Make no doubt about it: AOL CEO Tim Armstrong had his work cut out the moment he became the leader of one of the most storied names in technology in the past two decades.

The former head of ad sales for Google is tasked with nothing less than to revitalize a brand that in many ways represents what the internet once was, and perhaps represents little of what most of us think it will be. Increasingly, Armstrong's task looks impossible to carry out successfully.

The new AOL envisioned by Armstrong is in many ways predicated on the notion that content is king. But turning that belief into a viable business is another matter altogether.

Take AOL's adoption of the 'content farming' model popularized in large part by Demand Media. On paper, fast food content looked good, but as we've learned from Demand Media's IPO prospectus, it's hardly looks like the profitable business it was made out to be. Which begs the question: did AOL bet on the wrong pony, again?

It just might have. Last quarter, AOL's advertising revenue fell 27% year-over-year, and one might argue that the company is gasping for straws with its new supersized ads.

But perhaps nothing can trump this latest gem: in an effort to get the web back on track, AOL's Armstrong is employing creative people like the Jonas Bros. to help the company "redesign the Internet." Armstrong explained:

... we think the internet needs to be reprogrammed. Web pages haven’t looked any different in 15 years! They look like they were created by people in Silicon Valley with engineering backgrounds who happen to be mostly male.

Web pages haven't looked any different in 15 years? I don't know where Armstrong has been the past 15 years, but I can assure him that today's web is nothing like the web circa 1995. Thanks to evolving standards and technologies, today's websites are not only far more visually appealing than their counterparts of a decade and a half ago, they're far more functional too. And while some of the most high-impact internet companies in the world have emerged in Silicon Valley, Armstrong's apparent ignorance of the rest of the world's influence on the modern web is somewhat embarrassing.

But no matter, Armstrong believes that the key to AOL's resurrection is an army of low-cost freelance journalists and a "sincere focus on creativity." This sounds good, on paper at least, but the real problem with AOL's approach is that it lacks one thing: real passion. The kind you'll find behind every internet success story, from the one-man blog with a loyal following to major success stories like YouTube.

Unfortunately for AOL, it's tough to put lipstick on a pig on today's internet. Successfully at least. Mainstream consumers are comfortable with the web, many are downright 'sophisticated' and most importantly, they have plenty of providers competing for their affections.

This means AOL has its work cut out for it. But the fact that AOL is spending so much time at New York Fashion Week and thinks people like the Jonas Bros. will help it "redesign the Internet" shows that the only thing that hasn't changed in the past 15 years is how out of touch AOL is with the average consumer.

Photo credit: Lucius Kwok via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 14 September, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (2)



Armstrong's long-term plan for hitching AOL's star to a group of young performers and their mostly-young audience would be a good one if AOL had 10-15 years to grow and mature as the Jonas Bros and their audience grow and mature.  Problem is, AOL may not be around in 10-15 years, except as a logo on some cheap electronic gadget.

almost 8 years ago


Demand Studios writer

Content publication like Demand Media's model works if you do it right, I think. They plunged a lot into acquisitions and have made some missteps along the way, but if anyone really nails it without making those mistakes and throwing money around willy nilly I think it's a potential gold mine.

almost 8 years ago

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