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
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