AOL's niche strategy is a winner

I don’t do this very often, but I’m going to use the latest from AOL to say “I told you so.”

The headline from The New York Times says it all, “Quietly, AOL Becomes an Overseer of Niche Sites.”

Point a Web browser to Engadget.com, TheBoot.com, or TMZ.com, and elaborate sites about technology, country music and celebrity gossip will appear on the screen. They could easily be mistaken for stand-alone brands.

But a small link to the owner, in a corner of the screen, shows otherwise. That owner is AOL, the long-suffering unit of Time Warner. And the subtle links are intentional.

The article goes on to note that AOL will add 30 more sites to its portfolio of 75 niche sites in the coming year. According to AOL, the sites now attract 70 million monthly visitors, and page views have grown 40% year over year. AOL has built itself a network, and a stunningly successful one to boot. My hat is off to them, for the company has reinvented itself using the blog format for news and information, something I’ve been recommending (and pioneering) for local media companies as well.

In 2005, WKRN-TV in Nashville built its own network of niche sites. Traffic exploded and all was well until the company decided to shut it all down in the name of saving money. There were times when the niche sites combined outperformed the branded portal of the station, but the company felt that these people would stay put, if they consolidated efforts. It didn’t happen, and now AOL is proving that there’s a lot to be gained with an anti-portal strategy.

This is still smart strategy for local media companies for two reasons. Most importantly, it begins the process of creating a local ad network — moving one’s ad infrastructure to the Local Web instead of insisting it be maintained within any walled garden. Two, the various staff members who participate will leap ahead of their contemporaries in learning everything about the Web and how it works.

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