So AOL has named Susan Lyne CEO of its brand group. This move is intriguing for numerous reasons. Among them are: How many CEOs can one company have? AOL already has Tim Armstrong, who is CEO of the company, and Ned Brody, who's CEO of AOL Networks. I’m not sure if there’s a CEO of Dialup, but I assume that’s coming.
AOL has also just brought on Erika Nardini to serve as vp, head of marketing solutions for AOL Advertising and Jack Bamberger as head of agency and industry relations. It’s a fair question to ask: What are all these senior execs going to do?
For her part, Lyne has been tasked with growing AOL’s own brands and content. If you push aside the apparent drama behind COO Artie Minson’s departure (by the way, is a new COO inevitable?), Lyne’s role is intriguing, given her entertainment background. According to the press statement, Lyne will focus on attracting top talent, with a particular focus on "content, design, programming and product.” One would assume that includes lots of video, which is good, considering Lyne’s stint as president of entertainment at ABC, where she helped develop mega-hits like Lost and Grey’s Anatomy.
It’s doubtful that AOL is aiming that high, but now would be a good time for the company to bring some clarity to its video strategy. Because to date, it's hard to tell just how serious AOL is about original content. With competitors like Yahoo (which has a hit in Burning Love) and Xbox and YouTube raising the stakes, and with close to 20 NewFronts scheduled to take place in about eight weeks, AOL needs to send a clear message to the marketplace.
A pair of visits to AOL’s video channel featured close to a dozen celebrity and news clips from the company’s syndication network, such as this gem from WPIX: Cannibal Cop: I Wanted Her Cooked Alive.
Below the top headlines, a list of Featured Partners includes links to clips from the likes of non-AOL media brands like Mashable and The Wall Street Journal. If you look hard enough, you can find a button labeled “AOL Original” that leads you to a page featuring a grand total of two clips: an interview with the real-life heroes of Argo and a three-week-old video on the VW Beetle.
Search isn’t much better. Try searching for Fetching, a sitcom AOL produced in conjunction with Vuguru. That yields a clip on “How to Train Your Dog to Fetch” as well as “How to Train Your Cat to Fetch.” No signs of the show. Fetching is indeed live on AOL here (a PR person kindly led me to the page).
But a user would have to know Fetching exists to go on a hunt. In an era where there’s already too much original video content chasing users who haven’t made Web series a habit, most people don’t randomly search for shows about dogs on AOL.
It's not that AOL hasn’t had video success. The sitcom Little Women Big Cars generated over 2 million views during its first two weeks on the Web last May. But it quickly pulled a disappearing act. By Episode 15, the show was generating around 237,000 views (good news—it's coming back for Season 2 in April). Fetching’s episodes have averaged between 100,000 to 200,000 views.
The reason being? AOL’s video strategy seems predicated on weaving originals into its existing channels, like parenting and relationships, along with other content from its syndication network. AOL doesn’t seem interested in establishing a central hub for video, particularly originals.
That weaving strategy probably makes sense for some news and service content; it certainly seems to work for The Huffington Post. But sitcoms are different (even more true for drama). They require predictability. And people need to be reminded they are there (would it kill companies like Yahoo or YouTube to buy a promotional out-of-home ad for one of their originals one of these days?). They require commitment, something that AOL needs to demonstrate if it wants to be taken seriously in the video business. That’s where Lyne should help, if that’s the direction she’s looking to take AOL.
The early signs are excellent. In a memo to staffers leaked late Thursday, Lyne urged AOLers to "think more like programmers. Not computer programmers; entertainment programmers."