Trailblazer - Why Which? is going where other publishers fear to tread.

The Consumers' Association has long been the epitome of unbiased opinion. But will that status now change, as it becomes an ISP and online publisher? Alan Stevens talks to Stovin Hayter.

On the face of it, for an organisation which exists to evaluate the products and services of others, to go into the business of providing internet access would seem pretty risky. Yet that is exactly what Alan Stevens encouraged the Consumers' Association, publisher of the Which? magazines and associated guides, to do 18 months ago. He's the man now responsible for the company's activities as an internet service provider and an online publisher.

The initial impetus, says Stevens, came from association members who started asking for information to be made available online. Further research found that more than 100,000 members had a PC at home with a modem, although only a small percentage were on the internet. "When we asked why they weren't on the internet already, we found that many were afraid of the technology, and it was perceived to be difficult and expensive.

"We decided that it was right for us to put our information online, and also to provide people with the easiest possible way to receive that information," says Stevens.

Being an ISP, however, has meant the Consumers' Association has had to move from being a body that purely evaluates and comments on products and services to being a provider of some of those same products and services.

"We thought long and hard first, and also consulted our members. Some did feel it would not be appropriate. But the overwhelming feeling was that as long as sufficient safeguards were in place, we'd still be independent and it would be the right thing for us to do."

One obvious danger is to the Which? name, should the service itself fall short in any way. "We talked to a large number of companies before we settled on NTL Internet to manage the service," says Stevens. "There are all sorts of service-level agreements built into our contract, and we also purchased sufficient servers to ensure very high levels of back-up and resilience."

Uptake results have been gratifying, with 22,000 subscribers to Which?

Online and another 1,000 a month taking up free trial offers. More than half of those stay on to become paying members, says Stevens. Which? Online is one of the first UK ISPs to advertise on television, resulting in much of the current uptake. TV spend alone is likely to approach œ1 million this year and the marketing budget planned for next year is likely to run to several millions.

"I'd be very disappointed if we didn't have more than 50,000 subscribers a year from now," he adds. That's not much compared to the association's 800,000-plus total membership. But there is little doubt, maintains Stevens, that the online service has helped to extend the organisation's reach and the strength of the Which? brand. "The vast majority of the people our advertising is bringing in were not Which? subscribers before," he says.

Stevens admits the current level of uptake could probably not have been achieved simply with an information service. "Around 3,000 of our subscribers pay only for the content and not access. Launching the ISP was important to gain enough online members to make the full service viable," he explains.

He is now training his sights on yet more ways of delivering that information, and is evaluating micro-payment systems from both BT and Barclays with a view to allowing reports or other information to be bought on a pay-per-view basis.

Which? Online also offers more frequently updated information, such as the weekly Savings Monitor listing current best buys in building society accounts, TESSAs and PEPs, and a soon-to-be-launched daily mortgage rates tracker.

Stevens also sees potential for using the service to enhance the association's campaigning work. "We're putting summaries of all our policy papers on the free area of the site, and in May we're going to be starting public forums to which anyone can contribute. We'll be bringing in experts, politicians and people like the utilities regulators to answer questions from the public as well."


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