Affecting change at AOL

I recently sat down with Bill Wilson, EVP of Programming at AOL, to discuss how the company has transformed itself from a subscriber “pipes” company to an ad-based content company. Before taking on his current role, Bill led the team that launched AOL Music, the company’s first site for the “open Web.” He now leads all programming for AOL and its satellite sites, such as TMZ, City Guide and MapQuest.

Insights from the conversation for others who are trying to be change agents:

1. Necessity really is the mother of invention: AOL had no choice. It accepted that fact and searched for a new path forward. Being a content player was the fairly obvious route.

2. Leadership matters: The executive leadership team was committed to shifting its focus from pipes to people. It instilled a passion for delivering a great customer experience within the organization.

3. Listen to your customers: The organization went through a cultural change by actively soliciting customer feedback on their experiences, processing and disseminating that feedback and then acting on it. Instilling discipline around collecting and using feedback has made a huge impact.

4. Iterate, iterate, iterate: AOL has migrated from big releases annually to frequent updates every four to six weeks. By making quick changes based on user feedback AOL has improved the user experience and customer loyalty has gone up along the way.

5. Develop niches: In addition to revamping AOL as a mega-portal, the company has been building sites optimized to various communities with common interests. Music lovers. Entertainment fans. Urban males. The strategy is paying off with faster than market growth at these niche sites.

For companies faced with challenges that look insurmountable, take encouragement from AOL. Transformation is possible.