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Say What You Want, It's Still the Leader

  |  January 28, 2003   |  Comments

Don't be too quick to dismiss AOL as a factor in the online media game.

Everywhere you look on the Net, the content is all about the big game, bombs in Iraq, and the AOL turmoil. For a moment, there was buzz about the Golden Globe awards. Then it was back to football, war, politics, and, once again, AOL.

As you probably know, Steve Case resigned, Robert Pittman was ousted, and the press circled like vultures over road kill. But wait, this focus group of one doesn't think AOL is dead yet. Quick, when you think of AOL, what comes to your mind? Maybe it's the company's promise of "AOL Anywhere," or maybe it's the millions and millions of free trial CDs in retail stores, your mailbox, and even your kids' cereal boxes.

I remember AOL as a pioneer. I must admit I was a Prodigy and CompuServe junkie as an early adopter (when I was just a kid). Just think about those early days for a moment. Remember when you first found out what America Online was? I mean, come on, it was there before America really was online. Or how 'bout the time you heard, "You've got mail!" bellowing from your desktop speakers. Admit it, you felt important. It was exciting.

Has the excitement been diluted by our advanced technographics? Has an AOL address become an embarrassment to the experienced netizen? Or is AOL the ugly, old, comfortable pair of shoes you never want to throw out?

MSN hasn't shied away from trying to convince AOL users to switch. Microsoft has deep pockets and slick advertising. Whether you think the butterflies are annoying, you know quite clearly who they belong to. Is this the classic Coke and Pepsi debate or much more?

As an online advertiser, wouldn't you put Yahoo right up there with AOL and MSN? We don't just have one 800-pound gorilla, or even two; we have three. Somehow, the media community seems to perceive Yahoo differently than the others. To my media friends, Yahoo seems kinder and gentler... whether we're talking about content, community, or customization.

That's probably why Yahoo is crowing about its recent good performance, attributing it to winning business from the competition. The press says AOL Time Warner's ad revenue is half of what it was last year. Yet, it's still pretty huge.

I must admit, however, AOL, love it or hate it, is always a consideration when my team is putting together media buys. Why? AOL still possesses one of the most coveted user bases. No one can touch its walled garden. AOL still "owns" the community elements most media buyers and advertisers seek: chat, instant messaging, and premier content.

Still, considering the AOL network as a potential vehicle doesn't always mean signing the insertion order (IO). Why? Well, I asked around the media community, and here's what I found out (please, no shooting or applauding the messenger):

  • AOL is difficult.

  • It doesn't need to play by the rules.

  • There's been too much churn/reorgs on the sales rep side. (Many buyers don't even know who their sales reps are.)

  • Time Warner properties are attractive but difficult to roll into an overall plan.

  • AOL has a lack of personalization. (Many have My Yahoo on the brain.)

  • Bad press rings loudly.

  • Ad specs are all over the place, causing increased (and unnecessary) production costs.

  • Fear of change reigns. Whether it be home page or channel redesign, the introduction of new ad specs, or the acceptance of forms of rich media, there's a hesitancy to try new things.

  • There's a lot of chest-beating going on.

  • The future is uncertain.

So, I want to know a couple things. What do you think is next for AOL? And what did you think of the Super Bowl ads? Please share your thoughts with me, dear readers.

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Seana Mulcahy

Seana Mulcahy is vice president, director of interactive media at Mullen (an IPG company). She's been creating online brands since before the first banner was sold. Her expertise includes online and traditional media planning and buying, e-mail marketing, viral marketing, click-stream analysis, customer tracking, promotions, search engine optimization and launching brands online. Prior to Mullen, Seana was vice president of media services at Carat Interactive. She's built online media services divisions for three companies and has worked with clients spanning financial, telecom, high-tech, healthcare and retail. Not surprisingly, she has taught, lectured and written about the industry for numerous trade associations and publications.

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