Readers Respond to “The Decline and Fall of AOL,” published July 13, 2006.
I want to share a couple of items to the history of AOL’s success. Jan Brandt left Field Publications as Advertising Director just at the time that Primedia, then K-III Communications, bought Field and included it with the Direct Marketing Group, of which Newbridge Communications (formerly Macmillan Book Clubs) was the anchor. Gryphon Editions was a division of Newbridge. I think the Field acquisition occurred in 1991. I also think Jan went to AOL directly from Field. Newfield, as it was renamed, slowly began to deteriorate. In 1993 K-III’s senior management, headed by Bill Reilly, directed Newbridge to review the situation, and I was directed to look at the direct marketing results and interview the top marketing people. I found the businesses were overall in pretty bad shape. Newfield had been doing everything they could to make their numbers, which is mandatory for a highly leveraged company. However, doing so papered over some developing problems. I found the staff was very capable. Generally, they were aggressive direct marketers, significantly more aggressive than we at Newbridge were. For whatever reason, K-III decided a housecleaning was in order. The Newfield people became demoralized and several very good people, chief among them Dan McLoughlin (I may have misspelled his last name)went down to work for Jan. You are right that these folks worked incredibly long hours, and they became incredibly wealthy for their hard work. In addition, I learned at the DMA in New Orleans in 1997 (I think) that AOL was going to completely abandon the hourly rate structure for a flat monthly fee. There had been numerous complaints and even legal challenges to the hourly billing. This billing change and the aggressive marketing of Jan, Dan and their colleagues really sent AOL into the stratosphere. The other thing that AOL had going for it was that it was the best ISP available for dial-up. AOL has always been very easy to use, computer savvy. I think the Time-Warner/AOL merger really took AOL’s eye off the ball in terms of being a premier Internet company. At K-III and Newbridge we used to refer to synergy as the “S” word. It was never to be used. At the time of the merger, the stock market had highly valued AOL because of its growth curve. However, the seeds of its decline were already germinating, just as Newfield’s decline had not been readily apparent. There was tremendous gamesmanship in terms of making the numbers. Bob Pittman’s nickname was Bob “Pitchman.” Frankly, I’m surprised that AOL’s subscriber base has remained as high as it is. There is no reason that someone with high-speed Internet access has AOL. My reason for continuing is that my small, New Jersey, customer service office strongly prefers AOL to the Verizon mailbox. Also, many of our customers know our AOL address. AOL needs to make a fundamental change to keep high-speed users. While permitting the service to be absolutely free is great for me, I think it will likely be the end of AOL as we know it. Is AOL better than Yahoo or MSN? No. I don’t think Jan or Dan or anyone can put this business together again. Time-Warner really needs to spin AOL off as a free-standing operation again, and maybe they can merge with someone like Google to bring them back up to speed.
I’ve thought for quite some that AOL was the Darth Sidious of the Internet, but the first part of your article almost had me wishing they could make a comeback. But that recording was Un-buh-lievable. I could feel my blood pressure rise as I listened. I’ve long since quit trying to get the last remnants of AOL off my hard drive. But I may have another go at it just for spite.
Don’t get me started. I figured out America Online was on a slippery downslope a long time ago, even before I unloaded their once high-flying stock which I owned through five splits and gained a quite obscene profit when it came time to say Sayonara. For me, the end was predicted when I read in a newspaper that Steve Case dreamed of returning to his native Hawaii to buy a sugar plantation. And the death knell clanged loudly when the Virginia Legislature passed a bill—surely bought and paid for by AOL—that imposed the most draconian penalties for people who send unsolicited commercial e-mail. about Spam! AOL is the biggest Spammer of all. You can’t open AOL without having to delete two—sometimes three!—uninvited commercial messages just to be able to see the screen. And your signoff is always delayed by yet another unwanted, uninvited and unsolicited commercial message. AOL sets a bad example for ISPs everywhere. Now, they all want to have their cake and eat it, too, by claiming on the one hand that they have the authority to ban certain e-mail based on content and by claiming on the other hand that they are a “common carrier” with no liability for the content of e-mail that goes through their pipe. remember, too, that the Internet belongs to the American people who paid for its invention by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). AOL and the ISPs paid nothing for the Internet’s development, and their complaints are truly an amazing example of chutzpah. such as those in Virginia won’t stand up to constitutional scrutiny, which explains why they’ve never been tested in federal court. ISPs continue to impose their own definition of “Spam” to deny service to e-mailers, and continue to lobby their legislatures for Virginia-like that the Internet is First Amendment-protected territory (see Reno vs. ACLU). More lately, we’ve been astounded by the super-hypocritical spectacle of AOL trying to emulate the Greenway toll road that runs alongside their Taj Mahal-like headquarters campus in Dulles, Va. Just like the Virginia Toll road Authority, they want to provide “express lane” service for Spammers who are willing to pay an extra toll. Under AOL’s plan, the Spam will be allowed to sneak through AOL’s highly vaunted Spam detection that supposedly protects its subscribers from unsolicited commercial e-mail.
