AOL Offers Up an Earnings Beat, But a Disappointing Ad Number
The earnings beat is nice for AOL. Not nice: Domestic display sales, a key metric, shrank 1 percent after climbing for several quarters. That’s going to be fresh meat for AOL critics like Starboard Value.
So what happened to domestic? “Domestic display advertising revenue declined primarily reflecting a decline in reserved impressions sold, partially offset by growth in reserved inventory pricing and Patch revenue,” AOL’s release says.
Later on in the release, we get a better sense of what may have happened: AOL’s audience is melting away. Traffic to AOL’s own properties is down 4 percent over the last year.
I imagine that Tim Armstrong will tell analysts that the decline isn’t wholly unexpected, because AOL’s dial-up unit, which still powers the whole operation, continues to shrink — that archaic business lost 14 percent of its subscribers in the last year.
On the other hand, this is a full year since AOL paid $315 million for the Huffington Post (and another $30+ million for TechCrunch, a few months before). I guess Armstrong could argue that things would be worse if he hadn’t bought the new sites, but that’s not very inspiring.
Update: A quick skim through the archives reminds me that shrinkage has been a recurring problem for AOL. The company also posted a 4 percent traffic drop in Q4 2011. And in Q3, traffic was flat. When I asked Armstrong about the issue then, he did indeed argue that the new sites were fighting off the decrease from dial-up users, and also argued that the company was still integrating Arianna and company (work in progress, apparently). He also predicted that traffic would tick up over time, and it has, just a bit — AOL is up to 108 million uniques versus 107 million six months ago. Key question: Does he expect more progress? Should shareholders?
AOL’s call starts at 8 am ET. We’ll see what Armstrong has to say then.
Update: AOL blames the Q1 drop on a number of things, including a specific but unnamed advertiser that stopped spending during the quarter. But Armstrong also tells analysts that his sales team’s pitch wasn’t resonating with advertisers. “A lot of it was because we have had a display strategy that was probably off-tune,” he says, adding “I was not happy with the domestic display.”
AOL says its display problems won’t be fixed this quarter, either, and predicts another drop. But it says domestic display will start moving up again in the second half of the year.
Meanwhile, AOL defends its much-maligned Patch unit, by noting that revenues are up and expenses are down at the local-news play this year. Armstrong tells investors that Patch will hit “run rate profitability” by the end of 2013. If they give him that much time.