RIP AIM: A History of Online Chat and What’s Next for Marketers

December 2, 2017

AIM

LOL. BRB. G2G.

If you’re a millennial like myself, you probably remember these abbreviations rising to popularity during your youth. People of all ages have watched this sort of internet shorthand become a pervasive part of our language in the years since.

For this, we largely have another three-letter acronym to thank: AIM, also known as AOL Instant Messenger.

The pioneering app, with its distinctive running yellow stick figure logo, first popularized online chat for the masses back in the late 1990s. Featured initially as part of America Online’s widely adopted internet service, and then as a standalone product, AIM made the previously niche world of instant messaging accessible and fun, with jingles and Away Messages and Buddy Lists and more.

Now, it is G2G time for AIM, which will officially be shutting down on December 15th after a 20-year run. In honor of the revolutionary app signing off, we thought we’d reflect a bit on the history and future of online chat, particularly as they pertain to the world of marketing.

The Rise and Fall of AIM

The birth of online chat traces back nearly a half-century. Talkomatic was created in 1973 by two programmers at the University of Illinois, a rudimentary text communication system where messages were broadcast letter-by-letter as messages were composed.

Several variations would emerge in the coming decades, but obviously the internet didn’t really catch on until the mid-90s, when AOL was spreading across the nation along with its abundant trial discs. The company’s instant messaging program came about as a skunkworks project among a group of engineers, one initially met by resistance from above.

But the app quickly caught fire, especially once it became available to users outside of the ISP, eventually reaching 18 million simultaneous users. AIM beat most of the field in introducing new features such as file transfers and voice chat. But over time, usage would wane as other online chat software kept pushing the envelope while subscription-driven AOL remained stymied by monetization struggles.

Once social media networks grew into prominence with their own dedicated in-app chat functions, AIM steered toward obsolescence. A 2011 report suggested that its share of the instant messenger market had dropped to 0.7 percent, and that figure is surely lower today, making the decision to discontinue a perfectly understandable one.

AIM’s Enduring Legacy in Marketing

While AOL Instant Messenger will soon be extinct, its impact on the social web will not be forgotten. Dynamics that many of us first encountered through this app now form the fabric of online communications, and will continue to do so going forward.

In particular, five innovations that AIM helped usher in will help forge the path for marketing into 2020 and beyond:

Connecting Over Distance

Back when AOL and AIM became popular, cell phones were far from ubiquitous. Long distance phone calls were still a pricey proposition. Suddenly, with online chatting, distance became immaterial. You could have a dialogue with someone across the country -- or across the world -- without worrying about incurring additional charges. This was a game-changing freedom.

Today, we tend to take it for granted. I talk with people around the planet every day and don’t think much of it. But global vision will undoubtedly sustain as an imperative for commerce and customer engagement. That entails things like geo-targeting, language translation, contextual cues based on location, and more.

Away Messages

These customized static messages, which would serve as placeholders on your account while logged in but away from the keyboard (or, should I say, AFK), essentially served as the precursor for microblogging, LinkedIn updates, Facebook statuses, tweets, and so forth. They were brief morsels of user-generated content that readers could find and consume at their own leisure.

The practice has proven to be a revelation for marketers and consumer research firms, who can now explore publicly available platforms to learn first-hand about people, their interests, their frustrations, their preferences.

Real-Time Communications

While the Away Message had its charm, the real magic of AIM was in its instantaneous interactions. If you logged in and saw your friend’s name on the Buddy List, you could open up a chat window and be engaged in a snappy back-and-forth discussion immediately -- no need to wait for an email response.

This is one area where the business world is still catching up. Live chat functionality on B2B websites is becoming more common but it’s not close to universal. In this age of “now, now, now” we need to be ready to engage customers on their terms and capitalize on moments of interest or curiosity. That’s why these kinds of tools can be extremely powerful.

On LinkedIn Messenger, we recently rolled out Active Status, enabling you to see when your connections are online so you can reach out. Consider it your professional Buddy List.

Privacy and Safety

This aspect proved somewhat problematic for AIM. There were no controls or approvals over who could add you to their Buddy List, meaning anyone who knew your screen name could see when you were online, read your profile or status, etc. -- without you even necessarily being aware. This unchecked system harkens back to a more innocent time, I suppose, but now security is a central concern with any such software. Trust is vital.

Chatbots

Does the handle “SmarterChild” ring a bell? Many old-school AIM users will recall this early iteration of the chatbot, with its automated responses to a variety of different inputs. You could debate philosophical questions, get the weather forecast, or inquire about the news. SmarterChild, and similar conventions of the time, were limited in their scope but groundbreaking in their own right, laying the foundation for A.I. and smart assistants as we now know them.

In an interview with Forbes several years back, Shawn Carolan of Menlo Ventures -- an early investor in in Apple’s Siri technology -- cited SmarterChild as one of the things that convinced him this frontier was legit, noting that it “already had 10 million users and was getting a billion messages a day … The market was speaking.”

Of course, the market keeps speaking, and smart marketers will keep listening. Thanks to the advent of online chat programs like AIM and their modern successors, we now have plenty of ways to do so.

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