The Internet’s portal to a more personal world

Have you, like me, been struck by the emphasis being given to the notion of Internet “portal” Websites lately? Portal, it seems, has been the buzzword of 1998 for new media.

The hype about mass-audience portal sites is tending to obscure what, in marketing terms, are the real merits of the online medium as a place to build highly targeted relationships with communities of customers and prospects.

Some portals – sites intended to offer a one-stop gateway to the Internet – are being built around directory and search services such as Yahoo!, Excite, and Lycos.

Others are in various stages of development by online service companies with AOL, Microsoft Start, CompuServe and LineOne as the leading contenders.

The theory is that in the future a handful of large portals will control most users’ access to the Internet. These few Websites will then be able to charge advertisers, sponsors and transaction partners large sums of money to have “early-screen” access to their huge audiences. Niche sites beware.

This old-fashioned broadcast view of the online medium is fine up to a point. But it doesn’t take account of the likelihood that the more experienced online users grow, the less they need to be nannied by a portal site.

And the emphasis currently being placed on the importance of the portals’ promised “mass” audiences is in danger of obscuring the more novel characteristics of online as a marketing tool.

Many of the most popular online services will be specialist ones that combine the practical utility and in-depth understanding of a favourite special-interest magazine with the intimacy of radio.

In this form, the online medium offers a high-efficiency, low-wastage way of reaching customers and creating relationships in ways more akin to direct marketing than broadcasting.

So planners and buyers, if they really want to get value for money from the online medium, will have to be prepared to look beyond the portals to those sites whose activities complement their clients’ activities.

As these tools mature, true “personalisation” will allow online publishers – and their advertisers and sponsors – to get closer than ever before to true one-to-one marketing. Call it the personal portal.

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