9 Ways to Success for AOL's AIM Based Social Network

I had the benefit of getting to hear J. Michael Kelly speak at a conference on Monday.  It was clear from his talk that AOL's announcement that it was going to try to build out a social network around AIM instant messenger was a priority for the company.  They definitely recognize that, regardless of their ability to monetize the system in the past, when you have 7 million simultaneous users on your product, it should be a core focus for product development.  While I've picked on AOL before,  I can't shake the feeling that this effort has a serious chance of success.  I like the idea that this is a social network based on some other activity--communication--whereas some of the other networks, like Friendster, are social networks for the sake of social networking.  Building connections as a byproduct of some other activity is always going to be more authentic.  AIM, through its buddy lists, was always a loose connection of micro networks and just a little duct tape is going to go a long way here if Umairanomics has anything to say for it. 

Of course, I have a few suggestions for the folks at AOL, but when do I ever not have something to say?

1) Solve spam.
AOL gets in trouble with spam too often for a company advertising itself as the safe place to play on the internet.  Its too easy for spammers to get fake IM accounts and send out notices about sexy singles in my neightborhood. This is especially confusing when real sexy singles are already IMing you on a regular basis.  (Ben Barren's got the same problem.)  Part of the problem, as I mention later, is that the platform is closed.  They should let someone develop an IM spam blocking network on top of it if they can't figure it out themselves.

2) Bring back the profile.

When I was in college, back before the bubble, AOL profiles were
MySpace and the Facebook.  (Kind of like the way that Netscape's Netcenter could have been Yahoo! had they realized that was the valuable asset and not the browser.) You used them to find people in your school ,
your neighborhood, or other people who liked Green Day.  That's how I
met Beth.  Ah, Beth.  Of course, Beth doesn't talk to me anymore, and
it seems fitting, because when AIM went standalone, they forgot to take
AOL profiles with them.  In a way, leaving those profiles to whither is
probably the biggest reason why AOL got so far behind in social
networking.  Profiles moved to the web eventually, but on other social
networks.  People liked updating their profiles and AOL should have
realized there was something more to that.  The thing that could make
an AOL profile so much more ubiquitous is that, unlike MySpace or
LinkedIn, the brand is pretty universal, and a good product would
pretty much appeal to anyone with a screename.  Plus, the penetration
of AIM and its buddy lists gives it a terrific natural advantage in
building out a social networking app.  Start small with AIM profiles
that have a URL and are just as customizable as MySpace and people will
come back.      

3) Build a presence platform.
I get my instant messages forwarded to my phone as texts when my desktop is idle. So, basicially, I'm reachable through AIM nearly 100% of the time. I can't say that for any other web service. That's a very valuable relationship to have with consumers.  Presence preferences could power a lot of other web services. If you add in email and phone information, your screename could be used as a personal ruleset for routing stock quotes, meeting updates, RSS, etc. Maybe apartment listings should hit me wherever I'm active, and if I'm not active anywhere, go to my email. But "hi" pings from friends should go somewhere else.  Letting the user calibrate all of those alerts from one place, their side, versus all of the sites they get alerts from, would make them a lot more manageable. This way, telling any service how and when you want to be reached, and by who, could be as easy as entering your AOL screename.

4. Open the platform.

Why doesn't AOL get aggressive and add a Yahoo and MSN plugin to their
client, like Trillian?  Let everyone talk to each other.  They are by
far the biggest network.  What's the worst that could happen?  Even if
they got blocked, they could spin it as if they're trying to be user
centric and the other two aren't.  If they were the only client out of
the big three to open up, they would probably see a nice bump in users.

In further embracing the open mantra, they should make it easier to
program bots and add-ins to the platform.  Let the community enhance
the richness of the software, just like Firefox has done.  My add-in
wishlist: IM spam blocker, CRM notetaking, and filesharing.

5. Pimp My AIM.
Every now and then, AIM tries to sneak one past the goalie on us.  Sometimes its a popup "Today" screen and other times its a bot or two.  Instead of treating the AIM client like a Trojan horse, AOL should build more opt-in functionality into the friendly confines of that little rectangle.  The combination of its ubiquity and the social buddy list data should enable a wide variety of services that we might want to add on from a menu, not get tricked into.  For example, they should partner with Pandora and turn AIM into a social music player.  Make it really easy for friends of mine to see the Rammstein+Depeche Mode+Orgy stream that I created on Pandora.  In fact, why stop there?  Turn AIM into a social rich media player, enabling me to share SNL clips and chat with people about the State of the Union address.  And, while we're at it, why not partner with Apple to make Quicktime the standard for the player, because almost everyone has either Quicktime or AIM. 

6. Remember my conversations.
Gtalk has a neat feature that archives my old conversations and puts me right back where I left off, even if I close the box.  This would be great for remembering things about new people, and great for AOL if they want to better contextually target users.  Google just announced that all your Gtalk conversations could be archived in your Gmail.  I think its a smart move if you're the leader in a space to be doing some of what Google is trying to do to make sure you don't get leapfrogged....  or at least carefully pay attention to it.

7. AIM everywhere
The whole web could easily get tied together in a social network by AIM.  Imagine how powerful a cookie on your computer would be combined an AIM status icon on my blog.  You could come to my blog and know instantly whether or not we knew each other through friends of friends on our buddy list.  No signing in, no inviting friends...just come to my page to see if we're connecte because your computer knows we're just one buddy list away from each other.  Extending AIM out of the desktop client onto the web is just the start.  It needs to get mobile, too.  I had a tough time figuring out how to get AIM on my phone and so I resort to just answering IMs forwarded as texts.  AOL should throw whatever resources it needs to get AIM on every phone, not just to ensure its position as a communications medium but as a platform as well.  At some point, people will want to text all their buddies within a mile radius to meet out at a bar...  And AOL needs to leave no mobile user sober in this scenario.

8. AIM Exchange/tag talk
Chat rooms, in my opinion, are clunky for conversation.  I chat on AIM and while I wouldn't mind getting into a few chatroom like discussions, I don't want to have to go anywhere else but my buddylist to do it.  Nor do I want to have to invite friends or wait to get invited.  Joining a chat should be as easy as IMing to a keyword.  So, I could have a NYC restaurants buddy that is just an ongoing conversation among anyone interested in the topic.  That's also why you need archived conversations.

9. Peer to peer
When you have as many desktop clients as AIM does, and you want to build something social, P2P seems like the infrastructure you should be building on.  Its only natural that people are going to want to share files and chat and, right now, a lot of people have both AIM and Skype on their desktop.  Is Skype a threat or an opportunity?  Should AOL partner with Skype to plug into AIM for VOIP?  One thing's for sure... If I were Yahoo or MSN I would be doing that.  I'm not as clear on the scenarios, but I think the time will come when the idea of having a piece of communications software on your desktop that isn't P2P will seem very quaint.

Thoughts?  Comments?  What should #10 be? 

Thanks for reading this far down.