America Online's Instant Messenger is open on my desktop from the moment I walk into the office until I leave at night, and I also run Microsoft's MSN Instant Messenger nearly as often. The result is that I have two lengthy lists of contacts on each IM client. Needless to say, the prospect of a multi-platform IM client that will allow me to chat with anyone on AIM and MSN simultaneously is always an attractive, albeit not a new, proposition. (See Trillian and GAIM.) So, when a savvy reader pointed me to Imvite Messenger, as a potential IM client, I was intrigued and decided to visit the Imvite Web site to investigate. I discovered some promising (though still in beta) technology and one rather disturbing marketing approach. I suggest you read all that follows before checking out the Web site.
Imvite's home page was not what I expected. The tag line calls it "Your Global Gateway to Everything Ecommerce." Nestled below is the pitch for a multi-platform IM client, capable of allowing users to chat with contacts on AIM, ICQ, MSN, and Yahoo!. And just above that is a promise to "Earn Rebates Every Time you shop." I have no idea what this has to do with instant messaging. There was also a $5 offer for me if I downloaded the client "today". I didn't need the $5 and began to wonder why Imvite was pushing so hard to sign me up. Still, the screen shot of the IM client looked impressive so I decided to see if I could download and install it.
I selected a download link that didn't mention the $5 offer and landed on a page with two download options: one was for the messenger client alone and the other was for the client and some sort of affiliate program that said I could "earn cash" in three different ways: • By simply downloading the client, I could earn $5. • By shopping at my favorite online stores, I could earn rebates. • By encouraging my friends (and my friends' friends) to shop online, I could earn commissions when they did. Everyone has to use Imvite's shopping links in order for this to work, of course.
I really wasn't interested in any of that, so I selected the first option. Even though the Download Now link was live, it didn't go anywhere. Right underneath the button was a note: "Not available during pre-launch." I know I should have read that first, but the big, green Download Now button caught my eye. I suspect that's not an accident.
In the end, I had no choice but to choose the second option. I still didn't understand this affiliate program, so I clicked the link that offered to tell me how the program works. The first part dealt with the "Affiliate Program Compensation Plan." I guess this is a euphemism for "You get paid if people click on our links." The explanation outlined how members can buy from authorized online merchants or even Imvite's own branded products. The second part of the explanation discussed "Revenue Share Marketing," a trademarked term that apparently means that all members can, at some point, share in the revenues Imvite receives from authorized vendors and dealers.
Little alarm bells starting going off in my head. What kind of service is this? There were hints of Amway, Quixter, and Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) programs, but I didn't have to sell anything, just get my friends and family to use the IM client and click on the shopping links.
It appeared that in order to get the multi-platform IM client, I had to become an affiliate. And apparently, I didn't get the $5 until "my earnings reached $25 or more." And if I did all my shopping through Imvite, even eBay purchases, I'd get a rebate. You can even, according to the site, earn more money if your friends sign up as basic members (not affiliates), since you then receive rebate credits for their purchases. You get even more credits if members that become affiliates based on your recommendations also bring in new affiliates.
As the explanations grew more convoluted, I began to wonder where all this affiliate money goes. Is there an account? Can I access it?
I was concerned, but having stepped into the rabbit hole, I decided to follow it a bit further down. Could I ever get the IM client? Would I figure out where the money goes?
On the download page, I had to choose the registration option. This page asked the usual questions—name, address, phone number—and then I was allowed to set a user name and password. It was also on this page that I discovered where the money goes—to a prepaid ATM account. There was no sign up for it on this initial page and even the Legal agreement included nothing out of the ordinary. I finished the form, hit continue, and got a confirmation page with the first truly, big red flag. The page told me my membership was confirmed and displayed not only my member name, but my password as well. That's about as amateurish as you can get. The page did allow me to download the client (which I did) and then encouraged me to sign up with PrePaid ATM for an account where they could dump my affiliate bounty. I wasn't interested in this, but I decided to check out the link anyway.
The link took me to Prepaid ATM.com, a rather cheesy-looking site (that promises SSL security), run by TransUnion (a bank, I guess) where I was supposed to sign up for a new ATM card. In addition to name and address, the form asked for my Social Security number. That was enough for me. I do not know this Prepaid ATM, TransUnion, or Imvite well enough to give out that info.
Despite my serious misgivings about the whole affiliate program, I decided that since I could opt out of the whole bizarre Prepaid ATM thing, I would still try IMvite.
The software installed cleanly and on launch allowed me to enter the handles and passwords I use for MSN and AOL (and ICQ and Yahoo, if I used them). With that done, the main screen populated with all of my buddies and MSN contacts.
MSN signed me out as soon as I signed into Imvite, but AOL allows me to stay connected, and when I sent an instant message to someone through Imvite, the response appeared in both Imvite and AIM—that seems like a potential security risk, but I'm not sure if that's AOL's fault or Imvite's.
The client does have one nice privacy feature: it offered the option of choosing whether or not I wanted to save my discussion history on my computer. It also, quite quickly, proved to be a decent and clean-running instant message client. It can reside in my task tray and a little pop-up bug and whistle lets me know when someone is online. My contacts are organized by folders in alphabetical order. A red icon appears next to a name when they're offline and green when they're on. There's a skin and display setting, but currently there's only one skin to choose from. I can, however, set the transparency of the entire client from 0 to 70 percent. I tried 60 percent, but the app was so ghostly that I couldn't' tell who was online and who wasn't.
The shopping aspect of the service is visible in the client through the "My Shops" drop-down menu. There's a list that includes major retailers like Best Buy and eBay. And there's even a Google search button built into the interface. On the left-hand side there are buttons (only one of which is live in this version) for shopping, dating, travel, family, and Web sites. There's little indication of the whole "Affiliate" program beyond an affiliate menu item. Clicking on it shows "Online Office", which brings up an extranet log-in. There's no explanation about what that is, so I left it alone.
So what am I to make of Imvite? The sign-up, marketing, and e-commerce scenario presented on the Web site is creepy. I can't think of a good reason to give out my social security number to a site/company I barely know. Even those I do know will never ask for it. Yet, there's no denying that the IM client is clean and functional. And it works as advertised. Unfortunately, I expect that Imvite's Web site come-on will scare off so many people that few will ever get the opportunity to experience the Imvite multi-platform IM client.
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