The buildup around the online advertising "NewFront" presentations this week from Microsoft, Yahoo, Digitas and others are meant to appear similar to the annual TV upfront extravaganzas, AOL appeared to take the notion as seriously as possible. At a rented studio on Manhattan's west side, the company unveiled a presentation that makes AOL's content offerings appear as TV-like, with a particular emphasis on its video offerings and original programming on a single video platform hub dubbed the AOL On Network.
Jim Norton, AOL's head of ad sales, and Janet Balis, the portal's SVP and head of sales strategy, marketing and partnerships, introduced advertisers and the press to five new programs that begin airing as early as today: Digital Justice ("CSI for the internet age"), UR+1 (pop culture contest), Little Women, Big Cars (the lives of suburban moms), Tiger Beat Entertainment (Jennifer Lopez tackles youth culture) and Fetching (a young woman's adventures in doggie day care). As the descriptions show, AOL continues to focus heavily on female-centric content most heavily, followed by programming aimed at overlapping women with younger demos.
But can AOL, and its online brethren, capture TV advertisers' attention -- and more importantly, their ad budgets -- with splashy broadcast-like events?
"I think this is an extraordinary moment for digital," Balis said. "When you have a digital-only brand like The Huffington Post winning a Pulitzer Prize, that in and of itself signals a turning point in digital content. In addition to that, consumer behavior is shifting. When you look at AOL Video's audience, which reached 57 million people a month, even comparing that demo by demo to ad buys on a cable network, there is very little substantive difference. We and the digital industry at large are in the ballpark in terms of reaching critical mass. That's what the NewFront week's presentations are all about."
That's where there AOL On Network comes in. It follows a similar path taken by YouTube last year, when it began fashioning 100 channels that would serve as a showcase for more professional -- i.e., premium ad-friendly -- content. AOL has been attempting to focus on premium content as well for the better part pf two years by partnering with high profile names like supermodel and reality TV host Heidi Klum. AOL will continue to run video sites like the tween-focused Cambio, and video acquisitions such goviral and StudioNow, but it will all be under the AOL On umbrella, which will house a video library of 320,000 short-form clips created by roughly 1,000 AOL content partners.
So does this even greater focus on TV-like content mean that AOL is turning away from short-form in favor of longer programming? Not necessarily, Balis said, suggesting a generally balanced approach.
"We are still committed to short form content, and although we have a couple of examples of long-form, we still see that consumers' regard the 5- to 8-minute clip as a sweet spot and that's what we'll continue to concentrate on," she said. "The TV upront is predicated on scarcity of inventory. Digital is not characterized that way. Instead, digital can be seen as characterized as shortage of highly creative, premium content. The NewFront is about five partners who are in a unique position to deliver TV production quality and while also bringing the TV-like audience scale to advertisers."
By David Kaplan