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Free Branding!
May 28, 1998 :: Michael Sippey

Today Business Week Online morphed their website from a mere "content" repository into something much more glamorous: a portal. With the addition of free email services provided by CommTouch ("Set Your Email Free"), Business Week Online is now supposed to be the "one-stop shop" for harried business types.

From Business Week's perspective, it's obvious what benefits they accrue by portalizing themselves with free email services. They get repeat traffic -- assuming, of course, that readers actually end up using their address for correspondence. And, more importantly, they propagate their brand. After all, if they can convince readers to use that address, the words "business" and "week" will start appearing in mail clients all over the 'net...and Business Week can use signature files to promote content, subscriptions, services, etc.

But from the reader's perspective, the value proposition is a little shakier. Business Week Online general manager David Smith was quoted in a story today as saying that "time is the rarest commodity for business people today. By offering email on the Web site where our readers go for business news every day, we enable busy executives to complete two daily and essential tasks at the same time."

Is this what product positioning on the web has come to? Saving time? Most Business Week readers probably have more than one email address (one for corporate mail, one for personal, and maybe a HotMail account thrown in for good measure); and you can bet that they're getting business and financial news from more than one news source. Combining an awkward web email interface with a meager offering of business news stories isn't going to save anyone any time.

Given the dozens of portals competing for web eyeballs, the real value equation for the user revolves around something a bit more slippery: brand identity. With the proliferation of free email providers (from Excite and Yahoo to Business Week and Universal Studios), web users can break the chains of their corporate- or ISP-dictated identity, and create another persona: one that freeloads off the brand identity of their new domain name.

Want to appear anonymous in that chat room? Use your HotMail account. Want to impress your friends with your love of nature? Use your Discovery Online account. Are you a mid-level manager looking for a new job on company time? Impress your potential employers with your business savvy by using your Business Week email address.

Just once I'd like to see a portal position their free e-mail services as doing more for their customers than just saving time. "Improve your image! Impress your friends! All by having an email address at (insert web site name here)."

After all, that's what business The Well has been in for years...



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