The Five Cs of Online Experiences

AOL_SteveCaseImagine a world where you launch a service for 3% of people who are online only one hour per week.

That was the world Steve Case built Quantum Link for, a predecessor to what would someday become AOL.

They had to build their own software. That was 1985, after a failed company built for Atari games in 1983.

When the company went public in 1992 (first Internet company to go public), it only had 200,000 customers, and 30 million in revenue.

Has that number sunk in? Case and team were building for three-to-four years before they got some traction. It was a slow build.

Seven years after going public, AOL went from 200,000 to 25 million customers and from a 7o-million dollar market cap to a 25 billion.

It took more than a decade. Sometimes revolutions take a while before they take. What was success like at that time? In terms of customers: 1,000 per week. At peak, the service customized for the Commodore 64 had maybe 75,000 customers.

Because the conversation with Anil Dash was for Social Media Week#, Case emphasized that the killer app was community building, people. The first chat room as launched in 1985, instant messaging, then came buddy lists a little bit later.

To recap, Case and team built an instant messaging service for a world that was not online — at least not at the same time, in real time, as we say now. This led to building the list showing who was online and who wasn't, so you could IM with your friends.

The Five Cs of Online Experiences

Case lists content, connectivity, commerce (eventually that developed), context (how you package things), and community, which was and still is the core of online experiences. In fact, he ascribes AOL prevailing over the Prodigy's and other services of the time to being focused on community, social.

Taking a step back from the conversation for a moment, we find that not much has changed about the ingredients of a good online experience.

We're still talking about content and connectivity, the one has become the new shiny object, the other a point of contention and legal battle, because of the third C, commerce. Now the first two are considered humbled servants of the third.

We have become more clever at packaging things and talking about it, yet helpful contextual experiences are elusive — here one moment, gone the next — and we have become more fickle. That's because of the fifth C: community.

Talking about community is one thing, building community is another.

Nice definitions like community management end up being euphemisms for make people do what we want vs. help people do what they want. You can tell by looking at percentages of dollars spent. And the evidence is in time frames.

You don't build a community in three weeks by spoon feeding two canned posts per day in all social channels. Because it is the human interaction that activates brands.

You may attract, discover, entertain, and encounter some degree of attention and success in that time frame. Keeping attention is another matter altogether. Yet, the power of social relationships is in the building over time.

Much has changed in the last 30 years. Yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It's still about community and people — whether you are talking about social, content, search, brands and business, or whatever is next. It's still about product and service and more than ever building experiences worth sticking around for and bringing your friends along to share with you.

The learning that has yet to occur is how to calculate your brand's worth to a fan, and then go back to building communities that enable commerce.

Watch the full interview here.

[Cover Credit: JAMES PORTO]


Valeria is an experienced listener. She designs service and product experiences to help businesses rediscover the value of promises and its effects on relationships and culture. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. Book her to speak here.