America Online Inc.
(AOL) is turning up the volume on its premium offerings, introducing a voicemail service that also allows users to receive home voicemails in their e-mail inboxes, as well as access AOL e-mail over the phone.
AOL Voicemail, which rolls out Wednesday, functions like services offered by telecom carriers — where users dial a number to access their voicemail — but adds the combined functionality of e-mail.
In addition to offering subscribers voicemail access by phone, the ISP also lets users retrieve voicemail messages from their AOL inboxes where they appear as messages with attached sound files. Users can then listen to the streamed voice messages, as well as forward them along. The service comes with up to seven separate voicemail boxes, for different household members, and is priced at US$5.95 a month, plus any additional call forwarding fees that local carriers charge.
“AOL Voicemail brings together two of our members’ most important message points — voicemail and e-mail — and puts them in one place,” said Jeremy Verba, vice president and general manager of Voice Services at AOL.
The new service leverages functions available in the company’s existing Call Alert and AOLbyPhone premium offerings. Call Alert, which was rolled out late last year, allows users to monitor incoming calls while they are online.
That real-time call notification is included in the Voicemail service, as is AOLbyPhone’s function allowing subscribers to listen to AOL e-mail over the phone and send e-mail replies using simple voice commands. In addition, the service also includes a caller log, which tracks phone numbers from the last 100 incoming calls.
According to Verba, the combined features make the Voicemail service a compelling premium offering.
“I think you have to have a lot of value to ask members to pay you more money and I think we do that,” Verba said.
Verba added that Call Alert is priced at $4 a month, and AOL By Phone goes for $5 per month, yet the Voicemail service has key functions from both for $5.95.
In fact, AOL believes that Call Alert subscribers, which have already swelled to over 300,000, according to Verba, are prime targets for the Voicemail offering.
“People who use Call Alert already understand the robustness of having an online call service,” Verba said.
AOL Voicemail comes as the Dulles, Virginia, ISP looks to strengthen its premium service strategy and create new revenue streams. The company is also bolstering its broadband offerings, releasing an updated AOL for Broadband service on March 31, in an effort to shift dial-up users into the fast lane.
IDC Research Manager Jonathan Gaw said the Voicemail service has “a lot of potential but also a lot of challenges.”
“The thing I like the most is that it’s a premium service that people are used to paying for … but it’s not something they are used to paying AOL for,” Gaw said.
The analyst pointed out that although it’s a compelling product, it’s difficult to get users to make changes to their telecom services, especially if they are already receiving voicemail from a carrier bundled with other services such as call waiting.
Unbundling these services to adopt AOL Voicemail could be troublesome, he said. Furthermore, he predicted that telecom carriers would not be that keen to have the service taken away from them.
Still, he called the product a strategic premium service that will aid AOL in building out its revenue streams.
“They are clearly in the product development stage,” Gaw said. “But at some point their marketing guys are going to have to step back and figure out how to keep all these offerings from getting confusing.”
Verba believes, however, that the value of the new voicemail product is clear.
“This is the beginning of a line of voice offerings and it provides value,” he said. “And in the end that’s good for our members and good for our shareholders.”
AOL Voicemail is available for AOL 7.0 and higher for Windows users, as well as for AOL for Mac OS X and AOL for the Macintosh 5.0.