On the AOL Journals advertising mini-brouhaha

aoljAnother day, another mini-brouhaha around an AOL service. As some of you might have been reading AOL’s blog platform, AOL Journals, has been dealing with a mini-brouhaha around the service.

Huge disclaimer: I’ve just met the folks running AOL Journals, and I’m not in charge of the group (some folks seem to think I am). At this point I don’t have any inside information on what is going on with AOL Journals. What follows are my observations and thoughts on the subject. If you’re with the press understand that I don’t speak for the company on this issue. Weblogs, Inc. is an operating company within AOL, and I’m the CEO of Weblogs, Inc. So, if you quote me in a story please make sure you put my comments in that context.

What happened: AOL added a big-old advertisement to the top of everyone’s blog on AOL Journals–without warning them in advance. These leaderboards (an IAB standard size) are fairly large, but not uncommon on the Internets (we have them at the top of all our blogs). Some bloggers were shocked when they had these advertisement sprung on them a week ago, and a small group of folks (< 100) defected from the service in protest.

From what I’ve read the service has 600,000 users so losing 100 isn’t a big deal on a pure numbers basis, however it’s bad from a PR standpoint and I would suspect these are some of the best users of the product. A similar protest happend over at Flickr when they started integrating the photosharing service with Yahoo’s other services. Now, we all know you shouldn’t run your business based on the vocal minority–but you certainly shouldn’t ignore them either. Your biggest critics are often your best source of advice. In fact, I always tell folks that your critics are basically giving you high-priced consulting for free. You should be thankful for their effort in helping make you a better person/company/service/etc.

Background: Many blog services are offered with two options: a) free with advertisements and b) paid without ads. The problem we have is that we’ve offered the service for free to everyone for a while and now we’ve changed that deal. Adding to the problem, from what I understand, is that right now we are not tracking who’s a paid AOL member and who’s a web-based user. Clearly the folks paying for AOL service should not have to have ads on their blogs. The folks who are getting free blogs *could* have advertisements on them, however they should at least have been given notice that this was going to happen. My homepage at MySpace has the same exact advertisement on it. However, it’s always been there so I don’t feel like someone has taken advantage of me when I look at it. My blog at Blogger.com is free and doesn’t have advertisements, but it does have the blogger promo bar up top, which I’m guess helps Google build a deeper relationship with users (i.e. it makes folks spend more time on Google services, which in turn makes Google money).

Update: We always had ads on free accounts as someone at AOL just told me. “Just as a clarification, we’ve had ads on blogs for non-paying-members since we opened up the product to allow non-paying-members to use it. So this change was for paying AOL members only. The overall point isn’t affected by this.”

What we did wrong: The main issues: a) the advertisements were added without user permission (just like the AIM buddies last week!) b) the adverisements were added without warning, and c) when the issue boiled up we had the PR department give the following canned statement:

“The decision to implement banner advertising on AOL Journals is consistent with our business and advertising practices.”

Now that was bad–really bad. We sound like we’re freakin’ robots, and bloggers do not want to talk to robots. They want to speak with a human being, preferably one who is also a blogger!

Look at how great a job Mena Trott at Six Apart has been doing with all the service problems over at Typepad and MoveableType. Their service has been sucking wind for months (background: here, here, here, and here ) and Mena basically fell on the sword. She *talked* to their customers about it. Heck, they even gave people refunds! Note, she didn’t send her PR person to handle the issue–she talked to her fellow bloggers! This wasn’t the first time either. When SixApart changed their pricing for MoveableType back in the day the blogging community went absolutly wild. Mena was brilliant in how she handled the venom, basically saying “our bad” and “we won’t ever do anything like that again.”

The result? Bloggers love Mena and they have forgiven SixApart for two huge mistakes. Mistakes that could have done major brand damage have actually turned into bonding experiences with the user base. People felt sorry for Mena and her crew at SixApart and sent letters of support! The blogosphere loves brutal honesty.

Why? Authenticity. Mena is authentically addressing the issues, and she has since day one. If her PR person gave a canned response SixApart users would have gotten even more upset. Frankly, Mena is the PR department for SixApart–she knows best how to talk to the customers and everyone over there gets that.

From what I can see, and I’ve only been here a month, we’ve got some work to do at AOL in terms of talking with our customer base. Frankly, most companies do so I’m not surprised at all. Adopting transparency is like getting pushed into an ice cold lake–it sucks at first, but after five minutes it’s invigorating.

As such, I’m pushing everyone here as hard as I can to start blogs and start talking with our customers. That’s why I’m tackling these issue here on my blog–to pull people out of their cubes and into the conversation. I’m sorry if the waters ice cold, but don’t worry you’ll learn to love it everyone. Life is so much simplier after you drink the transparency coolaid. 🙂

On that note, I will say we have an amazing, world-class, PR department here at AOL. They’ve been amazing to me and my team at Weblogs, Inc. So, none of this should be interpeted as a dig to the PR team. They’re doing the best they can I’m sure, but in this case one of us fancy-dancy managers should have spoke directly to the users and the press should have been directed to that per
so
n’s blog.

Public relations has changed in a big way over the past two years. Sure, you still need a PR department, but the most important thing is to have your executives and product managers blogging authentically with your customers. Doing so will make the AOL’s PR department operate so much quicker and effectivly. As such, I’m trying to get a handle on who’s blogging at AOL and encourage more folks to blog.

What we did right: We made a quick step of putting a disclaimer under the advertisement, but that’s clearly too little. We’v got a ways to go before we make this right with the user base.

What should we do next: I’m in favor of taking the ads down for now, figuring out a way to determine who’s a paid member or not, and then adding the ads back to free blogs with something like 15 days notice. This way folks can either a) pay us and get no ads or b) take advantage of the free product with the ads. We should also apologize to the members and contact the folks who’ve left and offer them something to come back.

What do AOL Journal’s users think?
What do my peeps at the Journal’s product think?
What do you think?

What people are saying: