Internet

AOL plans CD-ROM onslaught

The online giant is bringing back its "carpet-bombing" marketing strategy, offering its software via mail, cereal boxes, banks, and other outlets.

Harking back to a marketing strategy that transformed America Online into a household name, the online giant on Monday will launch its campaign to distribute millions of its new AOL 4.0 CD-ROMs.

AOL once again will begin subjecting Americans to its "carpet-bombing" campaign to attract new Web users. The firm will distribute its software through traditional channels such as direct mail and through new means such as cereal boxes, bank kiosks, and gas stations.

In the past few campaigns, AOL's aggressive distribution practices landed considerable criticism from Netizens. Along with the mail, AOL CDs were appearing on airlines, in baseball stadiums, and within the pages of magazines, next to perfume samples and subscription cards. As a result, many complained about AOL's intrusiveness.

As in the past, the marketing campaign is aimed at winning over a more mainstream American audience that may not have much experience online. To the online giant, this market remains more appealing than the "early adopter" population of more seasoned Netizens, who generally sign on with an ISP and understand how to navigate the Web, said Barry Schuler, president of AOL Interactive Services.

Schuler noted that the combination of an oversaturation of the early adapter market and a more apparent mainstream drive to get online has bolstered AOL's belief in appealing to middle America rather than the techno-elite.

"It's really come into the mainstream," said Schuler about the Internet. "A few years ago, we would never consider putting a kiosk in a bank. Now we've got online banking."

In response to this increased demand, the firm is going with its tried-and-true marketing scheme. When the online service adopted the strategy years ago, it ranked third in market share after CompuServe and Prodigy. At that time, spending heavily on its first marketing drive was a considerable risk. Since then, the carpet-bombing campaigns have not been as tense.

"It's a different market than the carpet-bombing campaigns from several years ago," said Schuler.

But Schuler admitted that "it's still stressful because you want to keep the ball rolling. You can't ever get complacent in this market."