How AOL kept its free disk campaign to itself

AOL’s “carpet-bombing” free disk campaign in the 90s and 2000s worked incredibly well. But the woman responsible for it, Jan Brandt, wouldn’t let anyone acknowledge that, for fear of encouraging copycats. And while she didn’t speak much to the press at the time, she let loose in an interview with the Internet History Podcast in 2014. (Side note: I’ve been listening non-stop to episodes of this show, and they’re amazing.)

This is my favorite anecdote from her interview, where she explains how nervous she was that AOL’s competitors would follow their strategy.

I say I wake up every morning worried that I’m going to see Prodigy or CompuServe using the disks the way that we’re using them. That I’m going to see it stuck onto the front of a magazine, or that I’m going to see it in the mail.

And the thing that was really interesting about that point, and one of the reasons—you know, I gave very few interviews. In fact, it’s noted somewhere that I really wouldn’t talk to the press at that point, and the reason I wouldn’t—and I would never have talked to them then the way that I’m talking to you about it now—is because I felt like I was sitting there with the secret sauce, and everyone was going to want to know what were the responses? What were the costs? And I wasn’t going to tell them. So I didn’t think I’d make for a good story.

But Ted Leonsis was once on a panel with someone from CompuServe. And the guy from CompuServe, I don’t remember who it was at the time, said to Ted, “You guys are crazy, and the person running marketing has got to be a nutcase with the amount of money that you’re spending on these disks.”

Ted comes back and reports this to me, and I said, “Next time someone says that, agree that I’m a dumb broad, and that you’ve been trying to get me fired from the company for a long time and you haven’t been able to figure out why you haven’t been able to do that.” And the reason for that, really, is that I couldn’t believe that they weren’t trying it! And it’s because they were making a really common, frightfully common mistake about not understanding the economics of the business.

Listen to the whole episode and, really, the whole podcast.