AOL to Lure Non-Members on the Open Web

  |  April 8, 2004   |  Comments

UPDATE: In a first, the Time Warner unit confirmed it would begin offering select content to non-subscribers, in a bid to convert them.

America Online (AOL) is shifting to an HTML-based Web publishing platform that could ultimately bring its content to the open Internet, and the company is evaluating strategies to do just that, a spokesperson confirmed.

Any move away from offering strictly members-only content would be a first for the beleaguered Time Warner unit, which has stuck to a strict "walled garden" approach. AOL's proprietary platform, called Rainman, was designed with this model in mind, and as such it did not allow the business to publish its content on the open Internet.

However, AOL's switch to an HTML platform would allow -- among other things -- the delivery of news, music, games and other content to an audience of non-members.

"We have the flexibility to choose our strategic platform," said Jim Bankoff, AOL's executive VP for programming. "If we do decide it makes sense for our business and programming [to publish on the open Web], we now have the options to do that."

Bankoff said the ability to push content outside the walled garden is only one aspect of the unit's switch to HTML. Others include increasing the ease with which advertisers and vendors can reach its audience, and providing members with access to AOL when they are on computers that do not have its software installed.

He said the ability to deliver content to non-members was something the company would deploy largely as a prospecting tool.

This means content from AOL.com, Netscape, Moviefone and AOL's many other properties could be used as bait to lure non-members into the AOL fold, or even to earn incremental fee-based revenue -- a strategy that would be most effective with premium broadband content.

"Music and games would be very logical candidates to sell a la carte, rather than bundled," said Jupiter Research analyst David Card.

Theoretically, the company could also sell ads on its public content, but that strategy has its own problems. For one, moving enough content to support advertisers could pose a challenge to AOL's essential customer value proposition, which justifies a costly Internet access bill partly with the promise of exclusive content. To introduce a free ad-supported model for the same content on the public Internet could jeopardize that.

"They'd like to take some products outside the wall, if for no other reason than to promote the $15 product," said Jupiter's Card, referring to AOL's bring-your-own access plan. "But if that dilutes the value of the $15 product, then they've failed."

An AOL spokesperson emphasized the unit would not deliver unregulated free content to non-members. Instead, she said it would maintain a clear border between paid content for members who sign on through AOL.com, and sampling for non-members who will hopefully consider signing up for AOL, and, in particular, its broadband service.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zachary Rodgers

Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects. 

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