AOL tries out new IM chat bot

The marketing machinery behind AOL Instant Messenger gets a new face as America Online tests a robot that answers questions about weather and stocks. Say hello to Zoe.

As part of its continuous push to market its AOL Instant Messenger program, America Online is testing a new instant-chat robot that answers questions from AIM users about weather and stocks.

In December, the online service introduced a test version of an "interactive agent" or programmed chat "buddy" called ZoeOnAOL. AIM users can add Zoe's name to their buddy list in order to get answers to questions such as "What is the weather in San Francisco?" or simply "Weather 94105," or to call up stock quotes.

"We're always looking for ways to enhance the value of IM," said AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham. "This is a fun and interesting way for members to interact with a conversational bot."

The move comes as the struggling online arm of media giant AOL Time Warner looks for new ways to tap Instant Messenger's popularity to build member loyalty and grow revenue. In the coming year, Dulles, Va.-based AOL plans to sell its IM software to corporations. And the company has steadily unveiled new instant-chat bots meant for marketing purposes, aligning with advertisers.

ZoeOnAOL is the latest in a line of instant-chat bots introduced by various companies. It most closely resembles the functionality of once-popular buddy "SmarterChild," developed by New York-based ActiveBuddy, which gave people using AOL, Yahoo or MSN the ability to play games or access data on sports, weather or finances via instant chat. But ActiveBuddy shut off SmarterChild last year when the company determined that it competed too closely with commercial efforts by its partners, such as marketing moves by AOL Time Warner's movie arm, Warner Bros.

Advertisers and marketers have been particularly drawn to messaging services as a way to market products or enhance relationships with consumers. Companies including auctioneer eBay, snack-food maker Keebler, and music labels Warner Bros. Records and Capital Records have used IM bots for marketing purposes.

This January, the Dr. Pepper/7Up company quietly launched an AIM bot to market its new soft drink, dnL. The agent is called "dnLFlipit"--because dnL flipped spells 7up--and it answers questions about the soda, doles out locations where people can try it and hosts word games.

AOL has dabbled with using IM to market itself, too. AOL Time Warner divisions have used IM agents to promote films and movie characters, including Austin Powers. AOL employs a bot called RingMessenger for the movie "Lord of the Rings," and in the weeks surrounding Christmas, the company introduced a Santa bot, which let kids chat with Kris Kringle. AOL also hosts SafetyBot, which informs kids on how to use the Web safely.

The company plans to expand the features and knowledge of ZoeOnAOL in the future, Graham said. For now it answers questions only on weather and stocks. The agent is trilingual; it chats in English, Spanish and German.

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