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Celebrities sound off in AOL e-mail contest

Customers of America Online will hear celebrities utter the famous "You've got mail" sound bite in an upcoming contest.

    Customers of AOL Time Warner's America Online service will hear celebrities utter the famous "You've got mail" sound bite in an upcoming contest.

    The promotion, set to begin April 30, will run about a month and feature three unnamed celebrities a week. AOL will also post a clue about each celebrity and award prizes to e-mail users who can identify each mystery announcer.

    "One of the things that AOL does incredibly well is market itself," said John Corcoran, an analyst at CIBC World Markets.

    He adds that the savvy, humorous promotion will probably not generate more e-mail traffic, but will help garner more publicity for the media giant.

    AOL added its last million subscribers in just 39 days, an astounding rate, according to Corcoran. "How do they do it? Little promotions like this," he said, adding that the sum of AOL's little promotions has created a marketing force of nature.

    "That's how you keep the snowball rolling downhill faster while it grows bigger," he said. AOL now claims just over 29 million subscribers.

    Long known for its marketing prowess, AOL is pushing hard to increase its subscriber roster as its parent aims to meet ambitious earnings projections this year. AOL Time Warner has predicted earnings excluding certain charges to hit $11 billion for 2001, a target the newly merged company has stood by despite a deterioration in the advertising market.

    The company has so far weathered the downturn better than most, posting strong earnings and revenue growth for the first quarter. AOL Time Warner executives have said they are considering raising the base subscription rate of $21.95 a month for the online service, although analysts said such a move would likely not come before the end of the second quarter, at the earliest.

    In the meantime, AOL is sticking to what it knows best.

    Clues in the upcoming voice-recognition contest will come in text form. For example: "She studies with the American Ballet Theater, has played a dog on stage, and wore black on her wedding day." Winners get the chance to win a Mazda Miata Roadster, a trip to the Blockbuster Movie Awards, or 52 free movie rentals from Blockbuster.

    AOL ran a similar promotion in 1997 that included the voices of Mick Jagger, Mike Myers and Rosie O'Donnell. The new promotion will also feature celebrities saying their own version of AOL's "Welcome" and "Goodbye" voice messages.

    AOL first used the "You've got mail" greeting in 1989, featuring the voice of Elwood Edwards, whose wife worked at AOL as a customer service representative. The phrase was further seared into people's minds with the 1998 movie "You've Got Mail" staring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

    Corcoran believes that the company cannot continue to grow at its current pace indefinitely.

    "They can't keep growing like this forever," he said.

    But he points out that AOL shows few signs of slowing down, as it continues to add a sizable number of subscribers per month even though the percentage increases are falling.