AOL’s Internet Lite: Will Advertisers Bite?

AOL carved out gigantic (if eroding) market share, creating a “for dummies” approach to the Internet. Newbies can get online more or less painlessly. The raw impact on consumers of All That Information (much of it unsavory or hard to digest) is buffered and smoothed by a Big Sheltering Brand. The splashy, expensive launch of AOL 8.0 extends that same value proposition to the legions of nongeeks who will never, ever bother to RTFM.

AOL 8.0 now brings that concept to a new audience: advertisers. The rhetorical “How do we speak to agencies in a language they’ll understand?” question has been answered. Dumb it down. Turn the Web into TV. Discuss its advertising potential using the television lexicon: Dayparts. Households. Audience segment. Programming. Appointment viewing.

Strange times for those of us who defected from TV to become part of this newer medium. TV’s morphing into a version of the Web. As my colleague Jeffrey Graham writes, the Holy Grail of appointment viewing is a thing of the past for iTV households. Many viewers don’t see ads anymore — at least, not the kind that interrupt programming. But at some point during the hue and cry about online advertising intrusiveness, prime-time programming lost its immunity to crawls and pop-ups.

On-air marketing is emulating online, and some online properties are seeking ways to migrate to TV.

AOL revealed this week it will stake its survival on creating a TV-like experience for its subscribers and advertisers. That’s the one truly new feature of 8.0 (content excepted). The other “new” features are already built into subscribers’ OSs, configurable in their software settings, or readily available as a free download.

Online advertising’s on its knees. TV, meanwhile, is selling briskly and at robust prices. So why should marketers tediously parse oceans of user data for highly individualized, targeted messaging? That’s the new (read hard) part of Internet marketing.

How much easier to just reach out to the same audiences you buy on TV (at Internet prices)? AOL makes it easy. The new release first requires users to make a mandatory choice. They select one of six themed welcome screens. Less customizable than preprogrammed, the six options include a choice of Business News and Sports; Latest Music, Games and Homework Help; Nightlife and Great Discoveries; and so on. Even before signing on for the first time, a user’s (broad) demographic is showing: adult male, teen, young adult.

Subscribe to AOL’s broadband service, and your nuclear unit can be measured as if it were a Nielsen family: by household. Networking features and up to seven individual accounts for broadband households mean as many family members can be online as there are PCs at home.

AOL pushes the TV lingo — hard. “Daypart Programming Creates Online ‘Appointment Viewing'” is the self-professed “content philosophy.” “Like a television network, programming is scheduled throughout the day based on our members’ interests.” There’s Morning Money, Wednesday Gossip, Tech Tuesday, Sunday Sports, Ask-the-Teacher after school afternoons and evenings, and original programming. (Subscribers will need TiVo for all the television they’ll postpone to catch their favorite AOL programs.)

Will an online service in TV’s clothing work, or is this a last, desperate attempt to conform to the world’s biggest media rollup’s integrate-or-die imperative?

There’s certainly merit in talking to agencies in a language they understand. It might induce them to take a fresh look at the Internet — even if it’s Internet Lite. Baby steps might teach them the basics before they graduate to the real thing, just as so many AOL subscribers have defected once they get their bearings online. That scenario benefits AOL in the short term, the rest of the industry in the long term.

AOL’s subscribers are a mass audience and, as such, can attract the full body-blow advertisers: Coke, Pepsi, General Motors, Procter & Gamble. Smaller brands could follow. The Time Warner content AOL showcases is the stuff of mass-entertainment brands: Britney, Harry Potter, Bruce Springsteen.

One of the most highly touted “new” features of 8.0 are functionalities that bring users with common interests together. It just isn’t awfully hard to find a coterie of Springsteen or Britney fans. Of course it’s easy to find people who like Britney Spears on AOL — or anywhere else, for that matter. Admirers of Kembra Pfahler comprise an infinitely smaller and correspondingly more targeted demographic for some advertiser out there, somewhere. But of course, those users aren’t AOL subscribers, anyway.

The danger of AOL 8.0’s pitch is advertisers, lured by the broad strokes of an easy-to-follow model, won’t harness the real potential of Web advertising: the targeting, segmenting, user data, and other rich knowledge that can be mined and leveraged in campaigns (no one said that part was easy). If AOL’s Internet Lite fails advertisers, the effect on the broader industry could be another crushing round of “Internet advertising doesn’t work.”

Time will tell. Like a friend said after CNN handed him a pink slip two years ago, “So who ever thought Time Warner would be bought out by an ISP?”

You can meet Rebecca at ClickZ Email Strategies in San Francisco, November 18-19.

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