AOL Goes After Small Businesses

America Online and domain registrar VeriSign are teaming up to offer the ISP’s subscribers a bevy of discounted services such as special email accounts, marketing capabilities and Web site creation.

With some estimates that small businesses with 10 or fewer employees are among the fastest-growing segments of the business world, AOL is wasting no time leveraging its own network of 35 million subscribers to capture a share of the market.

It’s also a move to find new revenues by offering tiered levels of business services, while responding to competitive threats from other broadband ISP providers looking to poach AOL’s dial-up base.

In addition, the company’s own research shows that some 3 million of its subscribers already own small businesses, and that about 2 million of them are thinking of launching one from their homes.

“What members have asked for is a service tailored to their needs,” said Kathie Bowman, an AOL spokesperson. “This is a way for them to add another site and more services at a significant discount, and to continue building their brand.”

The first level of the “AOL for Small Business” service comes at no additional charge to existing AOL members, the company said, after they have registered by typing in “Small Business” keyword.

Among the new features:

  • A range of interactive and email marketing services including special alerts in email and on AOL Instant Messenger;
  • Business listings in AOL’s Yellow Pages, giving the businesses the ability to “advertise locally” through the AOL network;
  • Small business chat rooms and database search features designed to help the small office subscriber network with other small business customers of AOL;
  • Round-the-clock customer service over the telephone or email from AOL representatives trained for small business questions;
  • Welcome screens that provide business-oriented content from business publications such as Fortune Small Business, CNN Money and other AOL Time Warner-owned publications.

In addition to the free AOL services which are part of its recent release of 8.0, subscribers are offered discounts on two Web domain offerings for their businesses. For $39 a year, VeriSign will register a new Web site address and provide a business email address, which is about a 20 percent discount from going rates.

A $49 a year package, called the Starter Web site Package, includes the creation of a Web site, on top of the domain registration and business email, about a 24 percent discount on going rates.

Chris Croll, vice president and general manager of AOL for Small Business, said the business email addresses and Web site packages will help small business members of AOL easily build a professional online identity. The fact that AOL accounts have always come with an @aol.com email address has been seen as a disadvantage in its attracting business customers, because email addresses with the aol.com domain are percieved as being personal, and not professional.

In addition to its partnership with VeriSign, AOL is also offering discounts on small business services from vendors such as Office Depot, Monster.com, Fortune, and Pitney Bowes.

And in yet another pitch to dial-up subscribers who may be tempted to defect to another broadband provider, AOL is offering up to seven simultaneous logons to subscribers that subscribe to AOL for Small Business with bundled AOL Broadband service offered via DSL or with Time Warner Cable and Advance/Newhouse.

The service and AOL for Small Business discs are being marketed at select CompUSA, Kinko’s and Office Depot retail stores and will be preloaded on special SOHO business computers from a range of leading PC manufacturers.

Non AOL members can sign up by visiting http://www.aolforsmallbusiness.com, the company said.

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