03:21 AM

A Clueless AOL Yet Again... A Ridiculous Content Strategy

AOL has an uncanny knack for making all wrong decisions at critical times.

There was a time when America Online, as it was known back in the early 1990s could have become the Internet if it had opened up its platform. It was the largest online network and had incredible momentum under the leadership of Steve Case.

Later, in 2006 when AOL opened up its platform, at a time when creating a safe walled-garden for its users would have been a great service, a great time to build a social network.

And let's not mention the acquisition of Time-Warner. That was a huge disaster and its announcement in 2000 signaled the end of the dotcom boom and the start of the dotbomb.

Now AOL has a new content strategy. Emily Steel at the Wall Street Journal reports:

Instead of waiting to sell ads until an article or Web video is produced, AOL--which has scores of niche sites, such as beauty and fashion site Stylelist, in addition to its AOL brand--says it plans to offer marketers the chance to work with its editorial team to create custom content.

AOL says that its ad model will allow advertisers to be affiliated with the content but not control what is written or created.

This isn't going to work. There is no way advertisers will want to pay for being "affiliated" with content if it is critical or is negative in sentiment, and over which they have no control.

If it works at all, it will result in bland, beige content that will not get a second click from readers once they get a first look.

And this is CEO Tim Armstrong's best plan to revamp the company as a content powerhouse?

Why doesn't he just republish press releases and advertorials? There's tons of those and they are free.

A low-end content strategy

The Wall Street Journal says that sources report that Mr Armstrong owns a 20% stake in Demand Media and Associated Content. These companies are trying to produce niche media on a mass scale by paying attention to what people are search for and what advertisers on Google Adsense will pay for.

He is attempting to bring a similar system to AOL. It will pay freelancers to produce specific articles based on how much advertising it can sell next to the content.

Mr Armstrong joined AOL in March 2009. He was previously head of Google's North American and Latin American advertising group. It's not surprising that he favors an automated news gathering and production system closely coupled with advertising -- that's how Google's AdSense system works.

But Google AdSense is not that great at monetizing content. But that doesn't matter too much because it doesn't have to pay for the content it automatically matches content on third-party sites with contextual ads.

How will AOL's system improve the monetization of content? Freelancers will be expected to produce content for free and then get paid later. Will they receive more money than if they published the content themselves and used AdSense to monetize it? That's clearly the promise.

But why would advertisers pay more to advertise on the AOL platform if they can use an ad network such as AdSense and advertise next to similar content? And they wouldn't need to become involved in the creation of content, as in the AOL approach.

It doesn't make sense.

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Please see:

Business Insider gets a copy of AOL email welcoming new writers:

The email, from an editor at AOL site RentedSpaces.com, encourages writers to produce 300-500 word stories fast in a style that's "colorful, concise, [and] opinionated." But he doesn't want them to go too far.
"We're not Gawker, so be friendly and authoritative."
He tells them stories don't have to be based on original reporting. He writes, "All we want to know for a pitch is: what's the story, who broke it (AP, NYT, BW, Bloomberg,etc.), and how you will advance the story if you are following someone else's reporting," reads the email.
When writers file their copy, they're expected to "Include 140 characters for a Tweet or Facebook update."
AOL wants its editors to write in a way that will help Google will find their stories -- that they're "search engine optimized." For example, the RentedSpaces editor tells his staffers to "make sure the first few words and first graf contain the critical keywords."