AOL (NYSE: AOL) is following last week’s stunning ouster of ad chief Jeff Levick with something that has become as routine as personnel shakeups — site launches and a big-name editorial hire. But this batch goes to the core of what has to work at AOL in terms of wooing users and advertisers: two new women’s sites within its Huffington Post Media Group and the relaunch its Black Voices site this week — all with help from Christina Norman, the ousted CEO of Oprah Winfrey’s struggling OWN (NSDQ: DISCA) cable channel. Norman also will be managing video.
Even before AOL Chairman and CEO Tim Armstrong spent $315 million acquiring The Huffington Post, women’s content was considered central to his plan to attract a more diverse audience of users and advertisers as part of his “80/80/80″ strategy. The numbers signify AOL’s view that women account for 80 percent of domestic purchases, 80 percent of purchases are done locally, and 80 percent of purchases are driven by “influencer crowds.”
In an interview, Arianna Huffington, the president and editor-in-chief of HPMG, said that the sites also will rely heavily on existing staff, who will be expected to post on HuffPo’s vast number of channels. For example, Michael Calderone, HuffPo’s senior media reporter, will have a piece in Black Voices on how issues important to African Americans have been under-reported, while business editor Peter S. Goodman will report on economic inequality for that site as well. On top of those two items, Tom Zeller will be weighing in on the intersection of environmental news and race going forward.
“We’re trying to cross-pollinate the sites and that is reflected by our newsroom’s structure, where we have torn down the cubicles as we’ve torn down silos between coverage areas,” Huffington said.
Niche is out, aiming wide is in: One of the things AOL struggled with even before Armstrong arrived was the high number of women users who came to the site through their dial-up connection — in other words, women who tend to skew a bit older and less affluent. AOL tried to broaden its appeal years ago with sites aimed squarely at younger, more cosmopolitan female web users through “edgy” sites like Lemondrop. In January, Lemondrop was folded into women-centric MyDaily, while its young men’s counterpart, Asylum, was dropped as the company reformed its content strategy.
That content strategy shifted again when Huffington was put in charge of AOL’s branded sites. That move accelerated one that Armstrong had started just before: instead of focusing on niche sites like Lemondrop or Asylum, AOL decided to focus on building a big audience in general. Huffington moved women’s programming into HuffPo and away from the AOL brand.
“Our strategy is to be a major journalistic enterprise and a platform,” Huffington said. “That’s why we’re aiming wide, not niche.”
Second chances: Bringing in Norman as executive editor of the reformed Black Voices reflects another part of AOL’s strategy: adding high-profile media names to demonstrate its seriousness as a content company. Huffington also explained Norman’s hire as a personal one that is intended to send a message about the new HuffPo Women’s values. Norman will kick off her new role with an essay about the circumstances of departing as CEO of OWN. “It’s a great lesson for women, that when one door closes, another one opens,” Huffington said. “There is enormous pressure on high-profile women to succeed, to constantly prove themselves. I met Christina in Los Angeles when she was the head of OWN. After she left, I asked her if she wanted to do something completely different.”
In addition to setting the tone for the new Black Voices, Norman, who was president of MTV prior to OWN, Norman will be responsible for creating new video programming across AOL.
Another women’s channel? Huffington is aware of the infinite competition in the general women’s content arena from established magazine publishers, AOL’s portal rivals and lifestyle-themed blog networks like Glam Media, which has also recently ventured into the “parents” vertical. She insists that there’s room to be a little different and still attract an audience that advertisers want. AOL claims that 6.8M women visit AOL’s sites every day and that it reaches 13 million females across the AOL Entertainment Channel each month.
“So much of the news and information directed at women these days seems determined to make us feel that our lives are somehow lacking,” she said. “We are constantly made to feel that we should be prettier, thinner, sexier, more successful, better moms, better wives, better lovers, etc. Though often wrapped in a you-go-girl! message, the subtext is clear: we should feel bad because we have tummies, not abs; bad because we don’t always feel like sex kittens, or bad because we do; bad because we don’t have a color-coded filing system for our recipes. HuffPost Women is designed to be a place where women can come to be informed, inspired, entertained, and celebrated — not talked down to.”
Farah Miller, most recently deputy editor of digital for OWN, has been hired as managing editor of AOL Parents.
Editions and engagement: AOL bought HuffPo because Armstrong realized the company could not build a premium content platform from scratch and it couldn’t keep recycling the same set of niche sites. HuffPo had proven that it could draw traffic numbers that would allow it to challenge NYTimes.com (NYSE: NYT) and other major publishers’ sites
While this week’s news — HuffPost Women launches Monday, HuffPost Parents is set for Wednesday, and HuffPost Black Voices for Thursday — will surely strike many observers as more of the same. *Time* will tell if HuffPo’s successful strategy really can be mixed within AOL’s management culture.
In addition to sites and video, AOL is also aiming on getting more valuable consumers with the approaching launch of Editions, a daily iPad magazine. This is the part of the 80/80/80 strategy that’s aimed at “influencers,” as it’s customized for users through a set of algorithms that learn what readers like (and don’t like).
AOL and HuffPo have been moving quickly to cover as many bases in that 80/80/80 strategy. It can appear overwhelming, as if the company is trying to do too much at once — or trying to create the appearance of growth and progress with constant movement. But as AOL’s second-quarter earnings report on Aug. 9 nears, the company isn’t just trying to impress the users or the press — it’s got anxious investors who expect to see results of all these grand plans. And that will be the ultimate test of the strategy Armstrong has been flexing for a year and that Huffington has been fine tuning for months.