IQ News: ICQ Seeking More Eyeballs With Post-AOL Release

ICQ, the hipper-than-thou software company that allows people to conduct real-time chat, is expected to unveil the latest version of its hugely popular chat and paging software this week.
The new release, carrying the apt though obvious name ICQ Version 99a, will be available free to download at
The ICQ (read: “I seek you”) desktop application alerts users when fellow ICQers are online and offers real-time chat and instant messaging among a variety of communication features.
Officials at the company, a unit of Dulles, Va.-based America Online, also said last week that they are taking their first steps, gingerly, toward devising marketing-based revenue streams for the service.
Treading carefully seems to be prudent. Last June, when AOL purchased ICQ from its founders, the Tel Aviv, Israel-based software development company Mirabilis, the purchase worried many ICQers (also known as “fanatICQs”), who were concerned that the service would lose its “anti-brand” cachet.
But it’s a testament to the continuing popularity of ICQ that nearly 700,000 people have already tested 99a. According to Fred Singer, COO of ICQ, and John Borthwick, vice president of product development and programming, 99a’s alpha test was initially limited to 600 developers, but news of its release quickly spread through “word of mouse” until hundreds of thousands of ICQers had downloaded the new software.
All told, 28 million people have downloaded ICQ software around the world; an estimated 12 million people use it each month and 6 million use it each day.
Version 99a features an expanded suite of enhancements, such as message history and archives, the ability to record and send voice messages, e-mail notification and new sound effects. An improved, integrated “White Pages” will let users seek out fellow ICQers based on their gender, age group and general interests, while a popular, built-in search function, powered by Inktomi and Direct Hit, will let users find their query subjects by jumping from ICQ’s desktop application directly to the Web.
In addition, a new ICQ service, ICQ Now!, will launch along with the software release. A “table of contents” guide to what’s going on in the ICQ community, it, too, can be accessed directly from the ICQ desktop window.
Unlike the myriad portal pages, which have had trouble keeping fickle Web surfers at their sites for extended periods, ICQ has proven itself as a more than “sticky” killer app, with users staying online an average of 2 1/2 hours daily. The company credits its success to building on members’ inherent desire to socialize and communicate online.
Obviously, such a rabid–and organically grown–audience is one advertisers crave. Eighty-three percent of users are under the age of 34, and it has an increasingly international mix, with Europe and Asia–especially China–being particularly hot growth spots. (Only 35 percent of ICQers are from the U.S.)
The problem, from a marketing standpoint, is the typical ICQer’s anti-establishment ethos. According to company officials, their usership eschews slickness, extolling such things as the fact that recently won ZDNet’s “Mud Brick Award” for Ugliest Web Site Design.
Still, Singer hints the company will likely strike marketing partnerships, with the business plan focused, not surprisingly, on e-commerce. He continued that the one to one relationships between ICQers can translate into an “extremelypowerful marketing tool.” But he cautioned that the possibilities for contextual marketing directly to ICQers can be preserved only “if their personal information is used properly and not abused.”
For instance, he said ICQers might go for such “opt-in” marketing opportunities as letting companies with which they do business–such as software providers–notify them via ICQ when they are due for an upgrade. Neither Borthwick nor Singer would discuss such plans in any detail. However, it’s likely the company will also sell banner ads on its Web site.
But the plan remains to ensure that ICQers can stay happy within their non-browser universe. “We want to get you out of the browser,” admitted Borthwick.