Friday, February 10, 2006

AOL - You've Got Free Mail?



"The e-mail in-box is a potentially dangerous place. There is a tremendous need for a class of certified e-mail that can convey to consumers that a message is authentic." Richard Gingras, chief executive, Goodmail

So it seems AOL is thinking of charging organizations to send bulk email. It's been a long time coming. Where do I stand on this issue? Between a rock and a hard place.

I've been with AOL since its infancy. First as a paying member in the late 80's. Then as a volunteer in the early 90's on the 'remote staff' team, hosting chats, overseeing message boards, helping to build AOL Community. Eventually I came on board as a full time paid employee.

To put some perspective on my AOL years, in 1994 I found a 14 year old whiz kid online and with his parents permission brought him along as a volunteer, an intern and a paid contractor while I climbed the corporate ladder -- and he finished high school and college. Today he's a full time AOL employee climbing that ladder himself at the ripe old age of 26.

Time flies when you're reinventing the wheel.

Just as Microsoft Windows made the personal computer accessible to the average Joe, AOL's clear, intuitive interface made the online world available to just about anybody. Get a disk, let it install itself on your computer and Bingo! You're connected to a vast pool of humanity.

People signed up in droves. Typing like mad to every Tom, Dick and Harriet all over the country. In real time. In the privacy of their homes. Often in lascivious ways. The impact was stunning. Email was rudimentary but oh so easy to use. Instant messaging was a revelation.

Originally the company was housed in a small office building in Vienna, VA. Geeks and Wharton grads roamed the halls together in shorts, jeans and tee shirts, throwing around Frisbees, Nerf footballs and ideas -- and making Internet history.

Those were AOL's glory days. Innovation was king, and we seemed to go from version 2.0 to 8.0 in a blink. Today there's version 9.0 SE. Security, parental controls, virus protection, spam blocking. The works. Millions of emails and IM's fly through cyberspace every day.

As the Internet exploded and the company grew, the line between geeks and grads became more finely drawn. Corporate Culture reared it's ugly head. Slowly but surely conference tables replaced ping pong tables. A huge new office complex was built in Dulles, VA. The Bottom Line became the order of the day.

A nasty rumor began cropping up on a regular basis: AOL would soon charge users for email. Every year it seemed imminent, and the rumblings would begin. Then management would announce There Will Be No Charge for AOL Email. And the online populace went back to their keyboards.

But times change, circumstances change, bottom lines change. Corporations and organizations discovered the marketing Mecca of bulk email. Just as offline commercial commerce thrives on direct mail, so online marketing mavens began cashing in on the mass emailing bonanza.

Now AOL wants a piece of the organizational email cash cow. Non profits are howling. MoveOn.org is organizing a petition to send a message to AOL.

Petition: "AOL, don't charge non-profit civic and political organizing groups to guarantee their emails get delivered to members. Email is a vital tool for regular people to have a voice in our communities and our democracy."
Their rationale:
"AOL is not used to massive citizen outrage. When thousands of AOL users sign a petition, AOL will begin to understand that they face a huge customer rebellion."
Sorry, but MoveOn doesn't get it. And they will lose this battle.

AOL is lean and mean now, and especially with a dwindling user base must find other sources of revenue. Plus, AOL and Time Warner have never responded to "massive citizen outrage." They weigh the risk-reward ratio and let the almighty dollar decide the outcome.

Their rationale in charging bulk mailers to send email makes sense. It costs AOL money to deliver email and to filter out spam. Why not pass some of that cost on to those sending the highest volume and at the same time, legitimize their offerings?

I'm just old enough to vaguely remember (or maybe I was just told about) the 10 cent postage stamp. Now it costs 39 cents to mail a letter. Still less for bulk mailings. Hardly a huge jump in almost 50 years.

The online audience is much more vast and readily available to direct email. We ask the New York Times, Overstock.com, political and religious organizations and a host of special interest groups to send us their newsletters and circulars. For the most part, it doesn't cost us a dime.

Why then should MoveOn.org expect us to rise up in anger at the prospect that AOL will charge them to send us email? Unless of course they plan to pass some of that cost on to us.


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2 Comments:

Blogger David Goldenberg said...

Skype is going public. Skype allows VOIP for free, now including video transmission with audio, so that I can call anyone anywhere in the world if he or she is connected to the internet. So what’s going to happen to AT&T, and all the other phone companies? I already have all my connections to the outside world, inbound and outbound, through cable—internet, TV, and phone. It’s cheaper and totally reliable.
Things have indeed changed since you paid 10 cents for a stamp, Sally. And the companies that provide the best service cheaply are going to win. AOL is no longer in that boat, hasn’t been for some time. Witness the attempt by Time/Warner to erase any semblance of cohesion as hard as they can.
Is this good for the American consumer in the long run? If you think the Wal-Mart monopoly of low prices and cheap foreign labor is just what your bottom line ordered, then yes. If you are concerned about international markets and the worldwide standard of living—and how many of us are?—then maybe not.
Coupla years ago Ted Turner said in a speech that there would ultimately be 3 big cable companies doling out all our interaction needs—entertainment, shopping, and of course, news. He didn’t think that was so good. With Fox News’s competition trying to become clones in order to reap some of the ratings, I don’t think it’s so good either. Won’t be any alternative sources for information left.
In short Sally, I see your point. When you get something for nothing, that’s usually what it’s worth—but in this case there are many ways for the internet providers to reap income as they swallow up other modes of communication, like the phone companies and the music and video providers. And I agree—as long as they don’t pass the cost along to me, oh WAIT!!—to late, they already did and are.

6:00 PM  
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1:51 PM  

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