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AOL writers being taught 'The AOL Way'

Leaked editorial document gives behind-the-scenes look at AOL's effort to shake off reliance on subscription revenue and become content powerhouse.

Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
3 min read

AOL is targeting its editorial divisions to teach them a new "way" of doing business.

BusinessInsider is reporting that it has acquired a leaked document from AOL that outlines the company's editorial strategy through 2011. Dubbed "The AOL Way," the 58-page document is reportedly designed to be a guide for editors, writers, and other content creators on what is expected of them in the coming months.

The document first discusses the company's traffic goals for the next few months. It claims about 31,000 pieces of content were produced by AOL editors and writers by the end of January, in addition to 5,000 pieces of content from the company's Seed service. In March, AOL expects output of 40,000 pieces of content from its writers and 15,000 pieces of content from Seed. All told, AOL wants to see 130 million page views in March, up from its January tally of 124 million.

Meanwhile, AOL reportedly expects to see "average cost per piece of content" decline over that period from $97 to $84, the leaked document says. The company forecast that the average story on AOL should get 3,000 page views by the end of January, and should get 7,000 in March.

AOL's desire for more page views and revenue through a greater number of pieces of content is nothing new. The company currently operates Seed.com, a "content mill" that finds writers to cheaply produce content that will rank highly in search results. It competes with similar services from Demand Media and Associated Content, and delivers the higher margins the leaked document seems to indicate AOL is after.

But Seed is just one part of AOL's obsession with content. The company announced last year that it plans to hire "hundreds" of journalists and videographers that it hopes will help it shake off a reliance on subscription revenue and become "the world's largest producer of high-quality content." It also acquired TechCrunch last year to further bolster its technology coverage, and video service 5min to increase its video content.

Whether those efforts or "The AOL Way" will help the company grow remains to be seen. But AOL needs something to jump-start growth. During the third quarter, AOL saw its revenue decline by 26 percent year-over-year. Its advertising revenue alone was down 27 percent. The company reports fourth-quarter earnings tomorrow morning.

The 'profitability consideration'
When it comes to actually creating content, the leaked document says AOL has four main components editors should be thinking about: "traffic potential," "revenue/profit," "turnaround time," and "editorial integrity." The document suggests that AOL wants to see writers "produce content as quickly as possible while maintaining quality." The company also reportedly expects content to be "margin positive."

When it's all said and done, content creators on AOL need to think about the "profitability consideration" and deliver 5 to 10 pieces of content each day.

Finally, the leaked document suggests AOL is extremely concerned with the way in which it drives traffic to its pages and competes with other editorial outlets.

A slide entitled "Where Our Traffic Should Come From," explains that traffic derived from newsletters, search results, social networks, and other external sources should "match competitors." After that, content from from paid ads, recirculation across AOL's network, and promotion on the AOL.com home page should contribute even further to the company's traffic figures.

However, the AOL home page is both a curse and benefit for the company, the leaked document reveals. The company reportedly said that sites across its network that are deriving most of their traffic from AOL.com aren't preferred over those that are able to gather more page views from external sources, and add to that with home page referrals.

"Top sites produce high volume of content (15+/day) while maintaining high PV/story," the leaked document reads.

AOL has also reportedly invested in an "SEO Checker" for its search engine optimization efforts. It said that by the end of March, it wants 95 percent of its content optimized for the Web, up from the 40 percent of content it estimated should be run through the service at the end of January.