Freeserve, as everyone knows, fired the first salvo of free internet access in September of last year. Like the Fosbury flop, once one had done it, everyone else had to do the same. So all the other internet service providers followed suit.

Freeserve, as everyone knows, fired the first salvo of free

internet access in September of last year. Like the Fosbury flop, once

one had done it, everyone else had to do the same. So all the other

internet service providers followed suit.

The latest development for the ISPs is cheap phone calls. The next thing

will be free phone calls. So there is no real possibility of any

technical, price or service difference between most of the ISPs. The

access itself becomes a commodity, so the difference is in the


What confuses the matter further is that, irrespective of which ISP

provides your internet access, you can visit any ISP’s site, and see all

the content anyway.

What ISPs have also relied on is people not knowing that they can change

the default home page, so there’s a kind of forced loyalty to their

content and eyeballs are automatically captured.

What the mass-market ISPs are trying to do is reach large audiences,

keep them and encourage them to buy through the site’s e-commerce


They’ve struck the content deals to provide information services and

commerce in every category imaginable. Hence the development of such

products as financial services.

Eyeballs, loyalty, transactions: once you have enough of these you

probably qualify as a portal. It’s interesting to note that both America

Online and LineOne’s users view on average 200 pages on the service per

month, while Freeserve’s users average only 50 pages. In web language,

it’s called ’stickiness’. Yuck. But there are simply not enough people

in this market, or enough web advertising, to support lots of ISPs.

Virgin Net has the usual selection of content and links to shopping

sites and also includes a focus on leisure, with links to live radio

sites all over the world, and other broadcast and entertainment sites.

Ic24 is the Mirror Group’s offering, which contains a myriad of sport,

news and entertainment-based content.

Waitrose links in with its online ordering service. It’s not really a

mass-market ISP but instead caters for a select audience. Food and drink

are the predominant themes with a lot of in-depth discussion on recipes,

ingredients and wine. There’s a page on Waitrose’s wine experts, as well

as a link to Country Life online and sites about golf, which I should

imagine is appropriate for their audience.

It’s some time since I’ve seen the Netscape logo. The AOL-owned Netscape

Online is a result of AOL’s need to launch its own free ISP, while

leaving the paid-for AOL UK service intact. It is clearly aimed at a

younger audience, with prominently displayed buttons saying sport, ’win

two grand’, computer games and chat rooms.

Freeserve’s offering has a lot of content so it can be specialists in

everything, but some of the areas need attention. Babyworld is the only

major specialist site for that market but looks a bit, er, 1997. I

suppose Freeserve will continue to expand its content to accommodate

other audiences, but maybe at the cost of making the home page even more

crowded than it already is.

Community areas are highly developed on all services apart from

Waitrose, but in reality, they consist mainly of chat areas where people

type in capital letters things like ’How old are you?’

The trouble is that, with the exception of Waitrose, these ISPs are

jacks of all trades and masters of none. The new vertical portals or

softals (ie content targeted around a particular theme or audience such

as children, women or music) appear to be the way forward. Vertical

portals will offer comprehensive content and relevant commerce for their

audience without the home page becoming excessively crowded.

These new sites will really benefit from the potential for building

communities on the web, because these people will actually have

something in common.

Their audiences will not necessarily be mass, but they will be


Being early to market is important, so they can attract e-commerce,

sponsorship and advertising partners.


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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).