If you can’t solve a problem, throw money at it until it goes away. I don’t think that’s an actual adage, but it should be. It sounds like semi-legit advice. Unfortunately, especially in the social marketing and digital media space, it’s a horrible plan. Case in point? AOL.
AOL, it was announced about an hour and a half ago, just acquired The Huffington Post. This makes it about the 500th (rough estimate) content generator that AOL has acquired in the last year, and it will be far from the last. What’s even more interesting is that they also acquired Ariana Huffington herself to be the new Editor-in-Chief for a new community of content generators that AOL will run.
This is interesting for a couple of reasons. As you may or may not remember, CEO Tim Armstrong joined the company with an eye towards completely changing AOL’s image. Updated branding, peppy company memos, and a massive influx of new young staffers followed him in. The goal was to divorce AOL from the only people who still visited their sites regularly: the elderly and bored mid-western housewives. At the same time, they were looking to cash in on the growing numbers of young, financially well-off 20 and 30-somethings that were swelling the ranks of Internet users and far out-pacing grandma and grandpa in terms of online time and spending. Instead of developing a strategy to properly harness their existing audience, they chose to ignore them and jump on the hip twentysomething bandwagon, though that’s a whole separate post.
Long story short, here we are a couple of years later, and most of those kids who were taken on as part of the re-branding push have either been demoted, fired, or have quit. The problem is that while AOL execs thought they wanted a re-brand, they either did not communicate this properly to their editors or were not serious about it. Add to that the abysmal working conditions many of these younger employees worked under and AOL’s notoriously poor pay levels, a lot of these younger employees simply did not feel like they were being taken seriously. Lesson: It’s not enough to say you want a re-brand. A re-brand means more than changing the curtains; you have to seriously make a change in the entire corporate structure, something AOL was unwilling to do. As a result, their efforts to turn their existing pages into younger, hipper, more lucrative content producers fizzled and died.
So it was on to Plan B: Nix Old, Buy New! More or less a year ago, AOL set off on a serious acquisition path, that has netted it giants like Tech Crunch and now HuffPo. Simultaneously, a lot of the talent brought in to fix up and change the slant on the old sites has been either reassigned or, more commonly, fired. It looks like Armstrong and Co have given up on the re-branding and seem to be hell-bent on buying up the market they’re angling for, instead of actually putting in the work to get it. So far, results are mixed. Sure they seem to be reaching a whole new demographic that used to gag or break out laughing at the mere mention of AOL. On the other hand, I hear readership numbers over at TC haven’t been all that great. And since AOL’s general readers and interested parties skew significantly older and more conservative, I would be shocked if the same didn’t happen to the new HuffPo.
What’s the bottom line here? Like I said before, if you’re going to re-brand and re-target, you need to do it whole-heartedly. If your internal team can’t manage to commit to an internal re-branding, buying up new properties that already appeal to the market you’re going after can seem like a great idea, but before you shell out $315M, you might want to look at your organization and figure out why the original plan failed. Chances are, the same elements that caused the first strategy to fizzle are still in play, and can serve to undercut and undermine the new ventures, only at a much steeper cost.