AOL Sells the Internet Dream

America Online is once again leading the charge, this time on Internet security. But the leadership comes not through breakthrough technology or a stringent self-policing standard — it comes through advertising.

In a new wave of TV commercials that portray AOL as the easiest and fastest way for families to join the Internet revolution, the company devotes a few precious seconds to say that all credit card transactions made through its service are secure.

So what? Well, keep in mind that the e-commerce battle of the moment — and the foreseeable future — is for the eyes and dollars of the people most reluctant to entrust their financial information to the scary and anonymous Internet. It is those customers who can catapult online sales into the stratosphere.

While every reputable e-tailer has safeguards in place to keep shoppers’ credit card numbers from prying eyes, AOL is taking the lead in putting its security message out front. Once again, Steve Case and company get it — apparently before everyone else does.

Perception Is Reality

AOL has long been considered a “safe” Internet environment. Although the label has helped to make it a favorite of families, it has also made the company the whipping boy of Internet purists who scoff as they trash the free AOL software that arrives in the mail every week.

Whether AOL is offering an extra layer of protection or seizing an extra measure of control is up for debate.

A number of software programs have been designed to filter direct connections to the Internet for young eyes, and some parents prefer to provide their own oversight. But AOL, by doing all that work for its members, has staked its claim in a lucrative and growing market niche.

All Aboard

Now AOL wants to be known as the safe place on the Internet to shop. Not “a” safe place, mind you — “the” safe place. And the company is well on its way to making that claim stick.

How? Simply by saying it. Over and over and over again. Before long, most Americans will know that AOL scrambles credit card information sent over the Internet — even those who have never even ventured online.

America Online knows that the offline marketplace is the battlefield because the company plows that ground all the time. AOL already has a leg up on such portals as Yahoo! and MSN.com because it is so widely known for ease-of-use. How did AOL get that reputation? Through advertising, of course.

Presumably, if AOL brings new customers onto the Internet, the rising tide will lift all of the e-commerce boats, right? That may be true, but then again, AOL is poised — especially considering its proposed merger with Time Warner, Inc. — to become more powerful than ever as a gatekeeper for the Web.

AOL is the number one Internet service provider for many reasons, but creating and marketing its image ranks high among them. AOL may choose to keep more doors closed than it opens — and it will have the clout to succeed.

Preach the Gospel

High-profile e-commerce firms should take a page from the AOL playbook. Breaking into the security game may not be as simple as emphasizing the word “secure” in their advertising copy, but then again, it just might be that simple.

So far, e-tailers have focused on building brands. It has worked for some — the Pets.com sock puppet comes to mind — and failed for many others, including ToyTime.

But anxiety over Internet security is as much a threat to e-commerce success as the most cut-throat competition.

Internet resistors need to be persuaded that the vast majority of online purchases are made securely. AOL’s marketing drive will build confidence and help to put the rumble of complaints about Internet fraud into perspective.

Other e-tailers might want to consider joining AOL in spreading the good news about e-commerce before the world begins to view the Internet as two distinct nations: America Online — where it is safe to do business — and the lawless outlands.

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