Media: Strategy Analysis - AOL puts the web on trial by debate

Brand: AOL
Client: Timothy Ryan, director, brand marketing, AOL
Brief: Reposition the AOL brand as being more relevant for the modern
internet user
Target audience: Anyone with a stake in how the internet is affecting
the world we live in (so everyone)
Budget: Undisclosed

Media strategy and buying: Vizeum
Digital buying: Diffiniti
Creative: Grey London
Online creative: Steel
PR: Shine


AOL has recognised that internet use is maturing. Consumers are becoming more comfortable using the internet and more skilled and adventurous in unlocking its possibilities.

This development necessitated a shift in the way AOL communicates with people, from the "hand-holding" approach of its earlier campaigns to a more empowering relationship with consumers. The big communications idea was to encourage consumers to express their views on the internet and its impact on society.

At the centre of this campaign sat "/discuss", a blog-style web platform where people could engage with discussions about the internet. The role of all other media activity was to stimulate discussion about the role of the internet. By enabling this debate, AOL could place itself at the centre of consideration about the development of the internet.


- Web: The "/discuss" platform included stimulus in the form of rich editorial content from "curators" of the debate, who included media figures and artists such as Piers Morgan and Jarvis Cocker. These essays attracted considerable attention in the national press from a PR perspective. The site carried interactive polls, research and links to relevant articles on other sites. Also, the "/discuss" site became an open forum for debate and opinion.

- TV: Two 60-second executions - "good" and "bad" - showed opposing visions of the world the internet has created. These ran during thought-provoking programming at a key moment of re-evaluation in the New Year. They also sat in the reel before some of the most thought-provoking cinema releases of the year (that is, during the pre-Oscar season). The ads also ran online.

- Outdoor, press and online: AOL used some of the most spectacular outdoor sites, with "good" and "bad" creative showing both sides of the discussion. In choosing sites, AOL aimed to get close to key public spaces to create the feel of a public discussion. The campaign also incorporated press advertising, where the long-copy oppor- tunity allowed readers to investigate the issues in more detail. Online played a large role, with content and formats reflecting the site content.

- Feedback: As the campaign developed, it focused increasingly on interactivity and on feeding back the opinions received from consumers in order to demonstrate the brand's ability to listen, while stimulating further debate. Efforts to achieve this included promotions with radio stations encouraging DJs and listeners to discuss their experience of the good and bad of the internet, as well as new online formats that used RSS to feed user comments from "/discuss" directly into advertising.


The "/discuss" campaign was a huge success, with more than two million visitors to date. It has also sparked discussions on hundreds of independent sites and blogs.

Brand measures improved across the board, with consumers changing their perception of AOL to a modern and innovative internet service provider brand.

Direct response TV drawing on the campaign delivered best-ever acquisition results, with response rates two to four times AOL's historical average.

Subsequent campaigns drawing on the thought-provoking nature of the launch campaign have also delivered improved results, showing the long- term benefits of investment in consumer engagement.

THE VERDICT - Jon Gittings strategic planning director, Manning Gottlieb OMD

"In my view, most of this is pointless rubbish. As with most things in life, the internet is nothing more than a tool, not so much a playground for the darkest demons previously locked tightly in the dim recesses of our minds and souls. I do not feel in any way that the internet will turn an upright citizen into a porn addict or a local priest into a sleazy drug dealer. Temptation is always here, but only now presented in a new fashion to the same old corruption ..."

This was posted on the "/discuss" site by the 15-year-old Reverend Peanutbutter (smooth or crunchy?) on 21 July and, while it's rather over-dramatic, it sums up my point of view. The question AOL asked might as well have been: "The Human Race - a force for good or bad?" Unfortunately, AOL has spent millions asking a question a 15-year-old answered in a few lines.

The key to "/discuss" lies in the results and I'm not convinced this campaign was worth the investment. The primary aim was to create debate and engagement, and "visitors" do not engagement make. After doing some homework on "/discuss" and a few fag-packet calculations, the 10,200 posts on the site equate to a 0.5 per cent conversion rate and, assuming a £2 million spend, a staggering £200 cost per post. And I'm pretty sure it cost a lot more than £2 million.

There is no doubt that AOL needed to break out of a response-rutted market, and I admire its bravery but it feels as if it's trying to be too clever. It also feels a bit like the Daily Mail trying to behave like The Independent or the Tory Party appealing to the yoof vote.

However, this is supposed to be about media strategy, not creative, so I apologise for taking so long to get to the point. Fortunately, this bit's a short answer. The agency adopted the tactics, more or less, of political electioneering to fuel the debate and stimulate "voter" interaction. On-the-ground canvassing and dodgy photo-calls aside, it's a good solution (although why does all the real debate have to actually happen online?).

And, because the campaign is so worthy, I think we were denied the chance to have a bit of fun. How about Richard Littlejohn vs Jarvis Cocker facing off in the pages of The Sun or on a live TV debate replacing the ad-breaks? Now that would have been worth getting stuck into.

SCORE: 3 out of 5.