From the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, America Online (AOL) CDs were a ubiquitous object in households across the country. These CDs were inescapable, as they seemed to arrive in the mail on a regular basis, and were even stocked in stores. At one point in the 1990s, around half of all CDs produced in the world were AOL CDs. For those too young to remember, this was many people’s only way to access the internet.
The history of AOL CDs
AOL, or America Online, was a pioneer of the internet in its early days. As one of the first internet service providers, it offered dial-up access to the World Wide Web through its proprietary software, which was distributed on CDs. Lots and lots of them.
AOL packaged the CDs in bright, attention-grabbing sleeves. They often came with enticing offers for free internet trials, exclusive content, and more.
The impact of AOL CDs on marketing and internet access was far-reaching. By the late 1990s, AOL began producing more than one million CDs per day, a testament to their effectiveness as a sales and marketing tool.
According to The Atlantic (cited below), AOL’s former chief marketing officer Jan Brandt told TechCrunch that the company spent over $300 million luring in customers with CD. “At one point, 50% of the CD’s produced worldwide had an AOL logo on it. We were logging in new subscribers at the rate of one every six seconds,” he said.
Copycats and landfills
These discs provide millions of Americans with access to the internet, but they were also a crucial instrument in the early days of online marketing. Companies could bundle their software, promotions, and products with the discs, providing them with unprecedented exposure to a growing audience.
Many companies followed suit, with other internet service providers conducting similar campaigns. Despite their success, AOL CDs eventually fell out of favor as the internet landscape evolved.
As broadband access became more widespread, the need for the inexpensive access provided by AOL diminished.
These compact discs were undeniably effective. But they were also an environmental nightmare since people discarded these CDs in landfills once they became obsolete.
Source: “How Much Did All of Those AOL CDs Cost?” — The Atlantic