel it into a strong position for potential advertisers, as all investment will now go into developing advertising opportunities.

"The scale will continue, we will still have global scale and a global relationship with customers," Dunne predicts.

Although the pressure is now on AOL to make the most of its content, the selling off of the ISP business was a shrewd move in the eyes of Mike Buckley, head of trading at I-Level. "I think it makes sense. They didn't really have any more strings to their bow to compete with Sky, Orange or Virgin Media," he says.

Quad-play, in some sense, has forced AOL to shift its position.

It must now fulfil its "web services" proposition

KEY EVENTS AT AOL UK

1996: AOL launches in the UK

2001: Merger of AOL and Time Warner is completed

2004: AOL acquires online sales network and technology company Advertising.com

2006: Time Warner completes the £370m sale of its UK internet access business to Carphone Warehouse

2007: AOL makes an offer to buy European online affiliate marketing company TradeDoubler for £458m in cash.

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