Cast your mind back to the internet in the very early 00s: Netscape Navigator was the browser of choice, Jungle.com was where consumers flocked to buy their gadgets and AOL spent thousands of pounds sending CD-Roms to the entire country offering a month trial of its dial-up internet connection.
Much has changed in the last decade: Netscape Navigator and Jungle.com now exist only in memories, and AOL has long since lost its “goliath among internet service providers” nametag.
However, its $315m (£199m) purchase of the Huffington Post and the subsequent formation of the Huffington Post Media Group looks set to change the former internet giant’s positioning – by shifting focus to original media content.
A localised UK edition of the Huffington Post is set to hit screens in the summer , which will bring its mix of news, politics, business and entertainment to a new audience – although its founder and CEO Arianna Huffington says the site has 1 million users here already.
AOL’s partnership with the Huffington Post follows the additions of other popular content sites such as TechCrunch, Engadget and Patch Media to its portfolio.
In an interview with The Guardian, AOL’s chief executive Tim Armstrong says he believes content and quality journalism will be key in reversing the company’s fortunes. AOL’s ad revenues are rapidly diminishing and dropped 26% to $2.4bn (£1.5bn) last year.
It is time a company other than a traditional news provider realised the value of quality content.
Naysayers would argue that in a landscape where social networking sites dominate and user generated content often beats the trained journalists to breaking news, expensive journalism is not worth its salt online.
However, some of those social networking sites and content aggregators are littering the vaults of the internet with irrelevant and sometimes incorrect information – stealing advertising share from the companies who heavily invest in delivering accurate and compelling journalism.
The internet can be a goldmine for making short-term profits with little effort, taking advantage of SEO and irrelevant advertising to make a quick buck.
But those companies can never last. With so much choice available, users will quickly migrate to other sites that offer more value.
According to the Association of Online Publishers, media sites are actually better at engaging consumers than social media. Web users are almost twice as likely to trust ads and brands on original content sites as on social media sites.
AOL has realised its business model of the 90s was not evergreen and is now employing thousands of journalists to create original content to help boost advertising revenue and turn around the business.
For too long, too many companies have worked to an online business model of curating. But it is the creating of unique content – whether it is quality journalism or other new ideas – that will push digital businesses ahead.
Other publishers are also working to the mantra of “content is king”. The New York Times went behind a paywall last week, following countless other titles including The Times, News of the World and the Financial Times, who believe their journalism is at such a premium it comes at a cost to the user.
The harbingers of doom have been predicting the death of newspapers for about as long as AOL has been in existence, as users dump print for online content.
It is a shame AOL took this long to fully realise that original media content is the way to secure its future.