AIM Didn’t Die in Vain: Lessons from 20 Years of Instant Messaging

Joe Mineo
February 22, 2019

For some, it’s hard to imagine a world before smartphones, social media, rapid home delivery services and Chocolate Rain. But yes, the world turned, people lived, and more than anything, people communicated. It was a lot simpler back then, when internet service was charged by the hour. Money back then was easy: nothing good was free, and internet service providers held the keys to the kingdom.


In the years before and a little after 1999, the internet was modeled after phone service. The more time spent chatting, the more you were charged. However, that’s the one service the internet didn’t formally offer: the ability to chat. Until a swift messaging service called AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) quietly came along, that is.

AIM revolutionized communication in the digital age. It originally lived on America Online’s servers, and at one point had well over 20 million active users. Then, it broke off to be the most popular instant message platform in North America. AIM gobbled up competitors, defeated company firewalls and gave birth to arguably the first social media platform. Buddy lists. Chat rooms. Away messages. Profile bios. You name it, AIM had it. So what happened?

In the mid- to late-2000s, companies like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo came out with similar products, and SMS text messaging exploded in popularity. MySpace (RIP) and Facebook burst onto the scene and took the social media torch forcefully. Email buddies and coworkers could communicate without leaving their web browsers, social sites rolled out their own messengers, and people just didn’t need the app anymore. As is the way with many trailblazers, AIM became dust in the wind.

Here’s a live look at the AIM servers.

Although popularity can ebb and flow, there’s another part of this story that’s almost always left out of the big picture: Monetization. AIM had pesky little ad banners above and below your buddy list that were their attempt at a “great” way to reach people. But as this wonderfully dated article from 2001 points out, it was hard to buy from AOL. Although digital marketing was in its infancy, companies like Yahoo and MSN (Microsoft) figured out a better way to serve ads and make best use of their audiences. AIM exploded, couldn’t figure out a way to bring money in from that explosion, and ultimately met a long, drawn out death.

Fast forward to 2019, and free messaging is the norm. This is possible in part to cloud computing, which was something AIM conceptualized, but never had a chance to benefit from. Aside from the AOL corporation’s gross mismanagement and lack of product diversification, AIM could have been successful in this decade.

A great case to look at is WhatsApp, a cloud-based messaging solution that has reached 1.5 billion people. It began back in 2009 by charging a one dollar annual fee per user, which brought in their initial 200 million-strong user base. Once acquired by Facebook in 2014, they added new product lines (meaning they no longer needed that one dollar) and shifted over to user data collection, which is now used to target ads to people like you. AIM could have been worth $19 billion, but their owners were stuck in the past.

Imagine if AIM leveraged that massive audience.

The TL;DR version of this story reads as follows: In business, advertise or die. Follow the eyeballs. If there’s a chance to collect data and use it to make smart business decisions, do it! Learn from the mistakes of others. Optimize your forms of communication, and always be open to change. AIM could have made a wealth of money if they focused on establishing a programmatic ad market, collected anonymous user data (something Facebook’s struggling with) and tightened up many of the security loopholes that ultimately caused people to jump ship.

Thankfully, ChatterBlast has been learning about these shifting landscapes since 2009. Although we don’t have an instant messaging platform that can reach billions of people, we have the tools, strategy and expertise to help clients reach their goals and grow their businesses in an efficient, responsible fashion. If you’re looking for ways to calibrate your advertising, let’s chat.