AOL Preps 9.0 Versions for Blacks, Teens

America Online is developing a customized version of its 9.0 Optimized software for African-Americans and another for teens, according to President of Interactive Marketing Lisa Brown.

The separate offerings will follow the release this fall of two similar independent versions of 9.0: one for Hispanics and one for kids, dubbed AOL Latino and KOL, respectively. The new services are part of AOL’s strategy to tailor its offerings more specifically to certain segments of its audience, and attract advertisers eager to reach those segments.

The African American version is now in development. It emerged from AOL’s desire to improve user experience in general on its service, and in particular for this community, Brown suggested.

“The African-American service will evolve in a short period of time,” she said. “We have to do a better job serving them.”

While few details are now available, the service is likely an expansion of AOL’s Black Focus channel — an area of AOL with content and community features exclusively aimed to reach African-Americans.

Prior to the launch of Black Focus, the company commissioned a national survey through Digital Marketing Services, finding 85 percent of online African-Americans said a news source focused exclusively on them would be valuable.

AOL then partnered with several media outlets to release the channel, including Africana.com (a Time Warner property), Black Enterprise, BlackVoices.com and NiaOnline to offer financial, career and entertainment content to AOL’s African American members.

The company did not indicate what its version of 9.0 for African-Americans would be called.

AOL has shared a bit more detail on the upcoming teen version of its software, a service Brown said is currently being called “Red” within AOL. Slated to launch in late November or early December 2003, the product will deliver teen-focused content along with tools and apps popular with this age group, such as unique IM features.

Creating an AOL category geared exclusively to teens could be risky, however, as teens of different ages frequently don’t identify with each other.

“They have some historically good teen content, but I don’t think the teens need or want as much hand-holding,” said David Card, VP and research director for Jupiter Research, a unit of this site’s parent company. “You have to be careful not to condescend.”

But Card said “Red” could be a hit with teens if it manages to weave chat rooms, message boards and alerts throughout the content.

The teen service may be geared in part toward the interests of parents concerned about their children’s behavior online. AOL has historically given parents extensive controls over what content their children could access online.

“AOL has a particularly heavy content hand. It has always been about directing the audience, and its audience likes that,” Card said.

AOL’s Brown said “Red” is the brainchild of Malcolm Bird, senior VP and general manager of AOL Kids & Teens. Bird did not comment on the release, but an AOL spokesperson said further details about the teen offering will be released in the coming weeks.

AOL’s original teen channel debuted in January 1998.

The news of the “Red” and African-American versions comes on the heels of AOL announcements that the company will offer customized versions of its 9.0 for kids and for the Hispanic community. Called KOL, the kids’ version of the software expands on the Kids Only Channel that AOL executives said has been popular with users. It targets kids in the 6 to 12 age range.

The Hispanic-focused version of the software, called AOL Latino, is slated to launch on October 1.

It will enable AOL to serve the burgeoning online U.S. Hispanic community and better compete with Latin-focused ISPs like Terra Lycos, which serves Spain and Latin America.

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