October 31, 2010 1:30 pm

Obama to appear in AOL relaunch

Barack Obama, US president will appear on AOL.com on Tuesday, part of the president’s get out the vote effort on election day, and a relaunch of the beleaguered website.

Mr Obama pre-recorded a segment called “You’ve Got,” a one minute slot that will now air on AOL’s redesigned home page. It is part of AOL’s video-heavy approach, which it hopes will revive the fortunes of its website and lure back advertisers.

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“You’ve Got” is a nod to AOL’s iconic “You’ve Got Mail” slogan from 15 years ago, and will be a regular feature for celebrities to reach the online audience, part of what AOL hopes will make the spot “the morning television of the web”.

AOL.com, which attracts 15m viewers a day, will feature new video segments, one large advertising unit, and a new diet of content drawn from the company’s growing stable of news and information websites.

Tim Armstrong, the former Google executive who was brought in as chief executive to turn around AOL, said the new homepage represented AOL’s belief that it could still be a destination for premium content and advertising. “It’s very important for us that we move in a curated experience,” he said. “As Silicon Valley goes off and does self service, we want to be curated.”

But trends suggest AOL will have a hard time regaining the market share. In September it saw total users drop 6 per cent compared with the same time a year ago, according to Compete.

Facebook, meanwhile, saw a 24 per cent increase, while YouTube saw a 22 per cent increase. AOL advertising revenues are suffering as well, with a 27 per cent fall in the last quarter.

These numbers illustrate a larger shift in online behaviour. Social networking sites, and Facebook in particular, are taking up an increasing amount of people’s online time. YouTube, meanwhile, is dominating online video, both on YouTube.com and through allowing embedded videos on other sites.

General interest portals, on the other hand, are struggling.

“A video-centric strategy seems like a ‘fight-the-last-war’ approach,” said Ray Valdes, internet analyst with Gartner. “A portal-centric strategy is more like fighting the war before the last war.”

AOL, nonetheless, is pursuing this strategy aggressively. It recently acquired TechCrunch, a technology news blog, and 5min, an informational video site. Though neither of these sites will be incorporated into the new homepage initially, Mr Armstrong said this was in the works.

Headlines from Patch, the network of local news sites, will also appear on the new home page. Mr Armstrong said AOL was working with Facebook and other social sites. “We’re doing a lot of stuff with Facebook, but keeping all the data ourselves,” he said.

AOL was spun off from Time Warner last year, bringing to an end what was widely deemed to be a disastrous deal. AOL merged with Time Warner nearly 10 years ago.

Today, AOL is trying to redefine itself in an online world very different from the one it once dominated, with its new video and portal approach.

But with $750m cash on hand, it can afford to try. “The odds are against either of these approaches working on a large scale,” said Mr Valdes. “But it is possible that AOL could discover and settle on a defensible market niche.”

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