Scrambling into the Net

Intuitive, quick-to-use portals are no longer enough for Internet users. The new generation is being targeted with highly branded portals specifically aimed at them, says Clare Dowdy

“Everybody wants to become a portal, but they can’t unless they offer real differentiation and added value.” So says Dave Wallace, executive producer for Entranet Online, which develops on-line commerce solutions for individual companies.

This is the challenge for the UK’s newest Internet shopping gateway, Zoom, which launched on Monday. Set up by retailer Arcadia Group, formerly Burton Group, the portal was created in conjunction with The Fourth Room. An independent subsidiary, Zoom offers access to Arcadia brands such as: Topshop /Topman, Principles, Dorothy Perkins, Burton Menswear and Racing Green. Other Zoom partners are Carphone Warehouse, HMV, Carlton, Interflora, Ticketmaster and Associated Newspapers.

Arcadia is using its retail and home catalogue experience for the project. “We are building the first Bluewater in the sky,” says Zoom chairman Robin Klein.

There is already a plethora of gateways to choose from, with Yahoo! UK, which gets 62 million hits a month, being the most popular. “Yahoo was the original company to take other people’s content and package it up to sell across the Yahoo portal,” says Wallace. Dixons Freeserve, aol.co.uk and UKplus are other familiar portal names, battling for the Internet user’s attention.

There are currently more than 60 Internet service providers in the UK, according to The Fourth Room chief executive Piers Schmidt, and by the end of the year there are expected to be 200. And successful portals are highly covetable: “If you get millions of people going into the Net through your gateway, you have massive leverage as to where they go next,” says Schmidt.

Many of these ISP’s are accused of offering similar information. “Normally the channels are very similar, with news, entertainment and the like. Most are the same and rather overwhelming,” says Schmidt.

While the first adopters of the Internet tended to be the “techies”, the next wave “will want real utility, function and fun”, says Klein. These portals must target a specific audience.

Zoom is aimed and branded at women, the fastest growing group on-line. Other UK organisations have also seen the potential of a women’s Internet service, a phenomenon which has already taken off in the US with sites such as Oxygen.com and Women.com. Associated Newspapers plans to launch CharlotteStreet.com in September, designed by a team being put together by design technical director Kenn Jordan. The potential financial rewards are high, with UK women controlling 80 per cent of the spend in the home, according to Jordan.

“It’s very much a mass market proposition,” Schmidt says of Zoom. The front end design is intended to be clear, modern, fun and simple. Only one or two syllable words are used, and the graphics are kept simple so that the site can be explored swiftly. The name was chosen to suggest speed and dynamism. “Zoom is not one of the original Internet brands, so we had to create a brand very quickly,” he adds.

While the number of portals proliferates, the tendency will be for more specific, rather than general offers. “If it [a portal] becomes too big, it becomes useless,” says Deepend creative director Simon Waterfall. “If it gets to be navigation within navigation within navigation, you might as well contact the company direct,” he adds.

Specialist sites are the way forward, he says. “Portals are supposed to be clear, precise signposts. They need to be a set size and for a set interest.” Wallace at Entranet agrees: “I see very big generalised sites… then also sector-specific sites.”

With all these sites and portals competing for women’s attention, the winners will be those which really understand their audience’s on-line needs.

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