The numbers might look right, but AOL’s acquisition of the Huffington Post has echoes of previous failed strategies
Arianna Huffington is to be editor-in-chief of both AOL and the Huffington Post. Photograph: Anna Gordon
What the hell is AOL doing?
More to the point, what is Arianna Huffington doing, selling Huffington Post to AOL for $315m?
AOL’s grubby hands have long been groping the bright stars of the web, hoping a little of that stardust might rub off. Buying Huffington Post – the most impressive, most editorially distinctive independent name on the web – is a high-profile ego buy for AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong. Under his attempt to reinvent AOL as “the most influential company in the content space”, he’s just committed $300m in cash and $15m in stock to the deal.
Armstrong is targeting wealthy women. “The Huffington Post is core to our strategy and our 80:80:80 focus,” he told staff in an internal memo yesterday. “80% of domestic spending is done by women, 80% of commerce happens locally and 80% of considered purchases are driven by influencers.” And Huffington Post has stuff women read and is published by – a woman! Congratulations.
Fifty-eight pages of a strategy presentation leaked last week confirm it all. It could have been a strategy created five years ago: stories determined by traffic potential, bloggers with quotas of up to 10 stories per day, and daily story numbers to increase from 33,000 to 55,000. Someone needs to tell Armstrong that the future of online journalism demands more than a high-end content farm.
Armstrong is looking at the numbers: AOL and HuffPo combined will have 117 million unique monthly users in the US; a core of regular HuffPo users earn more then $100,000; and the deal values the site at five times its estimated $65m revenues for this year. Some seem to think this could be money well spent: TechCrunch’s “resident insider-pissing insider” Paul Carr can’t help but describe this as “a brilliant strategic acquisition at a logical price”.
However, I defer to the artful David Whitley, who tweeted: “AOL reminds me of someone going into a supermarket whilst drunk, emerging with 60 packets of biscuits and a bag of peat.”
Perhaps HuffPo, much like TechCrunch, as they matured also slowed down a little as the ambitions of the two founders, Arianna Huffington and Mike Arrington respectively – were realised in successful, influential blogs. But it is not the inevitable fate of every successful independent to sell out.
It is possible that with Arianna Huffington heading AOL’s editorial as Huffington Post Media Group president and editor-in-chief will remedy that lack of editorial personality. Good luck to her managing TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington and his notoriously boorish attitude, even to his new paymasters. We’d like to see how long their tie-ins last.
But there’s something soullessly commercial about this proposition. Those numbers might add up, but what is AOL’s editorial focus? Buying big names isn’t enough without an idea of what that means, and what you stand for. Maybe the kudos of AOL rubbed off somewhere along that transatlantic undersea cable, but it is a name synonymous with ill-judged, overpaid and desperate acquisitions that turn out to be the kiss of death for the victim. I know we’ve moved on from the vampiric demise of Bebo, but the skeleton of that Time-Warner deal is still rattling in the closet.