Monday, August 17, 2009

AOL, Yahoo, ESPN: Creating the Content-Driven Path for Wider Media Industry

I was reading a short blurb about Yahoo in last Monday's New York Times Business section, and I was struck by this detail by the reporter, based on something said by CEO Carol Bartz:

"According to Ms. Bartz, the majority of Yahoo’s sites will go the way of Sports."

Over the last month, maybe you have been following coverage of new AOL CEO Tim Armstrong's 100-day review of the company. He, too, talks about AOL as being driven by content -- and when people talk about AOL's content success stories, one of the leading case studies is Fanhouse.

See today's media column by the NYT's David Carr about how AOL's content strategy is suddenly the envy of the industry, in part thanks to Fanhouse.

Here is his money (Fanhouse-related) quote from Armstrong:
"I am not sure that is important to the audience that Disney owns ABC or ESPN, so in the same way, FanHouse, our sports site, will live or die on its connection to the audience. We can light a fuse, but whether or not it comes to fruition is reliant on the content."
That is a template for all of AOL's 70-plus successful blogs. And, frankly, any large media/content company that wants to thrive in today's content economy.

Two weeks ago, ESPN took the much-publicized step of setting a Twitter policy. A few days later -- two Sundays ago -- the site brought out Simmons and Neyer and Stark -- among others -- to tweet during the Yankees-Red Sox game. Yes, you could find their tweets on Twitter, but the more robust experience was on, using the CoverItLive app.

What is the common thread? (Aside from the fact that the key architect of the successful strategies at both Yahoo and AOL was Jamie Mottram?) Sports content strategy is driving innovation at the largest online media companies.

Yahoo wants to replicate its Y! Sports Blog network across news, entertainment and finance. Who is the MJD or Skeets or Wyshinski or Hinton of politics or Hollywood or Wall Street?

AOL used Fanhouse -- among other early AOL super-blog successes (like the acquired Engadget) -- as a template to build out its AOL Media (formerly MediaGlow) blog network to 70-plus sites along every quality vertical with a strong core audience, using AOL's still-viable "firehose" to drive traffic, build awareness and grow each into a best-of-category blog. Now, every content company wants its own version.

Meanwhile, has become the leader across all media -- not just sports. -- by being a huge site willing to experiment openly with how best to leverage social media tools like Twitter to connect with their audience, yes, but also to create some new value for themselves. Other traditional media companies are surely paying close attention. has always been a bit of a trail-blazer -- to be "the ESPN of politics" was the short-hand of Politico, and they have succeeded (and, yes, criticized) in large part because they took that approach.

(Politico was trying to bum rush a category already dominated by multiple players. ESPN's competitors -- like Yahoo or AOL -- had to fight "David"-style against ESPN's historical hegemony, using their general-traffic "firehose" to focus on "one-stop" (one-blog) content along fairly rigid vertical lines. In Yahoo and's case, a strong fantasy product was absolutely critical to serve as their own firehose.)

The larger point is that while the various online sports media divisions battle -- I'm not sure fans notice, by the way...we just want our needs serviced, wherever that might happen -- there is a bigger story here: That online sports media is offering up plenty of case studies -- and overall leadership -- for other key categories, like news, entertainment and finance.

(No, I am not trying to say it happens like this ALL the time. There are plenty of examples of vibrant content ecosystems in tech media, in political media, in entertainment media that sports media could learn from -- and probably don't learn from enough. The cross-pollination of ideas makes everyone better. Or at least should have everyone thinking harder.)

-- D.S.

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