Is AOL going to come back or fade in the background?

I have the luxury of working at a company that is both youthful and experienced (proven by our AIM AV testing in the photo above). We represent the top talent, creative thinkers, early adopters and sometimes trend followers. In very interrelated ways, my fellow AOLers brought the strange, complicated and even unattainable internet into the homes of the young and old without the need for a 300 page manual. We brought America online.

So where does AOL take us next? That seems to be the big question for us. We claim to be on the path to a comeback but we haven’t quite hit that sweet spot and the headlines continue to beat us down, tell us we’re failing and question whether we’re even still around. Our CEO, Tim Armstrong, is driving our business model to content driven platforms, advertising and hyper-local news.

I started at AOL back when millions of people had accounts, everyone used AIM to chat and the stock price was over $100. We were focused on bringing products into the everyday lives of our consumers. I think we did that successfully. We had over 30 million members, beer bashes on the lawn during the week and over 14,000 employees all of the world. Ahhhhh the good ol’ days.

In 2012, we are still struggling. I won’t sugar coat it – I can’t sugar coat it. I don’t even want to know what the stock price is and most of my friends are using gmail. *Sigh* What happened to us? I’d love to be blogging about my awesome stock portfolio and the three vacation homes I travel to but that’s not the case. And, while we’re tired of hearing people ask if AOL is still around, we’re not surprised because we seem to be the largest consumers of our own products. Now, having said that, we SHOULD be our biggest fans, but we’re trying to build products that gain popularity in the community. If we are the only ones using our products, we’re failing. Or, we need to change our target audience to working technologists like ourselves.

The business of creating technology that improves people’s lives is a very tough market. Our consumers are becoming more tech savvy and the bar is progressively getting higher. The younger generations are pushing the needle and they are in the mobile space is masses. They have access to build and deploy simple apps in a very short time allowing the least amount of effort to test out theories, ideas and make relatively small bets in a very open space.

So, where ARE we going? Tim’s vision with Advertising and content is a huge swing from what AOL was in the beginning. We’re spending a larger portion of our time and attention on selling advertising space on our content sites. Yes, our content sites might be fantastic; the authors, bloggers and editors are popular and the topics are important and interesting. But I joined AOL because of the products, services and cool shit we could create, not to get people to buy more shit that don’t need. Ugh, it’s a catch 22, as they say though. We have to generate revenue so we can fund projects to build this great stuff and we don’t have a large enough, loyal enough audience to become a premium service. I’m torn on this. It’s like cable television or apps on iTunes. As a consumer you can get your content for free and be subject to disruptive but sometimes entertaining commercials to pay for the shows you watch or you pay a premium to watch your shows without disruptive commercials.

I don’t have the answers but I wish I did so I could help AOL leap forward but for now… I believe my job is to continue to do my best to support the people around me who might just have that next big hairy audacious idea that will make a difference in people’s lives.

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