The Three Amigos

Content, commerce, community: the 3 Cs that served as the foundation to any portal strategy.  In the 1990s, a portal was synonymous with power.  Today, the term is almost derisive.  The portals who survived the 1990s were Yahoo! MSN and AOL, though none of them got through the 2000s unscathed.

The last decade saw search overtake display as the main driver of growth in online media.  This decade, the catalyst will be video, which after many years of hope (and hype) is poised for mainstream success: eMarketer forecasts online video advertising in the U.S. will grow from $1 billion in 2009 to $1.5 billion in 2010.  That trend sees no stopping in sight.

According to comScore MediaMetrix and Citi Investment Research and Analysis, the time spent on Yahoo and AOL has fallen (while MSN has remained flat) while Google and Facebook’s has risen.  As such, should it come as any surprise that video content will play a central role in the portals’ comeback plans?

AOL’s focus on content and video

By and large, initially portals invested or acquired commerce and communications capabilities but licensed and aggregated content offerings. Over time, for strategic and financial reasons, portals began to invest in proprietary content, as well.  But to this day, most portals are known as aggregators.

Today AOL announced a new, emphasizing video, betting that users will be interested in coming back on a regular basis for video programming.  Will it work?  Time will tell.

Nowadays, it’s hard to talk about the kings of the Web without mentioning Google, Facebook and to some extent, Twitter too.  Google was the anti-portal and Facebook and Twitter would rather die than be branded as such.  But when you step out of the echo chamber, it’s difficult not to be amazed by the reach and financial performance of the portals: Yahoo, AOL and

Last week Microsoft announced massive losses of $560 million for its “online services division,”but its quarterly revenues rose 8% to $527 million, or an annual run rate of over $2 billion.  It’s worth noting that Microsoft is investing heavily in its cloud computing and search infrastructure. has remained a leader in video and has produced and licensed videos for a while, though it too fell in love with the UGC wave through the ill-fated Soapbox project.

AOL admittedly has its work cut out for itself: its dial-up business continues to shrink while its media business loses money, but CEO Tim Armstrong continues to sharpen the company’s focus and acquire video and content assets in order to reposition the company.

Meanwhile, the granddaddy of portals, Yahoo, last week hired Ross Levinsohn as executive vice president of the Americas, reporting to CEO Carol Bartz.  Granted, what Yahoo plans to do in video technology and/or content is anyone’s guess, but with Levinsohn at the helm, it’s a safe bet to suggest that the answer is something, and soon.  In fact, while Facebook briefly surpassed Yahoo as the number 2 video destination after YouTube (according to comScore’s August 2010 rankings), Yahoo managed to reclaim the number two slot the next month, suggesting that it plans to get more serious and proactive with video.  We shall see.

What a difference two years make

While it’s easy for those on the front lines to forget this, the broader climate around online video has drastically changed — for the better.

For one, YouTube is a business now.  Second, despite the challenges posed by its fickle owners, Hulu is a success and that bodes well both for television programming online and for professionally produced, premium online video.  But more importantly, look at how high the portals prioritize video.

AOL has all but banked its strategy on it.  Yet just two years ago, AOL felt social networking was so central to its (and the Web’s) future that its then-leadership felt compelled to pay $850 million for Bebo; not Facebook, or even MySpace, but Bebo.

Granted, the management has changed and now everyone admits it was a bad deal —  but more important, everyone also concedes it was the wrong focus.  According to the Online PA’s Internet Activity Index, consuming content is the most popular activity online, with a 38% share of time spent.

Obviously, over time the kind of content we produce in video will change.  After all, throughout history, we’ve seen this trend repeat itself: movies initially captured theater plays on camera; television involved filming radio shows on film. Clearly both forms of media evolved.

Social Media is Public Relations 2.0

AOL’s Bebo debacle was representative of a broader reality: while social media has definitely changed marketing, it has flopped as advertising.

Yes, Facebook is going to be generating oodles of money, but that has more to do with its sheer size than marketers’ affinity for social media.

In fact, social media is proving to be more public relations than advertising.  This is important for marketing professionals to realize and account for.  In fact, when it’s said and done, marketers need to advertise more to offset the negative impacts of social media for their brands and the positive impacts of social media for their competitors.  To me, that means social media is the evolution of PR first and foremost.

When it comes to advertising, it’s always been about the content and the audience.  No wonder, then, that we are seeing a flight to quality content.