AOL Instant Messaging Survey Lights The Way For New Marketing Opportunities

Instant messaging (IM) is now a mainstream communication platform for Web users, according to new data collected by America Online and Opinion Research Corporation, and the new usage figures are prompting the world's largest Internet Service Provider to aggressively market the Instant Messaging client as a unique opportunity for marketers.

The second annual instant messaging survey, which covered all IM platforms, queried 4,500 respondents in the top 20 U.S. markets. It found that 59 percent of Internet users use IM, 43 percent of employed IM users use it at work, 29 percent of IM users say they send as many or more IMs than e-mails per day, and 20 percent of IM users send mobile IMs or SMS text messages through a personal mobile device.

The survey also notes that IM now has deep penetration among all age groups. Ninety percent of online 13- to-21-year-olds are using IM, followed by 71 percent of online 22- to-34-year-olds, 55 percent of online 35- to-54-year-olds, and an astonishing 48 percent of online over-55s.

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Strong usage has prompted AOL to develop unique marketing innovations for the IM client, which remain free to both members and non-members.

Its newest product, which AOL Media Networks Executive Vice President, Sales and Marketing, Michael Barrett calls "the secret sauce" of the AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) marketing program, is called AIM Expressions. AIM Expressions is a service that was only available to AOL members, but with the launch of 5.9 in September, all AIM users will be able to participate. However, Expressions is a subscription service, priced at $1.95 a month, or $9.95 for annual subscriptions.

For marketers, AIM Expressions is a new interactive sponsorship opportunity that offers users the choice to decorate their AIM message window and client page with brand-related images or artwork, called "skins." "Skins" are customizable; advertisers can choose to include links to related Web sites, downloads, or game pages. Sponsored Expressions will also be free to all AIM users, requiring no subscription to use.

In addition to "skins," brands also can create personal avatars, called "super-buddies," which act like interactive buddy icons during conversation. For example, for the M&M's Expression, users can choose from one of several different colored M&M super-buddies, each with their own distinct characteristics and idiosyncrasies. The sponsorship was developed by AOL's creative department in conjunction with interactive shop Beyond Interactive, and the client.

According to Barrett, AIM Expressions can be "a powerful opportunity for marketers, because long after a campaign is over, [the expression and the character] are still part of the library of AIM Expressions." He added that any user who wants to take on another user's Expression can do so by simply clicking on the skin. Sponsored Expressions are also free to users.

Because AIM Expressions is completely opt-in, Barrett said there's no danger of bombarding users with messages. "[AIM Expressions] is hand-raiser, permission marketing," he said, noting that "if consumer appeal is low, consumer adoption will be low."

Barrett conceded that AOL is still selling advertising that skews to a mostly teen/young adult audience. He said AOL has yet to incorporate targeting into its inventory offerings; dayparting to workers during the day and a younger crowd at night is currently the best example.

For the future, he said AOL will look into targeting by IP address, industry, and geographic as well. Barrett also added that AOL will be working with its recent acquisition, interactive marketing firm Advertising.com, on new strategies, but would not go into specifics. "To be honest, we were as excited as we think marketers will be with the information [from the survey]," Barrett said, adding that AOL will continue to work on new offerings for marketers.

The AIM client currently offers three other advertising opportunities as well. The first is the text on the AIM Today start page, which offers content sponsorships to news and entertainment news providers. There is a banner on that page, and then there is the actual banner on the AIM client page, which contains users' buddy lists. This was recently video-enabled for ads of up to 30 seconds in length, and is frequency-capped at one per session, per day. ESPN, MTV, NBC, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and American Express have bought 30-second spots.

Takeovers are another sponsorship opportunity, according to Barrett, and are customizable. For example, for the "Garfield" movie launch, there were pawprints in the background of the AIM today page.

AIM Expressions "super-buddies" are currently in beta. The product launches full-time in September with AIM 5.9. Current AIM Expressions advertisers are Nike, M&Ms, Chicklets, Snapple, the Wall Street Journal Online, and movies "A Cinderella Story," "The Punisher," "13 Going on 30," and "The Last Samurai."

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