AIM 5.0 to Feature Themes, Bigger Ads

Following the lead of Yahoo! , AOL Time Warner is looking to add new opportunities for customization and advertising with its AOL Instant Messenger application.

Version 5.0 of AOL Instant Messenger, due out later this summer, will include what AOL calls AIM Expressions — downloadable “themes” that add graphics and animation to users’ “Buddy List” and chat windows.

In addition to providing new customization features for users, AIM Expressions are expected to serve as a larger platform for advertisers. In the current version, AIM shows small button-sized ads in the application’s buddy list.

In version 5.0, AIM Expressions greatly expand advertisers’ palettes.

In a public beta, a theme promoting AOL’s subsidiary Warner Bros. Studios’ “Eight Legged Freaks” shows advertising creative in a thin strip of space alongside users’ “Buddy List” window — which users often leave permanently visible on the side of their screens — plus ad space on users’ chat windows.

It’s the first time that AIM, which has more than 150 million users, has attempted to place advertising on the chat window itself.

But AOL said the company was reluctant to intrude too heavily on the user experience in the IM window, and especially in the space where users type to each other.

“That area is somewhat sacred to us and our users, so you’re not going to see extensive use there,” said AOL spokesman Derick Mains.

However, the user’s own “Buddy Icon” — visible to chat partners — is automatically set to coordinate with the promotional theme. In the case of “Eight Legged Freaks,” a large black spider on a bright yellow background appears.

The enhancements to AIM also give AOL an opportunity to expand the rich media capabilities it can offer to clients. Courtesy of AOL’s partnership with rich media graphics firm Viewpoint , a giant animated spider periodically creeps out from users’ chat windows and across their desktops.

But Mains declined to comment in detail on the company’s plans to offer advertising space on AIM 5.0.

“Right now, we’re just testing the feature and looking to get feedback from users,” he said. “Then we’ll determine where we go from there from a business standpoint.”

Since the New York-based firm’s media player is downloaded simultaneously with much of AOL’s software — such as the new version 7.0 of its proprietary Internet service, or when users elect to download the “Freaks” theme — sources close to the firms say that opens the door for such rich media features to be offered for future AIM ads.

“We’re developing new Expressions that we’re going to release that will incorporate ViewPoint technology,” Mains said. “You’re going to see us do some interesting things with ViewPoint technology, kind of like with ‘Eight Legged Freaks,’ that will allow people to even further personalize the AIM experience.”

AIM version 5.0 represents the first time that AOL’s instant messaging client has used Viewpoint technology, which signed an agreement with AOL a year ago.

The move by AOL follows in the heels of successes enjoyed by Yahoo! in adding similar themes to its own instant messaging client, which it began doing last fall. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Web portal has launched skins for advertisers including E*Trade , Radio Shack , Kellogg , and musical acts including *NSYNC, Garbage, Aerosmith and Enrique Iglesias.

But Mains said AOL’s own exploration of themes began in response to the success of its Buddy Icons, which debuted in an earlier version. (And which also, to a limited extent, have been co-opted for advertising purposes by entertainment marketers including and AOL-owned Looney Tunes.)

“Buddy Icons have been incredibly popular both within AIM community and within AOL,” Mains said. “Through our feedback with users, we kind of tried to figure out ways to expand upon that.”

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