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Author: TMFTomG Big red star, 1000 posts Old School Fool CAPS All Star Add to my Favorite Fools Ignore this person (you won't see their posts anymore) Number: of 52491  
Subject: Improving the AOL Experience. Date: 8/6/2002 4:25 PM
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As a weary shareholder and a guy who increasingly uses America Online less each month, I thought I'd share my ten suggestions for improving AOL. Perhaps Jon Miller and his team will find something useful here. Perhaps not.

I wouldn't bother sharing if I didn't think the mistakes at AOL-TW were correctable. While I was an outspoken opponent of the merger, I've come to accept it as the reality. Love it or leave it. And while I think AOL has made things difficult for themselves all by themselves, we should all recognize that Time Warner brought more than $20 billion of debt into this marriage.

Both companies have improvements to make. The ten ideas below are focused more specifically on improving the America Online side of the business.

#1 Attempt to Make People Like You

We'll start with the obvious. Make people like you.

AOL is one of the nation's premiere brands. But for years their image has been eroding. James Carville knows about campaign building (whatever you think of his politics). At an unforgettable speech at Howard University a half dozen years back he said, "Give your organization one line to rally around. Not two dozen position papers. One line. Make it believable. Make it honest. Make it count." America Online needs that line. . which their leaders know, their employees know, their customers believe, and their business partners want to participate in.

The company's culture should reflect its LOVE FOR ITS MEMBERS. Its desire to create wonderful services FOR ITS MEMBERS. A phone call over to CEO Jim Sinegal at Costco would help. Membership means bending over backwards to create a sense of belonging and of significance. It has been a long time since I felt that AOL cared about that. They can again; I hope they do.

2. Use Subsidiaries to Maximal Advantage

The most shocking feature of the merger has been the nearly complete lack of synergy formed between these companies. As outsiders, we continue reading that the Time Warner guys hate the AOL guys, and vice versa. Leadership needs to step up now and say, "Guess what, team, the in-fighting has our stock below $10. We are missing a ton of opportunities. Working together is now a priority. If you don't get onboard with that, you will be fired." Simple. Say it. And act on it. No bashing between the two that leads to dis-integration anymore.

From there, please, for heaven's sakes, integrate AOL with CNN, HBO, Time, People, InStyle and Fortune in a way that actually improves, rather than just promotes, all of the programming. I will not blather on about the numerous ways to use AOL's community to benefit CNN, HBO, Time, People, InStyle and Fortune and vice versa. Given how actively I see women reading InStyle, people talking about Six Feet Under (or, in my case, the HBO movie Gathering Storm), I simply can't believe there aren't substantial creative opportunities to integrate the programming for collective benefit (and profit for both AOL and TW).

3. Simplify The AOL Mainscreen.

The mainscreen is a cluttered mess. Right now, I see stories on West Nile Virus, the discovery of ancient skulls, VW's futuristic car, Britney Spears, a pop quiz, 67% off diamonds, wedding gifts I can buy, and a promotion for watching Connie Chung tonight. How about we go with three things and my e-mailbox. I actually think increased usage, increased membership, AND increased advertising will be the result.

4. Get People Involved.

I think this is the great tragedy of the last few years at America Online. From what I can tell, community has come to mean virtually nothing. If we lived in a perfect world, I would accept AOL flushing away all its community ties in order to make more money on advertising. We do not live in a perfect world. The America Online service can and should make the world a better place. (And the company should proudly promote its successes.)

Why is America Online not using its 35 million members to link together support groups for cancer patients, to bring together retirees, to improve local participation in government, to integrate the Amber Alert system, to get people involved.

In most cases, I'm speaking about nothing more than promoting this involvement. AOL needn't set-up organizations or take on liabilities. They need only show, through their mainscreen and their communications and their marketing that the service is all about keeping people involved. That's why the Internet has blossmed; people get involved in ways they can't with other media.

The AOL service of the last three years strongly suggests that the company has forgotten this. Membership is about involvement.

