OWNERS ABOARD

UK media owners are joining the Internet rush, but they must ensure their sites offer something different, says Nick Jones

The Internet is well established as a medium in the UK. Those who doubt its popularity and permanence should note that the new year brought the Electronic Telegraph its millionth registered user and saw the arrival online of such varied titles as the Express and The Fortean Times.

And it is not only the newspapers which are building new media operations. Brands across the media spectrum are developing Websites and interactive strategies to reach their audiences.

While the launch of yet another print title’s Website is no longer news, what is exciting is the titles that are breaking the models associated with early Internet publishing. It is only appropriate that at the front of the next generation is IPC’s Loaded. The publishing rule-breaker’s site, dubbed with the droll name Uploaded, is keen to avoid Web clichés, proclaiming “this isn’t just another tedious waste of Web space or loads of old bits from the magazine that have been rehashed”.

Users of the site – www.uploaded.com – can vote on the best looking girls, download seedy screensavers and listen to pirate radio.

Joining Loaded on the electronic news-stand is EMAP’s New Woman, the latest addition to the publisher’s Connect stable of sites developed for the Web and CompuServe. Like Loaded, New Woman (www.erack.com/ newwoman) breaks a few rules. The monthly title provides a daily update of relevant news, which is important to encourage return visits to the site. But it still serves up a diet of horoscopes, hunks and health advice.

Some publishers are more cautious when taking their properties online. United News & Media has opted to take a well-established formula online by launching the Express holiday brochure ordering service Website. The service ties in with the paper’s popular brochure, and existing advertisers are encouraged to place ads on the new site with reduced fees.

Keith Cartwright, group head of travel advertising at the Express, says: “I’ve been looking for something to expand our Net content. This is the first stage between travel content and potential revenue.”

So, how do these new kids on the block shape up against their US cousins?

While praising the couch-potato lifestyle, Uploaded shapes up well against US men’s magazines. Men’s Health has a site (www.menshealth.com) that tries to mix health with “lad” humour. But despite the irony deficiency, it makes the most of the Web’s multimedia features.

New Woman’s site launched in the shadow of Cosmopolitan’s but it shines in comparison. Sex and health tips can be found on both but New Woman’s daily update outshines Cosmo’s previews of the print edition.

The Express may be an established name in the UK but in the travel sector, one of the Internet’s most exploited areas, that is of little comfort. It could find itself competing against the might of Microsoft for the attention of holidaymakers, if the software and would-be media giant decides to expand its Expedia (www.expedia.com) and Mungo Park (www.msn.com/mungopark) travel sites beyond the US.

Some UK media brands are also keen to go global. The Economist magazine will soon launch a Website that will charge a subscription to access some parts of it. “For our international readers the attraction of getting it speedily and online is a considerable enhancement”, says editor Bill Emmott.

One of the most exciting results of going on the Web for radio stations has been the growth of international audiences. One ex-pat IBM executive in Chicago confesses to “tuning in” to Virgin Radio’s Website when he gets home-sick.

And since Virgin Radio pioneered Internet radio in the UK last year, many stations have woken up to other ways the Web can help them exploit their brands. At the forefront are LBC and Capital FM.

LBC’s site (www.lbc.co.uk) was initially conceived as a means of marketing the station and joint promotions with the likes of restaurants and venues, but it quickly realised it could be used to extract value from the information that came into its newsroom every day.

“LBC listeners aren’t interested in chat. They want quality information,” says John Williams, the station’s new media publisher. So, the site is being used to broadcast events which are too long to squeeze into a hectic radio schedule.

The station’s brand values of timely information are not compromised by the site, which offers a live text feed of travel news as well as detailed regional weather.

In contrast, Capital FM is keen that its site (www.capitalfm.co.uk) should set its listeners talking. It features chat “rooms” and enlivens traditional site content, such as entertainment guides and downloads, by exploiting some of the latest Net technologies.

A dedicated new media department helps the station keep on top of developments. According to Douglas McCallum, who heads the department, Capital is looking at how software can be used to build online communities – reinforcing the strategy of building lasting relationships with listeners.

The élan with which print publishers and radio stations in the UK have adapted to the Web is not always matched by the TV companies. While some see the Net as a means of learning about interactivity others believe it is just another way of publishing schedules.

A site to watch is that of BSkyB (www.sky.co.uk). The satellite channel has developed it beyond the simple schedule model by building its content from successful programming such as The X Files and sport – the site is also home to the official Manchester United site.

The depth of content is due to the site’s integration into the station’s other operations. News and sports content generated by its 30-strong Skytext teletext team complements the set-piece work undertaken by dedicated journalists working on individual programme and channel areas. “We believe this is a business,” explains Simon Howson-Green, head of Internet at BSkyB. He says that the site is not funded from the marketing budget – as many schedule-driven sites are. Instead, sponsorship and advertising bring in revenue.

Also exploiting programming links is United News & Media’s Meridian. Its site (www.meridian.tv.co.uk) launched at the same time as the station’s adaptation of Emma and during the first weeks online, the site examined Austenmania. Other content ties in with the Cyberspace series that “explores the marriage of TV and the new interactive media”, explains Adrian Tennant, whose Alchemy Interactive Marketing Services created and maintains the Meridian site.

Nearly all major cinema releases in the UK are supported by Websites, unlike most television series. The exception proves the rule. While Polygram Filmed Entertainment made the mistake of not commissioning a Website for the theatre release of Trainspotting it made amends for the video release with an site that exploited the films cult imagery (www.trainspotting.co.uk).

There are lessons that all media brands can take from their involvement in the new media. Primarily that it should be treated as a high stakes game.

Another lesson is to expect to co-operate. In the US, Condé Nast teamed up with Internet search firm InfoSeek. In the UK, News International and BT will soon launch the Springboard online service. In Japan, daily newspaper Mainichi Shimbun signed up electrical goods retailer Bic Camera to work with it on the Nippon Internet service.

But it may be too late for some media owners to benefit from the most important lesson. The Web is the cheapest way to experiment with new media and learn lessons in how to use interactivity.

The advent of Internet technologies that push content to users over networks is the cause. Pioneering work by PointCast, BackWeb and Marimba and iFusion has demonstrated that it is possible to overcome the limits on using the Internet to serve up a feast of multi-media content to users – even to TV quality in the case of iFusion’s Arrive network.

But the cost of redesigning content to suit the nuances of each of these networks could become a barrier to entering the interactive media market for those owners which have not yet understood which model suits them best. Unfortunately, many in this category are British. Jean Louis Bravard, president of iFusion, reports only a lukewarm response to his company’s technology from UK media owners.

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