Wednesday, May 10, 2006

AOL Buddy List's Social Network Expands With AIM Pages, Phoneline

Screenshot: AIM PagesThe way AOL execs pitch it, the AOL Connections strategy is all about giving users ways to communicate whether it’s IM, file sharing, video or the upcoming launches of social networking service AIM Pages and free phone service Phoneline. But it’s also about giving AOL a way to connect with users — and to keep them connected. AIM already averages six hours or so a day on users’ desktops, according to AOL. That’s not enough.
AIM Pages: AOL wants to be the 24/7 home base for as many users as possible hence the AIM Page, a social networking site/home page/home base that stays active even when the buddy list is offline. Kerry Parkins, director, key audiences product marketing, calls it “a very natural extension” for AIM”s existing social network. Instead of people joining a created community a la Classic AOL, they have their own with the buddy list they already use at the core.
Unlike walled-garden Classic AOL, AIM Pages is built on giving users ways to collect and connect to various parts of the web — and each other — from one base. For instance, users can add a flickr module. “Our approach is not to get you to leave flickr but to super-set your stuff from flickr,” explained Parkins. Other modules focus on AOL content, like the Top 11 list from AOL Music; options will be limited at first with more modules being introduced on a rolling basis.
Asked what makes AIM Pages stand out from the other social networking sites where users can create a page and form community, Parkins said it’s the publishing tool, which was designed to make the process more simple and the results more attractive. To improve discoverability, AOL settled on an easy personalized domain —[screenname].
Still in flux: making money with AIM Pages. Parkins admitted, “Advertisers themselves are trying to get a handle on how to monetize in this space [ie social network sites]. In general, it’s not a great advertising play.” They’re working with advertisers to expand presence beyond the standard “build a profile for the Tom Hanks character in The DaVinci Code” but are concerned about it will play. Parkins: “You can create community around (a) product … but it’s a different advertising model. We really want to let the community grow first and be very vibrant before we introduce a degree of commercialism.” AIM, unlike some social network competitors, claims “significant reach” across all demographics.
Phoneline: AOL’s new phone service extends the notion of AIM beyond IM to another utility that’s an intrinsic part of daily life: the phone. Any AIM user in the top 50 DMAs will be able to sign up for a free incoming number and a basic package that’s frillier than some pay plans. For instance, it includes free, unlimited voicemail with email notification and/or SMS alerts. (AIM is second only to Verizon in terms of U.S. SMS.) It’s all integrated with email and AIM. The way John McKinley, president of digital services and CTO, sees it, “We have a chance to grow our namespace. We actually had year-over-year growth on our own metric … about 9.3 percent groth of AIM. We think this is still a movable feast here where we can participate.” He added, “Nobody else is in the market with a product this disruptive.” AIM has offered voice, as have other services for years, but McKinley says it never got traction.
Users will be able to move up to Phoneline Unlimited, which includes outgoing calls and still more features at $9.95 a month for charter subs and $14.95 after. Post launch, AOL also will offer the kind of upsells usually associated with mobile — personalization, ringtones and ringbacks. Advertising options will include click-to-call ads and ad-supported 411.