@ EconSM: Interview: Ron Grant, President, AOL: Bebo Will Return Us To Our Roots

This story was written by Robert Andrews.
AOL president Ron Grant, appearing on our EconSM panel, suggested new acquisition Bebo would be used to thread social features throughout AOL's new-look websites. In a later chat with my colleagues David Kaplan, Staci Kramer and I, Grant expanded on the philosophy and talked about the "turnaround" for a content-conscious AOL (NYSE: TWX). He encapsulated a litany of hinted-at forthcoming social publishing initiatives: "We have a very different approach to content right now." And how

"We're not trying to build a portal. We're literally putting relevance front-and-center - relevant ads, relevant content, and letting the users decide where to take these platforms. That's what you'll see a lot with Bebo. We're not going to care where the content comes from. We're just going to put the right stuff in front of the right people.

"We have open APIs, we have the open platform that Bebo has. We have to look at everybody as a potential partner because, right now, it's not about building destinations; it's about really engaging people and expanding the reach. I'm not going to speak for Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO), but what we believe right now is, we want to be able to take this social media aspect and allow the users to take it anywhere they want to go - whether it's a Bebo environment, a Google (NSDQ: GOOG) environment or a desktop widget or it's something that's within a passion point.

"You will see AOL much more return to its community roots and Bebo will play a very central role in that."

"Our audience is growing, but it's a new audience we're attracting. Look at (men's lifestyle site) Asylum - that's a brand new audience; they don't even know they're on AOL." No title is divulged yet for the imminent women's version, but: "If you look at what we have already, even if we never launched anything initially, we're, like, number three and we would catch iVillage and those folks."

-- Locating Bebo's president: "She's going to be in two places basically. She's going to be part of the (AOL) management team. I'll leave it up to her whether she wants a corporate title! She's going to have an office right next to mine in New York. At this point, she's going to go back and forth. It's going to be hard to go back and forth but I want to make sure she has a complete presence at headquarters. I know the people at Google (from where Shields joined Bebo) think she's fantastic; she's got a great team."

-- ContentScreen: AOL claims to have a solution to marketers greatest fear about appearing next to objectionable content on social net pages. AOL's Platform-A is launching a content-screening application that employs the same technology used by AOL's spam controls. Except this is not for e-mail, this is for serving ads. The screening app will contextually crawl content pages to apply a quality score.  Advertising will only be served to pages that surpass a planned "content-screening quality threshold."

"It's very much like what we built in our spam tool. We have looked at some of the better spam tools and we're really able to look at all of the content across the social network and give them a score. That scoring algorithm gives advertisers comfort about what they want to be there and what they don't want to be there. That's a very important breakthrough in terms of monetizing social networking.

"The issue with all of these things is that you're getting the right demographic audience. It's all about transparency. You want to be able to give an advertiser a tool that is completely transparent so they can make some of the decisions before their ads go. We've been utting a lot of investment and emphasis on making sure we can monetize and scale social media."

-- Sphere: Why did AOL decide to buy blog news search index Sphere this month? One word: "Distribution." It was one of several small purchases that Grant said is crucial in completing AOL's transition from an ISP and content and ad-based company.

"It's this unbundled nature of the web. We are literally embracing fragmentation - that, combined, with relevance, is a differentiator. We're not trying to build a start page, there's a company that wants to do that. We're not trying to build a search engine; there's a company that does that pretty well. We're trying to create this intersection between relevance of social media and content of Platform-A.

-- sdf: There were a lot of things we didn't think were moving fast enough. We needed one salesforce (which we brought together and blended in six weeks), we needed common goals. We were responding to what agencies were asking us for - they wanted a one-stop shop, the ability to buy a whole suite of services in display - both contextual and behavioral - and they wanted to be able to do it through one unified team. That was really the vision of Platform-A.

-- Tacoda: The behavioral ad targeting network AOL bought in 2007 has been facing layoffs and questions over whether it might be dissolved, but Grant defended: "Tacoda is one of the leading behavioral products. You'll see more announcements about Tacoda being integrated further in to Platform-A. People do leave; it happens in acquisitions - the integration couldn't be going any better than it is right now.

-- Other actors: "In a fast-consolidating market, where does Yahoo's possible acquisition fit in with Bebo (it supplies the social net's UK display ads) and where does AOL minority stakeholder Google fit? Grant couldn't comment on whether Yahoo will be kicked in favor of Platform-A, saying the Bebo acquisition hadn't yet closed, but offered: "There's a lot of good questions where does Google fit in because of our deal? There's the Yahoo and the Google thing."

-- Alliances: Google recently added AOL's money channel into Google Finance. Grant regards it as validation of the company's transition efforts as well. Grant: "Google called us up and said you've done a great job with the redesign. There was a small acquisition we did within that that really elevated the site, called Relegence. [A news site does] an interesting story, Relegance can find it, pick it up and place it into our finance site."

-- Internationalizing AOL: "We're going to lead a lot more in to the cultural issues, in to the in-language stuff. India has got so many different dialects. It will be our intention not to just launch it in English everywhere.

-- Bebo and location: Plans to move staff from London or SF? Grant said he will leave most of that up Joanna Shields, who's based in London. Location, he said, is not that important, although, it's conceivable that AOL would want to build up Bebo's US presence in light of its established strength in Europe. "We're distributed right now and AOL has big hubs in San Francisco and Mountain View and Bangalore and New York, Dulles, Va. And Tel Aviv. I'm going to leave a lot of this up to Joanna, in terms of where she wants to work, where she wants her people. We can't announce a lot of stuff because the deal's not closed. You don't want to dictate to folks exactly how the things going to work."


By Robert Andrews