AOL is back, baby. And by "back," I mean back to being ridiculous. Its latest move: buying The Huffington Post for an astounding $315 million. This comes some four months after swallowing up TechCrunch for a more modest $25 to $40 million.
Yes, that's right. In yet another content acquisition, AOL is merging with Arianna Huffington's Franken-site. It's like a lefty supermarket for online news, they sell a little bit of everything there.
Breathlessly, L'Arianna writes:
I got an email from Tim Armstrong (AOL Chairman and CEO), saying he had something he wanted to discuss with me, and asking when we could meet. We arranged to have lunch at my home in LA later that week. The day before the lunch, Tim emailed and asked if it would be okay if he brought Artie Minson, AOL's CFO, with him. I told him of course and asked if there was anything they didn't eat. "I'll eat anything but mushrooms," he said.
The next day, he and Artie arrived, and, before the first course was served, with an energy and enthusiasm I'd soon come to know is his default operating position, Tim said he wanted to buy The Huffington Post and put all of AOL's content under a newly formed Huffington Post Media Group, with me as its president and editor-in-chief.
I think Tim already ate the mushrooms, the magic kind that make you believe if you tie a bedsheet around your neck and jump off the roof you'll glide like Superman. In a company-wide memo, he writes:
We are taking another major step in the comeback of AOL. Today we are announcing that we have agreed to acquire The Huffington Post, one of the most exciting, influential, and fastest growing properties on the Internet. We believe in brands, quality journalism and the positive role of communities in the world, The Huffington Post shares our values and the combination of the two companies will create the premier global and local media company on the Internet.
Arianna calls the AOL-HuffPo marriage "a merger of visions," and she's right. Their shared vision: churn out as much crap as humanly possible for pennies, and hope readers and advertisers stick to it.
Last week Business Insider's Nick Carlson got his hands on a leaked copy of "The AOL Way," Armstrong's chilling blueprint for the company's content-driven future. Here's one small snippet: Last month, the average piece of content on AOL cost $99 to produce, garnered around 1,500 pageviews, and generated approximately $135 in ad revenues. By March, AOL will be paying $84 per post, which will be tweaked by a search-engine-optimisation bot to reach 7,000 readers and generate $160 in revenue. And each AOL editor will be expected to crank out 5 to 10 pieces of "quality journalism" per day.
(Quantity, quality, those "q" words always confuse me too.)
Similarly, the Huffington Post gets its most of its content for free from people who hope it will help them promote their own "brands" or sites or what have you. The rest is churned out by staffers, 90 percent of whom merely regurgitate stuff actual reporters have written. I can't see that write-for-us-for-free model lasting much longer, now that Arianna has stuffed her Gucci bag with AOL bucks.
Back in time
What this deal reminds me of more than anything is, yes, when AOL merged with Time Warner back in 2000, possibly the most brain dead tech deal ever conceived.
At the time, it was all about the numbers. AOL had 33 million subscribers (though it turns out at least a quarter of them were still burning up those "45 hours free" discs AOL used to carpet the planet). In those naïve pre-Facebook days, that was the biggest number you could find on the Net.
Thanks to the dot-com boom, AOL had a ridiculously inflated share price that allowed it to be the purchaser and Time Warner the purchasee. More important: Time Warner possessed exactly zero clues about the Internet and AOL's place in it (marginal and slipping fast, respectively).
Today it's still about the numbers. Combined, AOL and Huffpo will have 117 million unique visitors domestically and 270 million worldwide every month. Armstrong loves them digits:
The Huffington Post is core to our strategy and our 80:80:80 focus, 80% of domestic spending is done by women, 80% of commerce happens locally and 80% of considered purchases are driven by influencers.
So that means that everything will automatically be, like, 240 percent better, right? And then there's this amazing insight Armstrong shared with the New York Times: "I think this is going to be a situation where 1 plus 1 equals 11."
It's amazing what you can do with numbers if you really try. Especially if you've had a few shrooms.
Here's another number: In addition to reading articles churned out like ballpark franks, you'll also get to spend more time watching ads, thanks to AOL's "innovative Project Devil ad unit [which engages] users for 27 seconds longer than traditional display ads." Charming.
This might be good for AOL's bottom line, and we know Arianna is laughing all the way to the bank. The rest of us, though, not so much.
To recap: More content, driven by search keywords and produced by sweatshop labour, seasoned with generous amounts of advertising and served up in a goulash. That's the shiny, new future of AOL. In a way, it feels like not much has changed.