AOL plans later this week to launch patch.org, a charitable foundation intended to improve the quality of life in underserved communities. It is part of a move by the recent Time Warner spinoff to focus on local markets, advertising and editorial content to become every community's online newspaper, Jon Brod, executive vice president at AOL Ventures, told attendees at the BIA/Kelsey conference in San Diego Monday.
Brod laid out AOL's strategy, which will allow patch.org to partner with community foundations. "This is a charitable foundation with all profits being returned to communities we serve," he says. "We believe local information is the most important and helpful information people want and need. And we are committed to filling this need in society without regard to economic status."
Pointing to AOL's commitment to invest up to $50 million this year on local initiatives, Brod says Patch.org ties into AOL's focus on local content that bridges the gap between real-life offline neighborhoods and online communities. It follows the company's push to hire local journalists to write and post community news.
Today, Patch supports 41 communities in four states, up from five markets when acquired by AOL in June 2009. The initiative cost roughly 4.1% of what it takes to run a like-size daily newspaper when you strip out ink, print, and distribution. Brod says as more people migrate to online, AOL believes the project will become profitable.
The concentration on community also means focusing on mobile and Mapquest. The mapping technology will get a complete makeover, including user interface, employee support, and rebranding to give the mapping tool a new look and feel. "Mapquest, quite candidly, has been under-resourced during the past several years, but despite that it has remained a massive brand," Brod says.
Evidently, Mapquest sits at the nineteenth-largest property on the Web with 46% market share and 40 million monthly unique users, according to Brod. However, he declined to provide specifics on local advertising opportunities and skirted questions on specific technologies that might allow AOL to go head-to-head with mapping tools from Google and Microsoft, or geo-tagging tools from Twitter and others.
AOL also plans to revive the City's Best brand in 25 markets between July and September 2010. City's Best is an eight-year-old brand that AOL stopped funding in the end of 2008. The site features the best entertainment options in each city. It will combine professional editorial with consumer opinions that will allow community members to vote for the best in each city.
When asked how this differs from AOL's failed efforts to roll out Digital City, Brod says the billions of dollars spent online by consumers today, along with the penetration of smartphones in the market, and the use of much more sophisticated technology will make work today what didn't work in 1995.