Television Is The Next Plane For AOL’s Userplane

Userplane already provides the technology supporting communication tools on prima facie social sites like MySpace, Friendster and Now it is moving into television.

Userplane, a wholly-owned subsidiary of AOL, today announced that it has inked deals with four broadcast and cable television companies to provide social networking and instant messaging capabilities as they try to transform their Web sites into bona fide online communities.

“The integration of real-time messaging applications allows media companies to create virtual water coolers where viewers can engage with other fans of their favorite shows,” Userplane CEO and Senior Vice President of AOL Michael Jones said in a statement.

Under the agreement, the CW, Fuel TV, IFC and the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 are now incorporating Userplane technologies like Webchat and Web messaging applications into their sites.

The partnerships are Userplane’s first publicly disclosed deals with television companies, but they are not likely to be the last, Jones told Userplane is in advanced stages of talks with other television companies that Jones could not name, citing legal considerations.

Given that visitors to their sites already have an obvious common interest, it is a natural step for television companies to turn a two-dimensional online presence into a community destination. In that sense, Jones suggests, they are taking a cue from the news sites that are already trying to drive user engagement by creating online communities through technology that, in some cases, is provided by Userplane.

Jones dismissed the idea that “online communities” and “social networking” were one in the same. “Social networking is just a layer that can be added to any site,” he says. “Sites like MySpace and Facebook are more like personal identity sites.”

A major distinction involves how much information site operators know about their users. Unlike “personal identity sites,” Jones believes that television and other media companies are not likely to require users to build thorough profiles simply to use community tools like those Userplane provides, though he admits that Userplane has very little to do with how its technologies are implemented once licensees have moved beyond the initial stages.

Userplane turns over an API to the site and offers guidance on a deployment strategy. It will loan out engineers, but its level of involvement is up to the client, Jones says, characterizing Userplane’s role more as a consultant than a hands-on partner.

In the past, Userplane had made its technology available only through licensing agreements, where sites pay monthly fees ranging from the low $100s to the high $10,000s, depending upon the site’s traffic.

Increasingly, sites are opting for an ad-based model, through which Userplane provides its technology for free, and then monetizes the site’s content through ad placement under AOL’s consolidated Platform A ad network. Jones would not comment on the specifics of the revenue sharing, but said that Userplane’s agreements are in line with other, similar ad-placement technologies.

Userplane’s shift toward an ad-based model is consistent with parent AOL’s concerted efforts to recast itself as an online advertising powerhouse and a legitimate competitor of Google and Yahoo in that sector.

AOL purchased Userplane in August 2006.

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