Verizon’s recent announcement that it was considering a takeover of AOL provoked many commentators and investors alike to express surprise that AOL still existed. The 30-year-old company that launched the same year as the first version of Microsoft Windows has a number of firsts to its name and through a series of corporate reinventions still persists as a name behind online content.
Some of AOL’s firsts are significant, including what is regarded as the first big corporate merger of old and new media business when, in 2000, at the peak of the dot com bubble, it bought Time Warner to become the world’s largest media company. However, this relationship eventually soured to arguably become the biggest mistake in corporate history.
The sentiment that a very big, complex media company was not the best approach to a changing industry was reinforced in 2004 when the US Department of Justice found against AOL for accounting fraud. The details of the case highlight how much old media business practices – including a thorough lack of corporate social responsibility – influenced activities. The concepts of openness, free access, customer engagement and sharing were clearly not the driving sentiments of early digital business.
In its primary business – the everyday world of providing internet access – AOL instigated the dubious practice of persistently mailing out floppy disks and CDs to potential subscribers to such an extent that the expression “AOL Disc” carried a negative connotation, despite the company’s claim that its approach was successful and achieved at times an unheard-of 10% response rate.
Over 30 years the internet and digital business has evolved, and so has AOL. In 2006 the firm opened up its subscription services and became a free content portal competing with other familiar internet brands such as Yahoo for advertising dollars. Three years later, in 2009, AOL and Time Warner parted company in the face of tumbling revenue and share price.
Despite such a dismal tale of relentless slow decline, AOL could still be attractive to potential investors. Although some reports suggest that Verizon is not interested in a takeover, AOL’s war chest still holds some treasure.
Through its longevity, AOL has become caught between old and new media. Through its many subsidiary brands AOL is a content provider in the most traditional sense, creating its own rather than relying on the haphazardness of user-generated content. This makes many of AOL’s brands function as new media newspapers, with highly focused content for a specific industry sector or interest group.
But equally, like so much new media with a free model – something also shared by free-to-air commercial broadcasting – AOL relies upon advertisers for its revenue. AOL’s content channels are familiar, including The Huffington Post, as well as the respected TechCrunch, Engadget and games.com sites. Through its many subsidiaries, AOL is a company that is used regularly by many of us who years ago used AOL CDs as drinks coasters, charming light catching mobiles, conveniently sized wedges for wobbly tables or frisbees.
And if Verizon buys AOL it would also acquire AIM – AOL Instant Messenger. AIM was once the dominant form of instant messaging, but now looks like an anachronism from a different century in the face of smart social applications such as SnapChat, Vine and Line.
Irrespective of the persistence of AIM, all of this corporate interest in AOL’s reinvention is certainly an improvement from the company’s worst days. In 2008 the headlines asked “Who Uses AOL and Why?”, while six years later the headlines exclaimed “AOL is still the weirdest successful tech company in America” and rumours about a Yahoo-AOL link-up briefly emerged.
The most surprising fact in AOL’s evolving story? In the US the company still has 2.3m subscribers using dial-up modems, paying on average US$20 a month and contributing to most of the company’s profit margin.