Watch how quickly all the other ISPs will leap on this. I always knew the ISP complaints about how bulk e-mail was consuming valuable broadband would be abandoned as soon as the ISPs figured out a way to profit from it. If nothing else, your WIIFM rule’s most usefulness is in predicting human behavior.
—Ed Zuckerman, editor, Government Policy Newslinks, but you may describe me as a notorious and fearless Spammer 🙂
Even in the early days when AOL was mailing disks fast and furious they were alienating subscribers. They could not handle the growth. It was often impossible to get online, so much so that AOL promised subscribers to stop marketing for awhile, which they did not do. That broken promise and the inability to get online unless you dialed and redialed is when subscribers starting leaving. It is the reason I left within the first year of service—never to return.
Congratulations on a great article! It is good to see that someone finally has given credit to Jan Brandt. Perhaps this is not the first time, but it is the first time I’ve seen anyone who understood her contribution to the Internet—not just AOL—accurately describe what and how she did what she did so very effectively. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she did it by following in the customer-centered tradition of Dick Benson et al, not by trying to “fool” the consumer. I have often thought of her—where is she now?
Your column on AOL’s rise and fall was terrific (as was your last column, by the way!). Since so often I’ve written only when I had a bone to pick, I think it appropriate to write today, when you’ve managed to utterly delight and educate me twice in a row. Thank you! You may have discovered that converting AOL e-mail into something you can actually read with other programs (e.g., Outlook Express, Eudora, Thunderbird, or import into a word processor) is nigh on impossible. This is something I hated about AOL starting a long time ago, and it was such a shock when I realized that they alone make the process so difficult. I was using Eudora for several years, up until a few weeks ago, and mail sent that way is easy to move and convert. I’m with Thunderbird now (an add-on to the Mozilla Firefox browser), and it works the same. I guess Outlook Express does too. So ... it takes a bit of hunting, but there are several companies that sell (for $30 to $60) programs that specifically translate AOL e-mail into a more useable form. Your computer guy probably already knows all this, but if not, I hope this hint proves helpful to you. And by the way: have you thought about getting your own name as a domain, as I’ve done? I know of a number of writers who’ve done this. It’s very cheap. I pay about $15 or $20 a year for my domain name and five mailboxes. That’s in addition to paying for Internet access (cable, DSL, or a dial-up service like Earthlink). I’m surprised you haven’t purchased “dennyhatch.com” or “dennyhatch.org.” In any case, thank you again for two great pieces. I’ve duly printed both of them out to circulate to friends and colleagues.
Maybe you and I should buy long term PUT options on Time Warner and make money as they lose money. On the other hand, Time Warner is a diversified company and losses at AOL may be offset by gains elsewhere. The reason they are thinking of giving away the service is that many, many people are switching to broadband DSL and cable connections and dumping AOL. AOL is firmly rooted in the dial up access business and haven’t changed with the times. Another idea is to simply switch your e-mail address to one of the domains you own, like dennyhatch.com or methodmarketing.com. Then you only have to make the switch once and you are done switching forever. You can do whatever you want with your own domain, and you don’t have to worry about AOL or Yahoo screwing you up.
“True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”
Repeatedly I read your stuff and think that.
Thank you, thank you for your kind words. BTW, which Pope was it ? Pius? John-Paul? Benedict? Cheers.
Drayton Bird replies to DH:
Alexander, you comedian—as in 18th century poet. My favourite of all he wrote was something for the collar on the Queen’s pet dog:
“I am her Majesty’s dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?”
What a trivial mind I have!
Now that Camilla is officially a member of The Royal Family, she has been given the chore of caring for the Queen’s corgis whenever Liz is otherwise engaged.
But Camilla becomes irritated whenever the pampered little dogs bark, and this has inspired her to invent a product to deter them, which will soon be on the market in Great Britain.
It’s a special dog dish which is angled in a certain way so that when the dog drinks, the water passes down the throat very quickly, thus for a few moments afterwards, the dog is so occupied with the new sensation that it forgets to bark.
Care to hazard a guess as to the name of this invention? Why, of course she has dubbed it ‘Camilla’s Barker Bowls.’
There is a technical solution to your problem. Begin by sending an e-mail noting your address change to everyone in your address book. Then stop using AOL’s client to pick up your e-mail. There are other clients—which store your mail locally rather than on AOL’s servers—which can access your mail. Then, set up that client to auto-respond to e-mail received from the AOL address with your new address. Chances are, that e-mail client will also be able to pick up your yahoo mail. Over time, this should solve your problem. But it will take time.
—Mary E Tyler