How to Snag the Attention of AOL Customers

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If you've heard of AOL then you likely already have a pretty good idea what an online service is. However, if you're unclear, an online service is basically a large Internet Service Provider that supplies its users and members with special, customized software and services that guide (and sometimes limit) their Web experience.

We'll be talking a lot about AOL simply because it is the largest of the online services. Most of AOL's competitors offer similar services, so you'll definitely want to take a close look at them as well.

Typically, AOL and its competitors - including Bing, Google, CompuServe, and Yahoo ¬provide their members with a multitude of services ranging from email to newsgroups to personal web pages to online classified ads. They aim to create a community that meets all the shopping, surfing, and communication needs of their members and users.

And because of the sheer number of AOL members - nearly 28 million - you simply can't afford to ignore them! I’ll give you some ideas as to how you can best use AOL to build your business.

Promote your product or service on AOL

There are three different ways that you can promote your product or service on AOL:

Post articles in relevant groups

Another clever way to promote your business is by uploading free articles to the appropriate groups. Write articles that contain information specific to the interests of your target market and include a simple, low-key link to your Web site at the end.

Be creative about what groups you post to. For instance ... If you run an online business selling vitamins, you don't have to stick to groups focused on vitamins and vitamin users. You could join groups dedicated to various health concerns where vitamins might be part of the standard treatment, or fitness and exercise groups. You could even join a group for expectant mothers - they definitely need their vitamins!

If you're shy or nervous about writing an article, remember that your article does not need to be long or perfectly written to be valuable. A page or two should be enough to get the attention of potential customers. However I would recommend writing an article that is about six pages in length If you want to get the maximum Impact.

Remember that the administrator of the group (if there is one) usually inspects articles that are submitted so make sure your article is not a blatant advertisement. Keep it informative, and subtly include links to your Web site along with your contact information.

Don't quote prices or try to sell any product or service in your article, as it will then be seen as an advertisement and people will ignore it.

Get involved in a group

A great way to generate a lot of new business is to get involved in group discussions and develop your reputation as an industry expert who really wants to help people. (Please note that with online services like AOL, some groups are public and some are private, so you may need to get invited to join or get the administrator's permission).

Getting involved can be as simple as posting a message explaining who you are and what your background is. Just let people know that you are available to answer questions on the particular subject that you specialize in.

You should watch for questions and discussions that give you legitimate opportunities to share your knowledge and refer visitors to your Web site. When someone asks you a direct question or responds to one of your posts, you have the perfect opportunity to make reference to your business without coming across as a pushy salesperson.

Create your own online community

Starting your very own online community is a great way to establish your reputation as an industry expert. Two of the most popular places for this are ...

Yahoo! http://groups.yahoo.com

AOL http://messageboards.aol.com

If you use clip art or images you find on the Web, make sure that they're appropriate to your site (pictures can send powerful signals) and that you're not infringing on anyone's copyright.

When you create your own online community, you host a discussion forum or Web site within the confines of a larger online community, with a focus on a particular subject area (such as "Cars" or "Pets").

You can use your forum to focus directly on topics that are of interest to your target market. This differs from participating in someone else's forum in that you have complete control over what is discussed. Of course, I don't recommend starting your own "My Product and Why You Should Buy It" forum; however, you do have the power to choose a subject that will appeal to your best potential customers while giving you opportunities to promote your business and establish your reputation as an industry expert.

For example - if you sold craft supplies, a logical forum would be one that deals with craft projects, specifically the types of crafts that would require your products.

Sometimes it might not be quite this easy to choose a topic broad enough to interest your target market while at the same time providing you with a legitimate soapbox: for expressing the benefits of doing business with you. For example, if you sold carpet deodorizer, you would probably have difficulty focusing your forum closely on your product (most people, even expert carpet cleaners, probably don't want to spend their free time discussing the intricacies of removing stink from old carpets).

The closest you could probably come, without limiting yourself too much would be "Home Upkeep" or something similar. There are probably plenty of people interested in home upkeep that would be interested to learn how to remove unpleasant smells from carpet. You might even consider starting a "Pet Care" forum where you could give participants helpful tips for removing pet odours and stains from carpets.

Don't blatantly advertise in your online service forum or home page. This is generally prohibited by the online services that control access to the communities, and doing so can land you in hot water!

If you wish to set up your own group in AOL, you must be a member of the service. Should you cease to be a member, your group will be discontinued.

Once you have developed an online forum, you need to let people know about it. There are a couple of ways that you can do this:

1.    You can email your current customers and subscribers and let them know about it. This is a good way to further your relationship with this important group of people. They will likely appreciate you offering your services as an information resource.
2.    You can also advertise in other related forums. Obviously you need to be subtle when doing this, as you don't want it to look like you're trying to "steal" members; this will get you booted out of the forum by the administrator. Instead, target people who appear to be interested in your topic, and be gentle in your approach.
3.    AOL offers its members -personal home pages- that they can design using ready-made templates. It will come as no surprise that AOL frowns on businesses setting up commercial web pages in this area; however, you could still set up a simple web page and post an informative article with a subtle link to your Web site at the bottom.

Promoting your business through online services

To successfully promote your e-business through AOL and the other online services, you will need to present yourself as a source of valuable information. Your goal should be to develop relationships that can translate into sales in the future - not to sell your product or service directly in ads and forums. Some tips for effective "relationship selling" include.

a)   Be prompt in your response to all email. A quick response gives potential customers confidence in you.

b)   Be professional when writing articles or answering questions. Avoid "hype," as it sounds tacky in public forums and makes people suspicious.

c)    Avoid complicated jargon that those unfamiliar with your industry will have trouble understanding. If people don't understand you, they're not going to trust you.

d)   Let potential customers casually know that you have enough confidence in your product or service to provide a really outstanding guarantee.

e)    Make yourself readily available by phone, fax, email and a real-world mailing address.

f)    Learn the rules before jumping in. Read the rules and do some research before you post ads. Participate in forums, or start a forum of your own. Online services usually have a strict set of rules that members are expected to obey.

So to sum up: You can use AOL (and similar online services) to market your products and services to a whole new audience. And given the fact that so many people are connecting to the Internet using these services, it's a really good idea to give this group some special attention.

Keep in mind that when you advertise in online classified ads or participate in forum, your email address will be harvested by spammers - so you'll start to receive a lot of unsolicited messages. For this reason, I highly recommend setting up a separate email account through Hotmail or Yahoo (both free) so that your personal inbox doesn't get swamped with a heap of unwanted junk mail.

AOL is a great place to test classified ads, headlines, and sales copy. Since there are so many people using AOL your ad is guaranteed to get lots of exposure, and you can continually test and tweak until your message is getting the maximum possible response.
There are a number of ways you can use AOL's groups and forums to promote your business, but you'll want to be sure to do it in a very subtle way. Group administrators and users will get annoyed with you very quickly if they see your posts as blatant attempts to sell your products or services.