In My Opinion 10 Tips to Save AOL

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By Tom Gardner
August 7, 2002

As a weary shareholder and a guy who increasingly uses America Online less each month, I thought I'd share my 10 suggestions for improving AOL. Perhaps new online chief Jon Miller and his team will find something useful here. Perhaps not.

I wouldn't bother sharing if I didn't think the mistakes at AOL Time Warner (NYSE: AOL) were correctable. While I was an outspoken opponent of the merger, I've come to accept it as the reality. Love it or leave it. And while I think AOL has made things difficult for itself all by itself, we should all recognize that Time Warner brought more than $20 billion of debt into this marriage.

Both companies have improvements to make. The 10 ideas below focus more specifically on improving the America Online side of the business.

1. Attempt to Make People Like You

We'll start with the obvious. Make people like you.

AOL is one of the nation's premiere brands. But for years, its image has been eroding. James Carville knows about campaign building (whatever you think of his politics). At an unforgettable speech at Howard University a half-dozen years back, he said, "Give your organization one line to rally around. Not two dozen position papers. One line. Make it believable. Make it honest. Make it count." America Online needs that line... which their leaders know, their employees know, their customers believe, and their business partners want to participate in.

The company's culture should reflect its love for its members. Its desire to create wonderful services for its members. A phone call to CEO Jim Sinegal at Costco would help. Membership means bending over backwards to create a sense of belonging and of significance. It has been a long time since I felt that AOL cared about that. They can again; I hope they do.

2. Use Subsidiaries to Maximal Advantage

The most shocking feature of the merger has been the nearly complete lack of synergy between these companies. As outsiders, we continue reading that the Time Warner guys hate the AOL guys, and vice versa. Leadership needs to step up now and say, "Guess what, team, the in-fighting has our stock below $10. We are missing a ton of opportunities. Working together is now a priority. If you don't get onboard with that, you will be fired." Simple. Say it. And act on it. No bashing between the two that leads to disintegration anymore.

From there, please, for heaven's sakes, integrate AOL with CNN, HBO, Time, People, InStyle, and Fortune in a way that actually improves, rather than just promotes, all of the programming. I will not blather on about the numerous ways to use AOL's community to benefit CNN, HBO, Time, People, InStyle, and Fortune, and vice versa. Given how actively I see women reading InStyle, people talking about Six Feet Under (or, in my case, the HBO movie Gathering Storm), I simply can't believe there aren't substantial creative opportunities to integrate the programming for collective benefit (and profit for both AOL and TW).

3. Simplify the AOL Main Screen.

The main screen is a cluttered mess. Right now, I see stories on West Nile Virus, the discovery of ancient skulls, VW's futuristic car, Britney Spears, a pop quiz, 67% off diamonds, wedding gifts I can buy, and a promotion for watching Connie Chung tonight. How about we go with three things and my email box? I actually think increased usage, increased membership, and increased advertising will be the result.

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