5. Polls: The Voice of the People

America Online could have the most voted-on polls in the history of the planet. Right now, their mainscreen should read, "Should America go to war with Iraq?" They would get a million votes. That result, though not scientific, would be repeated by major media outlets (including AOL-TW properties).

A daily poll on a critical topic would create buzz. It would affect policy. It could make Major League Baseball realize, with even greater clarity, that they might be on the verge of choking their sport for ten years. A poll would give AOL's 35 milliom members a voice. To the extent it created buzz and changed perception. . it would really matter to vote in that poll.

6. Get E-mail Filtering, and Fast

Please, please, please improve the filtering on e-mail. The junk mail is relentless!

AOL has no basic filtering software a la Microsoft Outlook. Back when Microsoft started into e-mail, I thought, "Hey, I'll never use that over my AOL mail. It's clunky." Now, with filters, Microsoft Outlook is a MUCH more pleasant experience. When I go to my AOL email, I almost always grimace and frown, first. This cannot be allowed to continue. This seems to me an absolute priority.

Establish filters and make AOL the preferred e-mail service again.

7. Sell Great Services

America Online is in a unique position to sell services. No one else has such carriage.

However, AOL has abused that power -- seemingly promoting anything and everything. With their regular subscription fees, AOL has the economic positioning to not have to hurt member experience with junk marketing.

I recommend hiring an ombudsman working with a few focus groups to determine what would be the greatest services to offer AOL members. Then negotiate discounts for your members and structure a big advertising deal around those deals.

Start by going to a Warren Buffett company -- Geico. Then pick the most respected companies and services out there. These come off the top of my head: Costco, Home Depot, Ralph Lauren, Neiman Marcus (make your female members real happy), Mercedes, Hershey's. I'm sure there are more and better examples of what I'm getting at. Find the quality, get discounts on it, provide that to your members.

By giving AOL members a preferred status with these companies. . and driving millions of them to your partners, you will make everyone happy. That turns a triple profit: AOL gets paid for driving members; AOL's business partner gets tons of new customers; AOL's customers get an advantage. The love for AOL, I suspect, would increase wildly.

8. A Letter from Steve Case

I think it is time for Steve Case to resurface. . but I think it should happen exclusively on AOL. Bring the business community in to read Case's thoughts. Return to a monthly letter from the Chairman that is genuine, self-critical, and that feels like a letter from Warren Buffett. It needn't be more than an honest look at the past, present and future of AOL. No spin needed. Buffett doesn't spin. The best leaders don't. They present themselves as people. . working through problems to solutions, erring along the way, but always working for the best of the people around them.

9. Cut Here, Build There

I'd recommend going back through the numbers on all the various sub-services on AOL and reducing or eliminating services that a) don't generate activity and b) don't feel that relevant.

AOL should feel much more integrated than it does. Right now, I continue to feel the "Okay, sling it up there" mentality at work in AOL programming. The goal should be to reduce selection and improve selection. Any category that does not feel like a cohesive program with intense audience participation should be culled. It is okay for community to look a little messy. It is unacceptable for programming to look messy.

Once you've taken these steps, then truly build on success rather than crowding it in on all sides with mediocrity (as an aside, I believe that AOL had this opportunity with The Motley Fool five years ago. . but chose selection over focus on a company dedicated to quality of online experience).

10. Must-Have Internet

Create a programming committee who forces a very high standard across the service. Just like must-see television. . . the world is waiting for must-have Internet. The sparks are out there already. For some, it's The Drudge Report. For some, it's ESPN. For some, it's The Motley Fool. For some, it's eBay. For some, it's Amazon. Rather than trying to duplicate these services. . . be your own service. Test and find what works. Integrate the above services, where appropriate. But build the service out organically to create a must-have Internet experience. I truly am sorry to say this, and do so without a hint of schadenfreude : America Online is nowhere near must-have status today.

Conclusion

Again, I don't suggest that all ten ideas are brilliant. But if even just a few of them help AOL improve its service, 1) I'll be a proud veteran member, 2) a happier shareholder, and 3) someone who truly believes that America Online improves the lives of its members. I once was all of those. Today all three are murky to me. From here, I could go either way.

Tom Gardner, Fool
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