The second in a series. Last month: Prodigy.

America Online (AOL) is one of the cheapest, fastest-growing (and most hip) on-line services. Its rapid rise, however, has brought growing pains: long waits for customer service and occasional program glitches. But if networking is your marketing modus operandi, AOL is worth the trouble.

"You have to recognize that the world's your marketplace. Maybe not today but eventually," says Bill Taube of Database Associates, a fledgling software-design company in Needham, Mass.

Every day, he scans news headlines, makes contacts, and digs up potential sales leads. He also uses AOL's electronic-mail service, which can exchange mail with any other on-line service, including the Internet. (For such heavy usage, expect to pay about $45 a month.)

Like other business owners on-line, Taube regularly monitors messages that apply to his company's field. He browses relevant bulletin boards and answers any questions he can. (A sale is now pending as a result of one exchange.) AOL's bulletin boards cover topics ranging from aviation to pet care.

There are no ads, per se, on AOL. Press releases are buried in bulletin boards, as are members' free classified ads. That lack of advertising appeals to former Prodigy users tired of in-your-face screen pitches.

AOL is the only service offering user-friendly "chat" areas where people across the continent can meet and talk at electronic cocktail parties. Groups of up to 23 meet in "chat rooms," typing messages that appear on the screen for all attendees to view and respond to. At one recent gathering of company owners, several discussed how much of their time was spent on marketing. The group also told a start-up where to find direct-mail lists, and one CEO explained how to leverage customer referrals. Overt deal making, though, is frowned upon in the sessions.

Resource: The Official America Online Membership Kit and Tour Guide (Ventana Press; Chapel Hill, N.C.; 800-743-5369; 1993; $34.95, including software) is full of timesaving tips.

-- Phaedra Hise

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Snapshot: America Online
Members: 500,000

On-line merchants: 40

Message boards: more than 500

Small-business forums: one

Fees: subscribers pay $9.95 a month plus $3.50 an hour; first five hours each month are free

Phone: 800-827-6364