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AOL Readies IM-based Dating Play

In the latest move to monetize its popular AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) network, America Online is poised to launch an online dating site that will leverage IM.

During coming weeks, AOL plans an advertising campaign announcing Love.com, an online personals service in the vein of InterActive Corp's Match.com. The ads will encourage users to sign up for a free preview of the site and will highlight its reliance on AOL's AIM.

"Love.com will marry the benefits of real-time communications together with AIM's active user base to deliver a casual, fun and comfortable place to meet and get to know new people online," said AOL spokesman Derick Mains.

The site also is leveraging technology from online personals network Spring Street Networks, and interactive ad agency RealBranding is handling portions of the site's development.

Copy on the Love.com site touts the service as "the coolest way to quickly find a new friend, a hot romance, or the love of your life -- and only love.com uses the power of AOL Instant Messenger service to make it fun and spontaneous."

AOL has been hinting at just such a project for some time. Steven McArthur, executive vice president for AOL Messaging, told the Wall Street Journal in May that the company was exploring an online dating service.

Although Mains described the Love.com service as being "powered by the popularity of instant messaging," exactly how the site will integrate AIM remains to be seen, however. He declined to provide additional details. Spring Street Networks Chief Executive Louis Kanganis did not return requests for comment by press time; spokespeople from RealBranding declined to comment.

Instant messaging and online dating both represent two bright areas in the otherwise gloomy Internet sector: U.S. consumers are expected to spend $313 million on online dating and personals in 2003, up 37 percent from last year, according to Jupiter Research, while the Radicati Group predicts that the current 590 million accounts will multiply into 1.4 billion by 2007.

Not surprisingly, then, AOL isn't the first to explore ways to link the two. MatchNet, which runs sites including AmericanSingles, JDate, and CollegeLuv, last year introduced Flash-based instant messaging and videoconferencing developed by Userplane.

Other large players, like Yahoo! Personals and FriendFinder, as well as a slew of smaller dating plays such as DateCam, and the recently launched MatchedUp.com and KissyKat -- a site dedicated to animal lovers and pet owners -- also integrate instant messaging into their communities. Typically, these sites enable registered users to see if fellow members are online, and then engage them in a chat session.

But they don't integrate with public instant messaging networks. That means that a user generally must navigate to the site to make contact with others; while AIM users typically keep their IM clients open whenever they're connected to the Internet.

Another potential area where AOL will hope to create synergy could reside in Buddy Lists and AIM users' profiles, which they enter to be listed in an online directory. AOL has been testing a service it calls "Buddy Match," which connects like-minded AOL subscribers using those profiles: if others on a user's Buddy List have similar hobbies or interests, a colored background will appear behind their name. So far, Buddy Match only exists in a beta version of the next AOL service software, and not AIM.

At the very least, AOL can take advantage of a whopping 50-million-strong monthly userbase for the AIM service, most of whom are using AIM clients that support advertising, and who could be ripe for receiving ads promoting Love.com.

Once it launches, Love.com will become but the latest effort by AOL to capitalize on the online dating market. In addition to the new site, the company has for years operated Love@AOL on the Web and its flagship service, for which it currently syndicates listings for from global partners including Match.com and Lavalife.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.