Plenty of fish to be caught in Net

This week the future creaked into sight on the Internet. Improbably, it featured both Microsoft and Vogue. One is a confirmed Net evangelist; the other could scarcely be less wired in its demeanour.

Microsoft launched a Webzine for non-nerds, called Slate. It created quite a stir. Not because the concept is new (it isn’t), but due to Microsoft’s presumed motives in becoming a publisher. Why a journalist working for Slate should be any more trammelled by its publisher’s personal agenda than one employed on, say, The Times is a moot point. The product’s success or failure will finally turn on whether ‘readers’ like its content.

Nevertheless, it’s fair to say Bill Gates does have an agenda, and he’s doing something sensible to promote it – by demonstrating the power of branding. He’d like to appropriate the Net but knows doing so won’t be a simple replay of the MS-Dos story, which laid the foundation of Microsoft’s global success. In fact, he’s behind in the field and desperate to catch up. Slate is a small but significant part of his strategy. Gates is trying to move the debate on from technology, where he is relatively weak, to content provision and branding, where he could be a lot stronger. Who knows? within a few years we could see another NASDAQ flotation attracting the fanciful stock valuation of a Netscape, Wired or Yahoo!. If Slate succeeds.

The power of branding has evidently contributed to Condé Nast’s entirely separate decision to go big on the Web, with a 600-page site. The aim is very different. One thing seems certain: it’s too costly to be – as is the case with many corporate Websites – simply a promotional gimmick. Condé Nast has decided there is a rich vein of advertising revenue to be tapped, on the evidence of GQ which it put online last year. Little else could account for the ostensibly bizarre addition of Vogue, not to mention World of Interiors and Tatler, to the Internet stable.

Some advertisers – Eurostar springs to mind – have clearly been delighted by the number of hits they have received, together with valuable database information gleaned from registration. But Procter & Gamble’s canny deal with Yahoo! should sound a note of warning to any media owner intent on making a fortune from Net advertising.

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to swing to the opposite extreme in supposing, cynically, that the only people making money on the Internet are specialist suppliers to publishers. The case studies of BMW GB and Yell (Yellow Pages) will probably make interesting reading when they finally reach the light of day. Improvements in security makes financial services sites daily more commercially attractive. And there seem to be obvious opportunities in the travel and housing sectors. Though who will exploit them remains to be seen.

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