More on AOL: It’s new content strategy is dead wrong

A week ago, I wrote about the futility of AOL’s rebranding unless it figures out how to become more relevant to its audience.

This week I have to write about the futility of AOL’s effort to become more relevant to its audience.

The centerpiece of that effort, according to PaidContent.org, is a three-pronged approach to generating new content:

1.

Hire lots of journalists. It’s good news that AOL is trying to generate original content, and I’m pleased that it’s using trained content professionals – of which there are plenty available. It has a staff of 3,000 journalists, according to PaidContent, which puts it into the top tier of U.S. news-gathering organizations.
2.

Use algorithms to predict what stories people want to read, and then assign these to the journalists. The objective is clear. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong hopes that by giving people content they want, AOL will become the content place to go.

He’s wrong. This is the kind of thinking that puts Jon and Kate Gosselin in our faces day after day, week after week, month after tawdry month. It takes variety out of the news cycle, just as Wal-Mart’s unceasing desire to stock only the best-selling SKUs limits the variety of what you can buy at the world’s largest retailer.

When someone says, “I want more stories like the one about Jon and Kate,” they aren’t really saying they want to hear more about the Gosselin family. They’re saying they want information that makes them feel the same way they did when they heard it (for better or worse), and that makes them feel as informed as they did when they talked about it at work the next day.

People can tell you what was important to them yesterday, but they don’t know what’s going to be important to them tomorrow. Media have not succeeded until now, nor will they in the future, by giving people what they want so much as by giving people what’s new, important and interesting.

The real function AOL’s journalists could serve is to present information that is new, important and interesting. AOL has hired the journalists but it’s about to screw up in deploying them.

3.

Get advertisers more involved with content. This isn’t unique and it isn’t new. It’s just one more effort to help marketers bludgeon their target audiences into submission. Hey, I’m a marketer and I still can’t stand the thought of this. Everybody on one side of the equation is doing this, and everybody on the other side of the equation is trying to tune it out. Creating more and more advertorial microsites – no matter how well intentioned some of them will inevitably be – is not the big-internet business model of the future.

In fact, this is the very reason why social media is so hot right now: because social media lets users find the information they want. AOL’s model is to deliver the information, fire-hose style, right down the user’s gullet. It may generate some short-term revenue, but it won’t make AOL relevant or desirable.

It will do the opposite.

None of this is to say that AOL’s plan is evil or particularly dreadful. I think it’s pretty typical. But that’s why it won’t work. AOL is trying to distinguish itself by doing what every other large media company is trying to do. For a company in trouble, that’s a formula for failure.

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