CAMPAIGN INTERACTIVE: PERSPECTIVE

A few years ago, ’content is king’ was the mantra being chanted by all and sundry in the new-media world. This, when you come to think about it, was about as incisive as saying that a popular TV channel needs popular TV programmes, or that emotional pull is the key to a good branding ad. But at a time when most companies thought that putting their annual report on the web constituted a website, it needed saying.

A few years ago, ’content is king’ was the mantra being chanted by

all and sundry in the new-media world. This, when you come to think

about it, was about as incisive as saying that a popular TV channel

needs popular TV programmes, or that emotional pull is the key to a good

branding ad. But at a time when most companies thought that putting

their annual report on the web constituted a website, it needed

saying.



The mantra may have faded, as issues like distribution and targeting

have come to assume their rightful place, but it is still the foundation

for many a new-media strategy. Content provision is, after all, the

driving force behind the transformation of search engines like Yahoo!

and Excite into portals. And it’s also been one of the keys to AOL’s

domination of the internet access market.



But in the last few months, that domination has been eroded by a force

that is far more primal: price. The launch by Dixons of a free internet

service provider (ISP) has revolutionised the market. As other brand

names like Tesco and BT have followed suit, so too have those services

which, like AOL, based their charge not only on access but on exclusive,

walled-off content. Both VirginNet and LineOne will be free from now on

and there are serious question marks over the amount of content they

will be able to generate under this new business model.



At the same time, there are rumours that AOL’s traffic figures are

starting to bomb. All of a sudden, a new phrase has come into vogue: not

’content is king’, but ’content is dead’. Or, more accurately, the

ability to charge for content is dead.



It’s a tempting conclusion to draw, but a terribly hasty one. I don’t

know if the AOL rumours are true, but even if they are I think the

company is right not to be distracted by the free access mania all

around it. In fact, when the dust has settled, AOL may be one the

biggest beneficiaries of all this change.



Let’s face it, free ISPs are simply the latest craze in what remains a

very immature - and therefore very volatile - industry. By the end of

this year, there’ll be rationalisation of the market as the initial pool

of customers ripe for conversion dries up. In the long term, only those

ISPs which are prepared to invest in their service will prosper. But

many won’t have either the resource or the will.



AOL, on the other hand, has very deep pockets. It also has a series of

core offerings which put it head and shoulders above the rest. One of

these is customer service. A second is community - after all, its chat

areas in the US famously account for a third of all its revenue. And

another is its commitment to protected access, which is such a critical

issue for parents.



So as everyone else dives off in search of short-term profits at the

commodity end of the market, AOL will have the quality end all to

itself. And people pay for quality.



Now, if only its advertising could reflect that. It’s just a thought,

but it might start by trying to imbue the brand with a smidgen of

emotional depth.



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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).