Like others in the industry, I've been keeping an eye on America Online lately. Only recently, with the launch of the new AOL.com beta site, has it been possible to really experience AOL as a nonsubscriber. This past weekend, though, the watching started in earnest.
Wanting to check out the company's progress in moving beyond the walled garden, I tuned in to aolmusic.com's Webcast of the Live 8 concerts. Having just moved into a new house, we don't yet have cable TV. Thankfully (our priorities being what they are), we do have DSL. Online was our only possible medium. It turned out to be the ideal medium for the job.
What I saw (along with around 5 million other people) was nearly flawless streaming video that could be expanded to full screen with little degradation. I could choose from a variety of concert locations, toggling back and forth at will. Teaser scrolls told me what performers were up next at the various venues. The audio sounded great, no stuttering or buffering. I was in control. I loved it.
Apparently, I wasn't alone. Since the Webcast, AOL has won praise from nearly all quarters.
Panning MTV's coverage, Robert Hilburn of the "Los Angeles Times" wrote, "It probably encouraged hundreds of thousands of rock fans to go to the Internet, where America Online did a spectacular job of presenting the Live 8 music."
Beth Gillen of Knight Ridder newspapers chimed in with: "If Live Aid helped launch MTV as a media powerhouse two decades ago, Live 8 not only dethroned the music channel Saturday, but it also made it seem quaintly old-fashioned. The Internet left cable in the dust. To put it bluntly, MTV sank and AOL soared."
That kind of praise can't help but warm hearts in the industry. It's fantastic for AOL, of course, particularly as it prepares to launch its AOL.com portal site to a general Web audience.
"AOL has been saddled with the image of the kind of lo-fi newbie audience, and for a long time it wasn't viewed as very cool, for lack of a better description," Eric Valk Peterson, VP and media director at Agency.com, told me. "This was a very strong way for them to expand beyond the existing audience and perhaps reestablish, or sort of rebrand, AOL in a lot of people's minds. They did pull it off so well. They really nailed it. I think a lot of people are now saying, 'Hey, I'm going to take another look at AOL.'"Jeff Lanctot, VP of media at Avenue A/Razorfish, agreed. "I think the Live 8 stream is a pretty damn big deal. They positioned themselves as forward thinkers. They weren't playing catch-up," he said. "I can't recall another program that was shown both online and on broadcast or cable where the online experience was clearly superior.... MSN, Yahoo and others wish they'd done what AOL did. I think it will be seen as a pretty important event in [the evolution of live streaming online]."
More generally, the Webcast's success shows the world at large -- such as audiences for live, mass-reach events -- the Internet really can deliver on its promise. For media buyers (interactive and traditional), the program's success demonstrates the tremendous benefits that can accrue from having your brand associated with a successful interactive event.
With a live Webcast, Peterson notes, "once it happens, it happens, and your advertising is associated with the quality of the production."
I talked with Jim Bankoff, AOL's EVP of programming, in the wake of the concert event. Not surprisingly, he was pleased with the reaction to the Webcast, saying it was the payoff for many years' work with broadband and streaming content.
"I think marketers have to go to where consumption is going and where consumption trends are going," Bankoff told me. "More and more consumers want to have control over their media experience -- look at video-on-demand growth, TiVo growth, iPod growth. What do all of these things have in common? They put the consumer in control of their media."
There's a danger here, however. One of the most criticized aspects of MTV's broadcast was cutting away to commercials. Some found the advertising wildly incongruent with the anti-poverty message of the concerts themselves. AOL didn't have that problem, partly because it only had two advertisers: Microsoft and the Philadelphia Tourism Board. Microsoft was highlighted in video that rolled prior to concert content and in banner ads that appeared alongside the video. Nothing interrupted the live streams themselves. In future Webcasts -- perhaps ones associated with less sobering causes -- will AOL show as much restraint?
Bankoff says although we might see more advertising, it will be handled delicately. "Consumers are savvy," he noted. "We all recognize that it's an ad-supported medium. You're not paying a price to get this great broadcast. You're willing to accept some sponsor and advertiser integration, and you even expect it. But both marketer and consumer are expecting it to be delivered in a way that makes sense."
Agency.com's Peterson warns AOL should carefully balance the user experience with the need to monetize content.
"It will behoove AOL not to kill the golden goose here by not taking easy money. A lot of money will be thrown at putting :30 second spots up online," he predicted. "Everyone needs to make a living out of this, but to do so in a way that keeps the viewers coming back ultimately does provide more value to the advertiser. No advertiser is getting any value showing a commercial to people who were upset they had to see it."
Amen. What AOL did this past weekend served to boost its image with consumers and advertisers. It also helped prove what Internet media can accomplish in a broadband world with today's streaming technologies. We've seen a glimpse of the future, both for AOL and the medium as a whole. As things move forward and more advertisers seek to jump on the bandwagon, let's not forget what brought the audiences in the first place: control and nonintrusive advertising. Everyone's paying attention. Don't disappoint.
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Pamela Parker is a former managing editor of ClickZ News, Features, and Experts. She's been covering interactive advertising and marketing since the boom days of 1999, chronicling the dot-com crash and the subsequent rise of the medium. Before working at ClickZ, Parker was associate editor at @NY, a pioneering Web site and e-mail newsletter covering New York new media start-ups. Parker received a master's degree in journalism, with a concentration in new media, from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
December 12, 2013
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