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AOL ends marketing scheme, jilting users

Just a month after paying $495 to become marketers for the online giant, recruiters are confused by the program's sudden cancelation.

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When Ron Cordas paid $495 to become a recruiter for AOL Select, a "multilevel marketing" program similar to sales schemes made famous by Amway, he felt the fee was paltry compared to the potentially high returns of sitting at the top of a sales structure for a respectable brand.

But just a month after applying for the program and paying the fee to become a "senior training manager," Cordas and others who signed on to AOL Select were abruptly notified that the service has been put on hold. Leaving them--as well as their recruited sales representatives?scratching their heads and fearing the end of a potentially lucrative sales scheme.

"I would like an answer right now," said Cordas. "The company is not accepting phone calls, and no one is commenting. All we know is that AOL is ceasing involvement in this joint venture."

AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose would not comment on why the program was apparently canceled because it is against AOL policy to "get into the specific details of its marketing programs."

But Primrose said that Monument Communications, a multilevel marketing company that is AOL's partner in the venture, would refund these members. "Monument has told us that anyone who applied to be a part of this program has been refunded," she said.

Monument executives could not be reached for comment.

Rolled out in mid-January, AOL Select allows members to generate commissions whenever they, or their recruited sales representatives, sell AOL subscriptions. The more representatives one signs on, the more commission one reaps.

AOL Select was designed to target consumers who have "resisted getting online due to fear or lack of information" by training sales representatives to "demonstrate the service directly to friends and family who otherwise might not consider getting online," according to a January 14 press release from Monument announcing the service.

"A person-to-person demonstration of this product will plow through the most common barriers and make it even more clear to people why AOL is the leader," Richard Warren, president and cofounder of Monument Communications, said in the release.

In addition, the program also would offer representatives to sell other products and services, including DirecTV satellite television service, IBM Aptiva computers, Metrocall wireless email, and AOL Select Visa credit cards.

The program was to be advertised over AOL's Web sites, such as AOL.com and its Digital City local guides, and also on Netscape's Netcenter.

Since the service was recently pulled, however, the AOL Select Web site has changed its name to "Online Select."

Members were informed of the change when they received a February 5 email signed by Monument cofounders Richard Warren and Stephen Kann, according to Janet Wilson, a high-level "presidential founder" candidate for the program and president of her own marketing firm, Leap. Wilson said that no further information was presented, and that all checks and money orders would be returned.

Despite the abrupt about-face, Wilson remains optimistic that the program will resume. She said that the name change to Online Select was intended to give the program a competitive edge over other vendors bidding for exposure in the program.

"AOL has certain vendors who pay them to be on AOL, to be a keyword, or to advertise on AOL," said Wilson. "If it's called AOL Select, [the program] would be tied to using [AOL] vendors instead of getting a competitive bid from other companies. We want to open ourselves up to use any vendors we want, rather than ones that are tied with the AOL name."

Marketers who signed on remain bitter that no explanation as to the program's fate has been offered by either company.

"The whole reason why I got involved with them was because they were AOL," Cordas said. "When you get a credible company involved, it takes the pressure off because nine out of ten network marketing companies go out of business in a year."

"Just the name of AOL attracted me," added Glen VanWormer, a network marketer from upstate New York who runs The Offramp. "I thought this was for real because they used their logo. I went out quickly, talked to people I did business with, and within a week I had around 200 people who signed up."

VanWormer praised the sales model, given the strong AOL brand, and its distribution potential over AOL's Web sites.

"You go in, get a Web site, and for those people who originally came in to program, called 'founders,' [they] were going to do some banner ads on Netscape and AOL to drive new businesses to our Web sites. I've never seen a response like this ever."

But without an explanation and faced with the possibility of backlash among his recruits, VanWormer is infuriated. "I feel betrayed that this happened," he said. "My reputation is on the line and there is no explanation.

"They like went out and grabbed several recruits and pulled it away. It was kind of like a dirty trick," he said.

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