AOL: Convenience is king

President Bob Pittman says AOL needs to make its online offerings more convenient than the offline world.

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
3 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Convenience is still king in the eyes of Robert Pittman, America Online president and chief operating officer, and anything deemed inconvenient could face banishment.

During his keynote speech today at the Direct Marketing Association's annual conference, Pittman said AOL needs to make its online offerings more convenient than what is already available in the offline world. And if it can't find a more convenient way to offer the services, it probably won't offer them at all.

For instance, the standard phone is still more convenient than using a Web-based phone, Pittman said.

He hinted that a number of projects in development, including a proposed IP telephony offering dubbed "AOL Phone," may not be worth pushing to its members or investing considerable resources to market it.

"We can't figure out how to be any more convenient than, 'Hello,'" he said. "The phone company has done a great job. We're not going to beat it."

Pittman also ruled out having AOL broadcast entertainment programming on the PC as a way to win TV viewers. "We're not going to offer TV on a PC," he said.

Pittman's statements reflect the company's focus on garnering a more mainstream audience by marketing its service more like a consumer appliance than a high-tech tool. Instead of attracting the Web savvy to its service, AOL has primarily focused on building up an audience of users unfamiliar with the Internet.

For example, in an effort to build its mainstream subscriber base AOL undertook a notorious "carpet bombing" campaign to distribute floppy discs containing AOL software. It planted its discs in magazines, on airline flights, and on sports stadium seats.

In its resumed initiative AOL announced it would plant AOL 4.0 CDs in cereal boxes, bank kiosks, and gas stations, among other areas highly trafficked by consumers.

AOL has enjoyed the fruits of marketing to this audience, as evidenced by its 13 million member base, its multimillion dollar site hosting deals, and its strong stock performance. It is this audience that seeks AOL's "convenience in a box," Pittman said.

Accordingly, Pittman maintained it was more important for AOL to listen to the mainstream market than the vocal "hobbyist" population of computer enthusiasts who used AOL religiously.

"We do have people whose computer is their hobby--not a tool to do something, not a means to an end, but is the end," he said. "You know these people as the people who don't have a life."

During a question-and-answer session, Pittman also addressed concerns of privacy, an issue for which Netizens have criticized AOL in the past. In 1997, the company came under fire for making available user phone numbers to telemarketers, a move it rescinded after a few days of heavy negative publicity.

In a separate incident from earlier this year, the Navy discharged an officer Timothy McVeigh after a superior officer discovered McVeigh had labeled his AOL user profile marital status as "gay." The sailor was ordered discharged after an officer called AOL and asked for the AOL member's identity to be revealed.

Despite previous violations of even its own privacy policy, Pittman maintained that AOL is committed to protecting user privacy, saying that AOL would not "stalk" its members because it would not be good business to do so.

Privacy is at the top of the agenda for many ISPs as Congress threatens to regulate the industry. Industry leaders, including AOL, have been pushing self-regulating initiatives in an effort to stave off laws.