Aol is really into hiring boss’s boss’s bosses. We’ve had a couple in my brief sojourn in the Aol Brand Group. Now we’ve got another one, former Gilt CEO Susan Lyne, who just sent out the following memo to our Team about her new role, which she doesn’t mention. She will be Brand Group CEO.
I’m bolding the word “brand” in this letter because I hate it. It’s one of those fluffy words people use without having much sense of what it means, like “content” or “friction.” Okay, now I’m bolding those words, too.
Despite not really telling us what’s going on, like calling Eldon or myself or any of the other editors personally, Lyne brings up The Huffington Post and “Tech Crunch (sic)” in the third sentence of this Team memo.
As far as we can tell, Arianna, with her Hellenic iron fist, has retained her dominion over the HuffPost stronghold, and we’ll continue to push the boundaries of what we can do until we get fired.
Lyne’s hire is part of Aol “decentralizing” its businesses, perhaps in preparation for a more drastic chop. We’re now entering the era of a “three-pronged” Aol: advertising (Aol Networks), media brands (Aol Brand Group) and subscriptions (Aol Membership).
At least we still get to work from home.
First things first: I am really excited about this new role. I joined the board three years ago for two reasons: I believed in Tim, and I believed in the mission of bringing together great technology and great content to create the media company of the future. Tim and I have talked in the past about working together “someday,” but it was over the holidays that I realized how much of my thinking was dominated by AOL. There are so many great developments that point to the company’s momentum: the fact that The Huffington Post and Tech Crunch have grown exponentially at AOL while keeping a strong identity and independence; the fact that almost 50,000 bloggers call AOL home; and that 30 million comments were posted by users in Q4 alone; that AOL On has become the #1 video network in all the key lifestyle categories – as well as autos and tech; and that a groundbreaking project like “Makers: Women Who Make America,” came to life here at AOL. These aren’t just one-off accomplishments; they suggest multiple, complimentary roads to growing our consumer base and our business.
I started out in the content business and spent most of my career before Gilt working in media: 10 years in magazines, 10 years in television, 4 years at an “Omnimedia” company – so in many ways this feels like a homecoming. I’ve spent as much time as I could over the last few weeks digging into the brands, but I’m going to need a lot of your time in the coming weeks to understand what’s working, what’s possible, what’s needed. I’ve done this enough times to know that things look very different once you’re inside the tent than they do from the outside. That said, I’ll share a few things I’ve been thinking about as I explored:
Users don’t know, or care, how the Brand Group is organized or who owns what. They only know what they see and experience when they land on a page. We need to look at everything through the lens of that user. I know that many of our users go direct to The Huffington Post, or Tech Crunch, or Moviefone, or AOL.com – but millions land on a page through search or social links or referral. We have an opportunity to get more of their attention, and ultimately their loyalty, if we make UX a priority.
Thinking More Like Programmers:
Not computer programmers; entertainment programmers. There’s a lot to be learned from other mediums. In television, content producers think about the arc of a season: Do we have our tentpole events? What’s our big idea for holiday, the election, the hurricane, fashion week? Should we go after NFL Football, or the Olympics, or the next Judd Apatow series? And do we have a steady flow of provocative/irresistible/”must share” franchises to add excitement to the weeks in between. Magazines work around an editorial calendar that starts with whatever is top of mind for consumers that month (holiday, back to school), then layers on special issues that in success become annuals: The September Issue (Vogue), The Swimsuit issue (SI), Best Companies to Work For (Fortune), Reader’s Choice Awards (Conde Nast Traveler), The Time 100, Best of Beauty (Allure), Most Powerful Women (Fortune). Consumers look forward to them — and advertisers plan around them.
Events drive sampling, create a ton of free marketing, and help define, or redefine, your brand. The fact that our competitors don’t think this way has more to do with the stage of the industry than anything else – but it creates a wide-open opportunity for us.
At Gilt, I watched how quickly smart phones went from “cooler phone” to “all-tasks” device. Two years ago mobile purchases represented about 5% of Gilt’s revenue. Today it’s more than 30% (and hovered around 50% on weekends during holiday 2012). We’ve sold $20k diamond rings on iPhones and cars on iPads, so there clearly is not a ceiling on what users will spend via mobile.
I have a pretty good sense of the commerce dynamics on mobile, but I/we need to dig deep into how mobile users consume content. I don’t believe this is about more apps but about great apps. And it’s not about replicating what we do online for devices. An app that does one thing really well can be a whole lot more valuable than one that tries to do everything. With assets like Patch, Moviefone, and MapQuest, we are well-positioned to leverage what is the greatest shift in consumer behavior since the Internet emerged.
I am ambitious for our brands, and I believe that marketplace opinion is turning in our favor, recognizing (once again) that content is valuable and that great content is incredibly valuable. A friend of mine says I have an internal GPS for shifting winds and, if that’s true, then this is the perfect moment to be realizing Tim’s vision. The last decade has been an incredibly fertile period for new devices and platforms – from smart phones and tablets to YouTube and Netflix. We’ve seen over and over again that, whenever a new platform emerges, there is a period of time when the platform itself is the draw. Once it’s established, however, the excitement turns to what the platform can serve up.
– That’s why cable channels moved from “access” programs and movie reruns to original series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad
– That’s why Netflix produced House of Cards this year; and why Amazon is buying comedy pilots (yup, true fact)
– That’s why even Google is investing in content, backing channel development on YouTube
I’ll end where I started: I’m incredibly excited to be joining you and look forward to meeting many more of you in the coming weeks. Here are a few things to think about in the interim, things I will be focused on:
– How we grow engagement — external traffic, page views, time spent
– How we become a better, more integral partner to advertisers
– How we become a better, friction-free partner to publishers
– How we make the brand group a magnet for talent — the best, most exciting place to work in New York City
–And how we drive a culture of efficiency so we can put more money to work on projects that will fuel future growth.
I really believe it’s a great time to be at AOL. There’s still a ton of work to be done to reach the company’s potential but our strategy is spot on and, thanks to all of you, the wind is at our backs.
See you soon,