AOL’s Homepage Revamp Aims For TV Network Model

You don’t usually hear the word “dayparts” when talking about a website’s homepage, but the new AOL (NYSE: AOL) homepage that’s going live Monday morning has a lot in common with the content values of a TV network. For one thing, there will be a morning video show produced in partnership with Ben Silverman’s IAC-backed studio Electus. “The mission here is to entertain, inform and connect with an audience on a large scale,” said Chris Grosso, the former NBC Universal (NYSE: GE) digital exec recently hired as AOL Homepages’ GM, during a demo Thursday of the revamped site.

Advertising: The homepage will tie together a number of recent elements AOL has showcased, including Project Devil, meant to serve as an all-in-one marketing funnel in a single location on a page — i.e., page takeovers and other large custom ad formats. The two initial sponsors of the homepage relaunch are Toyota, which has been currently appearing on the main AOL page, and Dreamworks Animation.

In general, there will be a prominent box on the right side of the page for brand advertisers; underneath that, AOL has carved out a space for a permanent ad unit for charitable, cause-related marketing. “The cause marketing will complement whatever commercial ad is running that day,” said Christa Zambardino, director of ad sales, AOL Homepages. “If the advertiser accepts that additional space for their particular cause — they also have first right of refusal and don’t have to accept the cause marketing — the link will direct the user to the cause marketing section of the advertiser’s own homepage.”

A clean slate: When CEO Tim Armstrong arrived at AOL, one of the first decisions he made was to reduce advertising on the homepage in hopes of attracting more visitors with a better “user-experience.” Furthermore, it would communicate to advertisers that AOL would not be a cluttered environment. The theory was that doing so would result in more premium ad dollars.

In an interview with paidContent, Armstrong said that he wanted the ads to be viewed as a “curated experience” just as the content is. “Instead of having 17 ads on a page, let’s just have one consumer and one brand,” Armstrong said. “That will turn out well from a pricing standpoint for us and from an ROI perspective for advertisers.”

Subtle changes: The changes in the look of the page today versus Monday at midnight, when the new is turned on, are pretty subtle and represent an evolution from the past few months. The art background will remain the same, with the AOL series of logos rotating regularly in the upper left corner. Lower down on the left, the 30-odd channels and categories will also be found in the same spot.

There is also a slight shift in where the content is positioned. The center-left will feature the carousel, with its series of clickable stories and videos. Scrolling down the center of the page, there are sections for various news categories. To the right, there’s a social media section, where users can see what people in their network are recommending or saying.

Portals vs. social: I asked Grosso about the relevance of the portal model and whether homepages were as important as they once were. Don’t users mostly look for the sections and categories they want — say finance or sports — and ignore the general stuff? And haven’t advertising analysts said that users and ad dollars have migrated away from portals to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter?

“Look, we have 15 million people coming to the AOL homepage every day,” Grosso said. “People come here to consume content. They are using this as their startpage. They come here for their mail, they come here for chatting on AIM, they come here to see what the news is.”

Morning becomes Electus: AOL has set programming for various parts of the day, much like TV. The homepage will start its day with a humorous, 2-minute morning show called Daybreak. It stars former Wallstrip personality Lindsay Campbell. The option to click the video will show up in the carousel that will anchor the page.

In addition to Electus, which also has been working with Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) since January, AOL is working with Next New Networks on a show called The One. The idea of that series is to feature “one person talking about one idea.”

You’ve got video: There’s also a video program called You’ve Got, which will be the lead item in the carousel when people first visit the homepage. “We’re trying to tap into the love and affinity for the familiar AOL catchphrase, ‘You’ve Got Mail,'” said Kerry Trainor, SVP/GM, AOL Entertainment. You’ve Got is being promoted as an “open mic night” for the internet — albeit with celebrities as part of the mix. “It can be everything from Angelina Jolie saying ‘Check out my movie,’ to a user talking about his town’s little league, to the president telling people to vote on election day,” Trainor said. “It’s an extremely flexible concept.” Elmo, Ellen DeGeneres and Will Ferrell will be making appearances on You’ve Got as well.

You’ve got mobile: AOL’s mobile wap site will also reflect the changes that are happening on the PC-based homepage. There will also be a new homepage app that users can download. “AOL has 43 apps in the marketplace while most of our major competitors have less than 10,” Armstrong said.