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AOL's chief upbeat on rebooting the brand

NEW YORK - A lot has changed at AOL Inc. as it tries to shed the vestiges of its '90s image: the iconic "You've got mail" greeting and the promotional CDs stuffed into mailboxes across the country.

NEW YORK - A lot has changed at AOL Inc. as it tries to shed the vestiges of its '90s image: the iconic "You've got mail" greeting and the promotional CDs stuffed into mailboxes across the country.

The Internet company has engaged in an artsy rebranding, rolled out hundreds of local news sites, and in March bought the online news hub the Huffington Post for $315 million.

At the helm is chief executive officer Tim Armstrong, whom AOL hired from Google to stage a turnaround.

Armstrong has led AOL since April 2009. Eight months later, he oversaw its separation from Time Warner Inc. and debut as a publicly traded company - nearly nine years after the two companies merged in a bad marriage.

During his tenure, Armstrong, 40, has tried to hone AOL's focus on online content and advertising - a tricky task for a company with roots as a dial-up Internet access provider.

That transition began well before Armstrong's arrival. Yet despite Armstrong's experience as Google's advertising chief for North and South America, AOL still struggles. Its online ad revenue fell last year and is down again so far this year, despite an improving market.

Still, by doing such things as cutting employees, shedding less-profitable websites, and purchasing new ones such as the Huffington Post, Armstrong is optimistic AOL can succeed.

In an interview at company headquarters in New York's East Village, he talked about why he wanted to lead AOL and how it is going so far.

Question: Why did you think it would be a good idea to leave Google for AOL?

Answer: AOL as a brand has touched hundreds of millions of people around the world. Reigniting that brand is a very exciting challenge and a big opportunity. I think the Internet is still in the early innings. Especially when we look at content or some things we're investing in, those models are still being figured out, so there's a big opportunity there.

Q: How will AOL's content business change with the acquisition of the Huffington Post?

A: The Huffington Post . . . gives us the ability to increase our distribution as a company across the board. And for advertisers, we have two of the most affluent audiences online. So I think bringing in the Huffington Post has allowed us to actually fuel where the future of the company is going in terms of content creation, content distribution, and content monetization. Probably the biggest thing I've been focused on the last two years is changing the culture here to a culture that's really of the future of the Internet. The Huffington Post is just helping accelerate that.

Q: A lot of people have long thought of AOL as the "You've Got Mail" company or as "that company that used to send me those CD-ROMs in the mail back in the '90s." How do you think people on the outside, consumers, think of AOL now?

A: When I first got to the company, I heard a few pieces of feedback. One was a lot about the merger with Time Warner and people focused on that. The second thing was that they weren't really sure what AOL did anymore. They kind of knew AOL from the disc days.

Q: Yeah, when you mention a website AOL owns like tech blog Engadget, some people say, "Oh, they own that?"

A: Right. I think a lot of it was just that old perception. If people used our services, they usually had a lot of complaints about them. But about six months ago, something started to change. The difference between the last six months and probably two years ago is when people stop me now, they say: "Oh, I'm addicted to the front page of AOL. I love it. I love the new way the e-mail's been designed."

Forget about the financial industry and forget about our stock and all that other stuff. Our number-one lead indicator of this company being successful is the people who touch our products and services actually physically seeing the level we care about internally translated externally.

I think that's starting to happen, and that's eventually what is going to change the AOL brand.