Strategy First: not Execution - Instant Messaging and AOL's demise
- Not even dominant industry leaders are immune to decline from market shifts
- It's easy to focus on what made you great, and miss a market shift
- Competitors drive market shifts, not customers - so pay attention to competitors!
- AOL lost industry domination to competitors with new solutions, and now new technologies, even though it executed its Success Formula really well
- You can become obsolete really quickly when fringe competitors introduce new solutions
- Do more competitor analysis
- Keep White Space teams experimenting with emerging solutions and competing in shifting markets
Do you remember when AOL (an acronym, and updated name, for America On-Line) dominated our perception of the internet? Fifteen years ago AOL was one of the leading companies introducing Americans to the wonders of the web. Providing dial-up access (remember that?) AOL offered users its own interface, and a series of apps that helped its customers discover how the world wide web could make their lives easier - and better. At its peak, AOL had over 30 million subscribers! AOL was so commercially strong, and investors were so optimistic, that a merger with powerhouse publisher Time/Warner, which already owned CNN and HBO, was organized so AOL's young leader, Steve Case, could take the helm and push the company forward into the digital frontier.
Along the way, something went very wrong. In an example of what happened to AOL and its products, as seen below, after pioneering Instant Messaging as an internet application AOL's AIM user base has declined precipitously - by more than 50% - in the last 3 years:
Of course, the same thing that once drove AOL growth is now apparent somewhere else. New markets are emerging. Instead of using PCs with instant messaging, most people today text via their mobile device! Texting isn't just a youthful activity. According to Pew Research, on PewInternet.org in "Cell Phones and American Adults" 72% of American adults now text - up from 65% a year ago. 87% of teens text. And I'm willing to bet a lot of those teens don't even have an instant messaging account - on any platform. The amount of "instant messaging" has grown dramatically - just not using "instant messaging" software. It's now happening via mobile device texting.
Where AOL once dominated the landscape for digital communication, it is now becoming almost insignificant. But it wasn't because AOL didn't know how to execute its strategy. AOL was an industry leader, with savvy management, and a blue-ribbon Board of Directors. AOL even bought Netscape in its effort to remain the best server and client technology for a proprietary internet platform.
AOL became obsolete because the market shifted - while AOL tried holding on to its initial Success Formula. AOL did not shift as the market shifted, it has remained Locke-in to its early Identity, original Strategy and all those product Tactics that once made it great! AOL didn't do anything wrong. It just kept doing what it knew how to do, rather than recognizing the impact of competitors and changing markets.
Shortly after AOL emerged as the market leader, competitors sprang up. First they offered dial-up access, often more cheaply. Eventually dial-up was replaced with high-speed internet access from multiple providers. Instead of using a proprietary interface, competitors Netscape and Microsoft brought out their own internet browsers, making it possible for users to surf the web directly and easily. Instead of using an AOL directory to find things, search engines such as Ask Jeeves, Alta Vista and Yahoo! Search came along that would find things across the web for users based upon their query. Email alternatives emerged, such as Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail. Eventually, one piece at a time, all the proprietary packaged products that AOL provided - including instant messaging - was offered by a competitor. And the value of the AOL packaging declined. As competitor products improved, for most users being an AOL subscriber simply had little advantage.
And now entirely new apps are coming along. As the market quickly shifts to mobile data and applications, devices like smartphones and tablets are replacing PCs. And the apps that made internet companies rich and famous are poised for decline - as users shift to the new way of doing things.
Whether the currently popular internet companies will make the next step, or end up like AOL, will be determined by whether they remain stuck on defending & extending their "core" business, or if they can shift with the market. There is no doubt that the amount of "instant messaging" is skyrocketing. It's just not happening on the PC. Like many tasks, the demand is growing very fast. But it is via a new, and different solution. If the company sees itself as providing a PC type of internet solution, then the company will likely decline. But, alternatively, the leadership could see that demand is exploding and they need to shift - with the market - to the new solution environment to maintain growth.
Whether you are the market leader or not, you know you don't want to end up like AOL. Once rich with resources, and a commanding market lead, AOL is now irrelevant to the latest market trends - and growth. AOL stuck to what it knew how to do. It has not shifted with changing market requirements - including changes in technology. For your company to succeed it must be (1) aware of competitors and how they are constantly changing the market - especially fringe competitors, and (2) enlisting White Space teams that are participating in the new markets, learning what works and how to migrate to capture the ongoing growth.
Postscript: I want to thank a pair of colleagues for some great mentions over the weekend. Firstly, to FMI Daily for posting to its readership about my blog on The Power of Myth. Secondly, a big thank you to Management Consulting News for referring its newsletter readers to this blog as notable, and my recent posting on the failure of Fast Follower strategy. I encourage readers to follow the links here to these sites and sign up for future information from both!!