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AOL Weds IM, Dating in Love.com

America Online officially unveiled its Love.com dating service today -- an effort to woo dollars from the lucrative Internet personal ad market while leveraging its massive instant messaging network.

The service, which launches with a free, 60-day preview, marks AOL's latest foray into one of the hottest areas in online content and advertising. As a result of its success, the online personals market has a slew of flashy and entrenched competitors -- such as InterActive Corp.'s Match.com, Yahoo! Personals, and FriendFinder.

The guts of Love.com leverages technology from online personals distributor Spring Street Networks, and interactive ad agency RealBranding is handling portions of the site's development.

But the secret sauce in AOL's Love.com stems from its close integration with AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), and its ability to exploit some of the unique benefits of IM communications. At the site, Love.com members can browse profiles, find others who are online and available to IM, and can immediately initiate chat sessions with them.

Because many IM users keep their clients running for hours at a time -- often, whenever they're connected to the Internet -- they'll potentially have far greater opportunities to meet and connect with other Love.com members than they might with other services. Typically, on many rival dating sites, users must periodically visit a Web site to seek out other online members, or can communicate only via e-mail.

Ideally, these differentiators will convince a portion of AIM's userbase to pay a monthly fee to participate in Love.com, which the company dubs a "real-time personals service." That could lead to a nice return for the Time Warner unit, which claims an audience of 50 million AIM users each month, making it the most popular IM network.

"Online personals powered by instant messaging are a natural next-step in the evolution of online dating services," said Steven McArthur, executive vice president for AOL Messaging. "Everyone is looking for a way to make meeting people and dating less stressful. By their very nature, instant messaging conversations are more casual, spontaneous, and personal. By building AIM directly into Love.com, online daters will be able to communicate with a large, active community of people in real time, adding additional elements of interaction, emotion and personality to the world of online dating."

Posting a profile on Love.com will be free, but users must be a paying member to be able to exchange messages with others.

"We haven't nailed down exact pricing structure," said AOL spokesman Derick Mains. "You're basically going to be paying a per-month fee."

To participate, users must have the new AIM 5.5 Beta 2 client, also slated for release today and due for final release early next year.

In order to protect members' privacy, Love.com users can select a AIM Screen Name specific to the service. That Screen Name (which appears in the format user@love.com) can be configured to route messages to and from their main AIM account, ensuring confidentially.

To allow users to access the service from a range of locations, members can use a Web-based version of AIM built into the site. They can also sign onto the service directly from a PC-based AIM client -- using either their regular or Love.com Screen Name.

Next year, the service will integrate with AOL's wireless AIM initiatives -- setting the stage, ideally, for meeting other singles while away from the PC. (Such mobile dating applications are all the rage in many parts of Asia and Europe, where wireless application penetration is higher than in the U.S.) Currently, AOL has relationships with six U.S. wireless carriers, supporting embedded and SMS, WAP and BREW-based AIM clients.

"Users will be able to sign-on to Love.com with their Screen Name and be available to get IMs from other people on the service while they're out, pretty much whenever, wherever they might be," Mains said.

To offer mobile connectivity, Mains said AOL first has to develop wireless IM clients that recognize the Love.com domain.

"We expect to have that at some point next year," he said. "Once we get that done it'll be very same experience as logging into AIM with your phone or your PDA or your [T-Mobile] Sidekick."

IM and Dating: a Match Made in Heaven

AOL isn't the first to explore ways to link IM and online dating, however. Love.com most closely follows the model established by Yahoo! Personals, which enables users to contact each other via Yahoo! Messenger if they're online -- and if the initiator is a paying Yahoo! subscriber. But Yahoo! doesn't provide IM forwarding.

MatchNet, which runs sites including AmericanSingles, JDate, and CollegeLuv, last year introduced a Flash-based instant messaging and videoconferencing developed by Userplane.

Other large players like FriendFinder and Match.com offer some measure of proprietary text or video IM, as do smaller firms like DateCam, MatchedUp.com and KissyKat. Match.com also powers dating sites on the AOL service and Microsoft's MSN -- but doesn't integrate its proprietary IM client with either of its partners' IM networks.

"Love.com very heavily leverages the 50 million-plus active users that we have within AIM each month," Mains said. "Some of the others services have integrated IM but you have to be logged onto the service in question to be able to communicate. But with Love.com, you can communicate whenever you're logged in through AIM."

The effort by America Online to top its rivals also is the latest attempt by the company to find a way to monetize its massive, most of whom are using AIM for free (that is, not part of the subscription-based flagship AOL service).

In the past year, AOL also has launched an enterprise gateway for managing business use of IM, and created a certification and licensing process for other vendors' software that leverages the AIM network. So far, enterprise IM gateway firms IMlogic and Akonix have joined the Certified AIM Partner program.

On the consumer side, the launch of an IM-based dating play has been expected for some time. In May, McArthur told the Wall Street Journal that the company was exploring an online dating service. Last month, it began advertising Love.com.

It's not surprising that AOL, and its rivals, have sought to connect IM 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 personal ads in 2003, up 37 percent from last year, according to Jupiter Research, while the Radicati Group predicts that the current 590 million IM accounts will multiply into 1.4 billion by 2007.

"Personals are a relatively fast growth area," said David Card, vice president and research director at Jupiter Research, who added that AOL stands a chance of becoming a significant player in the dating space as a result of Love.com. "They know how to market, they know about IM -- they didn't invent it, but they've been doing it for a long time -- and they're good at educating consumers about new things through promotion."

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.



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