IM Without Standards

When I recently saw the list of screen names displayed on the computer screen of a friend’s teenage son, I was amazed. He typed feverishly as bleeps sounded with every message transmission. Looking closer, I noticed that he had his own online identity made up of a unique screen name and a funny graphical icon. After I watched him for several minutes, he logged off and started preparing to leave. When his mom and I questioned where he was going, he revealed that in a mere 10 minutes he had communicated with six friends, organized a carpool and a time to go out, selected a movie, and purchased tickets. Wow.

I’m sure that most mainstream consumers and businesspeople associate instant messaging — or “IMing” — with teenagers. But let’s face it, even the way adults communicate with one another has changed dramatically in the past few years. That’s why it’s important for advertisers to keep an eye on the latest developments and look for opportunities to push the envelope.

IM debuted on the Net in 1996, and America Online (AOL), with its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), has been responsible for the mainstream distribution of the service, according to Instant Messaging Planet, one of ClickZ’s sister sites. AOL even acquired the grandfather of all instant messaging applications, ICQ, from Mirabilis in 1998. Basically, IM allows users to locate and establish independent sessions with other users. Once connected, the users can have a text-based dialogue and exchange files, photos, and, in some cases, applications in real time.

Since then, online giants such as Yahoo and MSN have jumped on the bandwagon, making things impossibly confusing because the different systems don’t “talk” to one another. According to InsightExpress, AOL still has the most popular service with 45 percent of users, followed by MSN (29 percent), Yahoo (16 percent), and ICQ (6 percent).

Forrester Research found approximately one-third of the U.S. online population lists IMing as an activity they do at least one per week. Jupiter Research found that more than half of online users in the U.S. list IMing as a top online activity.

Due to its widespread penetration, IM has often been called the next killer app. It was obviously designed for home use. Now, suddenly, businesses are catching on. This has caused much debate among companies and IT departments. Like most real-time applications, there is a firewall issue. The software violates security because, simply put, a hacker can intercept any exchange within the IM format. And, as with any new tool, there are support issues.

Employees say that IM boosts productivity, although it’s more controversial among managers, who often consider it a distraction.

However, new research from InsightExpress reveals that IM is seen as a tool in the workplace and not a distraction. Further findings include the following:

  • Among office users, 39 percent say IM increases their productivity.
  • Forty-nine percent use IM instead of a telephone call.
  • Thirty-five percent use it instead of email.

The most cited features and benefits of IM are:

  • To see a buddy online (82 percent)
  • To see when a buddy signs on or off (70 percent)
  • To replace a telephone call (49 percent)
  • To block messages from unknown users (42 percent)
  • To replace email (35 percent)

According to a recent Reuters article, AOL has 41.7 million IM users at home, up 21 percent from last year. MSN users rose 94 percent to 18.5 million, while Yahoo’s users rose 25 percent to reach 11.9 million. At work, AOL has 8.8 million, MSN has 4.8, and Yahoo has 3.4.

Although it has its fair share of problems with security, privacy, technology, interoperability, and lack of standardization, most people love IM. Advertisers should place themselves ahead of the curve by researching such companies and pushing the edge of the envelope to find advertising opportunities. For instance, MSN and Yahoo have come out with video IM. AOL has been selling several advertising opportunities, including Buddy Icons. Advertisers’ branded graphics are made available for IMers to choose to appear in the chat window. Yahoo is offering advertisers similar opportunities, which allow IMers to choose branded backgrounds to appear behind their text messages.

There’s even a start-up company, ActiveBuddy, that is building its business on the IM marketing opportunity. The company builds bots — computer programs designed to interact with users — of which people can ask questions. The launch of the new “Lord of the Rings” movie, for example, is supported by an ActiveBuddy bot called “RingMessenger.” Users of AOL’s IM simply add RingMessenger as a buddy on their buddy list, and they can then ask questions, take quizzes, and the like.

The lure of IM isn’t limited to the computer screen, either. Wireless providers are including IM as part of their services. The British carrier Genie recently struck a deal with Microsoft, allowing 5.8 million customers the use of IM on their wireless devices. Many American carriers are also beginning to include such services as part of their data offerings.

Forrester analyst Navi Radjou so eloquently said, “Instant messaging belongs to the people.” I couldn’t agree more. If the IM industry works together, the opportunities are limitless.

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