FORUM: Can the tabloids lead the net’s big leap forward? - As an advertising medium, the internet is no more than a loose change magnet It took just pounds 15 million last year. The Sun and The Mirror could be about to change that with their new f

Online publishing arguably entered a new phase last week with news that Mirror Group plans to launch ic24.co.uk. This isn’t just any old website. It isn’t even an online newspaper - The Mirror has had one of those for ages. It isn’t just a portal - one of those sites like Yahoo that you use as a digital phone directory to search the web for you. No - ic24.co.uk is a portal site that promises to give you free access to the web. Mirror Group has joined a growing band of companies (from the Dixons retail chain to Arsenal Football Club) which have decided to become free internet service providers (or ISPs as the anoraks call them).

Online publishing arguably entered a new phase last week with news

that Mirror Group plans to launch ic24.co.uk. This isn’t just any old

website. It isn’t even an online newspaper - The Mirror has had one of

those for ages. It isn’t just a portal - one of those sites like Yahoo

that you use as a digital phone directory to search the web for you. No

- ic24.co.uk is a portal site that promises to give you free access to

the web. Mirror Group has joined a growing band of companies (from the

Dixons retail chain to Arsenal Football Club) which have decided to

become free internet service providers (or ISPs as the anoraks call

them).



They give you web software and each time you want to launch on to the

web, you dial into a server run by (or on behalf of) Mirror Group. And

unlike the first wave of ISPs, like Microsoft Network and AOL, who

charge a monthly subscription, there is absolutely no charge.



OK, News International will argue that it got there first, two weeks

ago, with the launch of currantbun.com - but where one player might be

quirky, two promise to be a market. And these are most definitely

business propositions, not marketing gimmicks. The services are only

free in that you don’t pay subscription charges. But internet access

comes via phone lines and you still have to pay your phone bill. Your

telephony provider (BT or a cable company) gives Mirror Group or NI a

small cut every time you access the service. That’s where the immediate

profits are to be had.



And it will help accelerate penetration of the internet. Who better to

drive forward the web’s popularity than the country’s most proficient

mass-market communicators? (For now, let’s leave aside the suspicion

that Sun and Mirror readers may not be the world’s greatest users of

computers.)



As all of these new net heads will be bombarded with enticements to look

at The Sun or The Mirror online publications every time they enter cyber

space, page traffic figures should start to look very healthy

indeed.



Which in turn means more advertising and sponsorship propositions. Not

to mention lucrative tie-ups with online retailer outfits.



David Clarke, the managing director of Mirror New Media and Interactive

Services, admits that the online medium’s share of UK advertising is

tiny but is sure it will grow rapidly. ’It’s just a function of how many

people there are online. Free ISPs will really drive that - it’s crucial

in fact.



Every time a customer goes online they go to your home page which in our

case is also our front page. If you do a good job they’ll go to other

pages and they’ll keep coming back. Advertisers who buy into the

internet have the advantage that they can target more tightly because

customers tell you a lot more about themselves. I’m not talking about

individual details - but we will know, for instance, that 20,000 of our

users are interested in football and look at the sports pages.’



This isn’t just about attracting dyed-in-the-wool Mirror readers. Nor is

it just about targeting the UK’s existing net heads who are already

comfortable with the idea of free ISPs. But Clark does admit that if he

can attract a mass audience to ic24, it will widen the appeal of The

Mirror.



’We intend to make ic24 the dominant portal in the UK, with one million

people using it within a year,’ he claims.



Ellis Watson, acting general manager of the rival service,

currantbun.com, agrees that being a free ISP is important but not an end

in itself. He states: ’You need three things in this business. Firstly,

brand fit. You need a real reason to do it. Top Shop may know a lot

about knickers but why does that mean people should trust it as an

internet provider? Secondly, you need to be able to talk to them as

consumers and we do that directly every day through the newspapers. And

thirdly, you need content. What do other service providers have compared

with what we can do here? People love The Sun. If we can translate that

on to the screen we have a real business.’



The online advertising market is still negligible but Watson claims that

it is doubling every four months. If that’s true, it will soon be

measured in the hundreds of millions.



Now that The Sun and The Mirror have upped the ante, will competitors be

forced to follow suit? The Electronic Telegraph - ET - was the UK’s

first online newspaper when it launched in 1994. Last week it won Best

Newspaper on the Web award for the third year running at the UK

Newspaper Awards.



’The ISP route is an interesting model but I’m not sure how dependable

it is,’ Hugo Drayton, the marketing and promotions director of The

Telegraph, says. ’We don’t really want to get involved in the telecoms

business - which is what being an ISP is.



Yes, it may help drive traffic in the short term. But ET has one million

registered users and 70,000 individuals access it every day. If we were

to become an ISP we might lump in a lot more new users but they might

not necessarily be attractive in demographic terms. You can’t equate the

mass readership of The Sun or The Mirror with ET’s international

audience - and 50 per cent, after all, is not in the UK.’



Jane Ostler, the managing partner of MindShare Digital, says online

newspapers already play a valuable part in most online campaigns. ’The

quality of content is usually excellent and they also have the added

strength that comes from the trust people have in these brands.’



But is she excited about these ISP developments? Will it take the

proposition to new levels? She remains to be convinced. ’People like The

Mirror do have advantages in this marketplace in that they have a

ready-made distribution network - they reach out to people on a daily

basis. The problem is that increasing competition will inevitably lead

to churn. Newspapers aren’t the only or even the most important contact

people have with the outside world. They go to banks and shops too. At

some stage free ISPs will hit the problem that all the loyalty card

people have been facing - you have continually to innovate. The next

thing will be free ISPs with free phone charges. Once someone does it,

they all have to follow suit. That would be really interesting.’



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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).