Tim Armstrong — I Love TechCrunch And It Made AOL Cool Again

A panel run by TechCrunch’s Josh Constine with with Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL and Melissa Brenner of the NBA was billed as being about how social advertising is working for those content brands. In the end, we heard a lot more about the future path of AOL and TechCrunch perhaps. But let’s review.

Armstrong admitted that AOL was originally built as a portal and on a subscription model but that it needed to head in a content direction.

He said the overall premise is that “content is going to be what differentiates platforms” from search and social. AOL “invested early in the curve and deep into content” in order to tie in business models and eventually move into paid content. A social strategy offers the possibility of huge distribution for this content play.

But, asked Constine, was there a do-or-die moment regarding portals?

Armstrong’s view is that “humans need curated information daily” and that may even mean the old notion of a portal coming back into vogue – something that helps people go about their daily lives. That requires content brands.

He admitted that despite having some dissident shareholders that “don’t believe”, in the content strategy, most of AOL’s shareholders do believe in it.

But should portals be powered by engineers or one where the brands and the people behind them “leave if they’re not treated right,” asked Constine in a barely veiled reference to Michael Arrington’s controversial departure last year.

Armstrong took the diplomatic path. It’s important to “let strong strong brands thrive” he said, and AOL was “becoming a house of strong brands”.

But, pushed Constine, why did people leave TechCrunch and Engadget?

It was at this point that Armstrong was on the spot to address the issue directly.

AOL has focused on letting its “brands have their own voices.” We will check the audio again, but I believe has also added “I don’t think you’ll see AOL play a super heavy role again in those.” So perhaps confirmation that AOL effectively plans to dial down its own brand in favour of pushing its portfolio of individual content brands.

He went on. AOL invested in CrunchFund for instance… (yes I believe we’ve heard of that). Armstrong had a chat with Arrington backstage in fact (we’d love to have been a fly on the wall for that one).

But AOL is now figuring out the branded content business for the next few decades.

But by now Constine was on a roll. What did Tim think about looking “like a dark overlord”? “Did it drive people away?”. Ok…

Armstrong came back. It’s about entrepreneurs, he said. Some sell up (to AOL) and leave and some don’t and stay put. His job as CEO is about making those brands thrive, and trying to keep the entrepreneurs involved and engaged. A lot of entrepreneurs have taken on bigger roles inside AOL he said, we presume referring to Arianna Huffington, rather than Michael Arrington.

Constine kept on. Did TechCrunch make AOL cool again?

Tim: “I think it did, and I hope to keep that atmosphere.”

Ok folks, then we were back to talking about the actual topic for the panel…

“How is AOL’s ad business going?”

“It’s doing well”, said Armstrong. The ad space is getting more data-driven, and he’s placing his bets on Project Devil for instance. He said AOL’s ad network recovered from a double digit decline to double digit growth. AOL is building a CMS into the ad business to let brands be social.

Melissa Brenner of the NBA said the NBA is “in the content business” and it’s up to her group to determine the best platforms for that.

Social “has a place” said Armstrong, and Facebook has done a great job, but the content business is about allowing users to share. As a Boston Celtics fan, he said because of its online and social strategy the NBA now feels like it’s about a great deal more than just the TV broadcasts and programming.

Constine then asked, “Don’t publishers wish they had Facebook’s data?”

Brenner pointed out that without social they would not have realised how big NBA was in places like the Philippines, for instance.

One thing AOL is doing that’s different to social is tracking offline behaviour. Social networks have a lot of data, but the content business has a lot of data on the migration between channels. So for instance, AOL knows the highest consumption of fashion information is on Saturday morning and Sunday night. That affects how AOL programs content around social.

Brenner said that one big thing with social is that when it first appeared it was about real-time updates. As the NBA got deeper into it, they realised fans would be planning what they were watching that evening and used that to suggest NBA programming.

Constine asked what what Facebook could do better, such as launch an off-site ad network.

Armstrong said he’d seen 40-50 major AOL ad customers recently and social is a “big topic” for advertisers. So there seems like an opportunity to have a second-generation version of Facebook, which might involve an external ad network.

Constine asked about blunders in AOL and the NBA’s strategies to date and the answers ranged from the wrong tweet into the wrong channel, and that perhaps some AOL sites were “over-monetized” (read: too many ads). And “sticking social buttons everywhere” is not the way to go, said Armstrong.

Finally, Constine went into curve-ball mode and asked Armstrong which he loved more, TechCrunch or the Huffington Post?

“I love them both. They are both my children. But they serve different markets. TechCrunch as a brand has a global opportunity to reconnect the future of where technology is going. Technology touches every person, every household and business. I would hope TechCrunch becomes a global tech property with much bigger scale,” said Armstong. He pointed out that former TechCrunch CEO Heather Harde was consulting with the company after some “scuba diving and yoga”. “I think TC is just starting.”