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Picture yourself finding an AOL CD in your steak

Diving into Jan Brandt's carpet bombing strategy for AOL in the 1990s. This successful campaign took AOL to first place in ISP market share.

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Yesterday, I wrote a post covering my set-up process for the new tech history "masters" project I'm starting. For right now, I chose Roam Research as the initial note taking tool I will test out. For the next week, I'll be tracking how much I'm using it as I'm writing and organizing insights/questions from my readings. My guess is that as I use the tool daily, the back linking and graph feature will start to become increasingly useful.

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Carpet Bombing 💣

In today's post, I dive deeper into a fun story covering Jan Brandt's carpet bombing marketing strategy for AOL back in the early 90s.


Remember, this was a time when the internet was a new concept and most people had no idea what was going on. Before the world wide web that you and I use today really took off, most early internet enthusiasts would use time sharing services such as CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL to explore the cyberspace. For example, on AOL, it would cost $9.95 / month for 5 hours of access to the internet! These days, a good majority of the world goes crazy when they lose wi-fi for even just a few minutes 😂

56k Dial-Up Internet

Jan Brandt was hired as head of AOL marketing in 1993 and was given one task to accomplish: increase the number of subscribers.

Her execution was so incredible that not only did she increase AOL's user base, but she did so at a speed where other executives were pressuring her to dial it down a notch 🤯

So how did she do it?


Well, by using a marketing technique known as "carpet bombing".

In the military, carpet bombing is a tactic where the goal is to cause as much damage as possible within an area without a specific target.

A famous example of this attack is Germany's non-stop aerial bombing on Rotterdam known as the Rotterdam Blitz. The instructions were simple: destroy the city and force the Dutch to surrender.

Jan used this strategy and applied it to the marketing world. This translates to a widespread, saturation strategy where the aim of advertising is to reach as many people as possible. Period.

Her team's approach was to start mass-producing CDs with free hours of AOL service.

It was constitutionally impossible for someone to get a small box in the mail and not be inspired to open it -Jan

Jan decided to start simple and mail potential internet users. And as she saw quick success there, AOL went bezerk and started looking for any open channels that made sense for them to push their software.

"In addition to shipping disks to mailboxes across the country, AOL distributed disks as part of promotional sample packages at Blockbuster Video and placed them at stadium seats at NASCAR races, at the Super Bowl, at seats on American Airlines commuter flights, and even in flash-frozen packages for Omaha Steaks" (source)

At one point, 50% of the CDs in the world had the AOL logo on them.

The company took a risky initial $250,000 bet on this marketing campaign but it was worth it. Essentially, AOL used the marketing budget to force their software into American households. From a pure growth perspective, the results were out of this world. The campaign had a response of 10% uptake which Jan described as "being better than sex".

Over the next couple of years, AOL decided to double down and pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this strategy. Very quickly, AOL went from third in Internet service provider (ISP) market share behind CompuServe and Prodigy to first place. In the mid to late 90s, AOL basically became synonymous with the "internet".

When we went public in 1992, we had less than 200,000 subscribers," former AOL CEO Steve Case said. "A decade later the number was in the 25 million range. -Mental Floss

The key insight here is the fact that Jan realized the internet was still too early for standard, competitive marketing.

There was no point in comparing AOL to competitors such as Prodigy when the mainstream audience had no idea what either of them did.

Jan decided to focus on educating the audience on what using the internet even meant.


Though the core idea of using promotional material wasn't new by any means, the part to note is the execution and scale for a internet company at the time. The internet was barely even getting started and people had no idea what the future of the web would look like. However, AOL decided to take a big bet and embrace the idea that the best way to sell their service would be to treat it like a toy/game that adults wanted to have. And it worked.

Though AOL's implementation of using CDs is archaic, the carpet bombing strategy itself is still just as important today.

For me personally, I'm starting to realize that in order to grow The Bigger Picture in these early days, I'll need to also go crazy with the grassroots marketing and try directly messaging as many people as I can about my writing. Simply put, the more eyes there are on my writing, then the more opportunities I'm creating for subscriptions.

For crypto startups trying to grow and find product market fit, maybe a similar execution to AOL might be worth testing out. Is the "web3" version of carpet bombing marketing to airdrop all holders of x token a sample (i.e. invite code) to your product? The beauty is that with onchain insights and transparent data, it's now easier than ever before to perfect the targeting strategy.

If you're a founder struggling to find users to test out and use your product, then it's your job to bomb a larger surface area.

I hope you enjoyed reading this story on AOL's hyper-growth marketing strategy.

By learning tech history, it's easier to identify tricks & techniques that can help founders approach the idea maze even today.

That's all for today's post - if you enjoyed, I'd love for you to share with your friends in crypto :)

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