For the past few years, many Web companies have touted "utility" applications instead of content as the real magnet for eyeballs. Traditional Web portals aggregating content, such as Yahoo and America Online, have generated sizable audiences based on their ability to offer services such as email, chat, instant messaging, and shopping, along with links to content all over the Web.
But a study released today by research firm Jupiter Communications at its Consumer Online conference here suggests that content is still a primary way for sites to differentiate themselves. Indeed, content providers cultivate demographic data about users, the study said, and use that information to offer advertisers targeted audiences for their products and services.
These ideas are coming to fruition already, as evidenced by a recent rash of moves by offline media giants to launch "destination" sites, which offer users the same utility features as the traditional portals but with the draw of copyright-protected content.
Just yesterday, JamTV, which operates the Rolling Stone Network and other music sites, launched music hub Tunes.com, which offers an array of information and features for music fans. The site is counting on the offline popularity and brand recognition of Rolling Stone magazine to draw traffic and plans to offer advertisers targeted audiences based on the demographic data that users give to become part of the site's communities.
That site is only the most recent example. Time Warner's Warner Bros. Online unit, for example, launched a community site, dubbed ACMEcity, in January, on which fans can use authorized material from the firm's TV, music, movie, and animation properties on personal home pages built on the site. Before building a free home page on ACMEcity, users are asked an array of optional questions about where they live, their age, and the like; they also are asked to check boxes that denote their interests.
Jupiter chief executive Gene DeRose noted today that editorial content is still the main way sites set themselves apart. Media companies also are primed to leverage loyal audiences offline and turn them into regular Web site visitors, as Time Warner, the Rolling Stone Network, and Disney have done. Disney's Go Network also combines the services of a portal with an array of content from its properties, which include Disney, ABC, ESPN, and Mr. Showbiz, in an effort to appeal to a broad audience. All these companies connect their content to e-commerce opportunities and gather demographic data to target ads.
"We believe the content renaissance is impending, but it's a more complex and hybridized market than before," DeRose said. "While traditional content powers--the media companies--may reemerge as big powers in their space, it will only be as they become more sophisticated in valuing and developing users, not as audience in the traditional way of viewing things, but as customers."
"What will it take for media companies to move back into the limelight?" asked Jupiter analyst Mark Mooradian. "It is adopting commerce tactics to deliver media promise, or the promise that this media has really insinuated about advertising."
Mooradian also added that a significant majority of Web users would not think commerce links would "imperil objectivity" for editorial content. That issue surfaced recently when Amazon.com disclosed that book publishers were paying for prime real estate on its site, though the promotions looked as though they were editorially driven.
Content sites also have been criticized by some for linking to commerce; some observers have pointed to the New York Times' site, because it links book reviews to sales through a deal with Barnes & Noble.