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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Tech Industry

Marketing the medium

Alternately referred to as narrowcasting, community-casting, and direct or "niche" marketing, a new business model for Web publishing and profitability is emerging.

The idea is a natural extension of the Internet's community-based origins. For that reason, it may represent hope for the future of online subscription-based services such as America Online, which has refused to follow its competitors to the open market of the Web.

AOL, which owes much of its success to its development of private cybercommunities through such forums as newsgroups and chat rooms, may seek to apply the same strategy to the Web by supporting narrowcasted sites. The leading online service already has relationships with a number of sites such as PlanetOut, which is aimed toward gays and lesbians.

"AOL has done two things. They have developed a 'greenhouse' pattern, giving marketing support. They have hundreds of account supervisors and are becoming basically one large studio," said Karen Wickre, executive producer for PlanetOut, which launched three weeks ago. "It's also a minority share investor through venture capital firm Sequoia Capital."

In return, she says, "AOL gets a new content area that they believe attracts new people." Services like AOL and Microsoft Network, which also has a "greenhouse" seeding program for fledgling sites, can also offer the Holy Grail of the marketing world: brand recognition.

Some believe that AOL and any number of other large corporations may turn increasingly to sponsorship of entire Web sites, rather than buying banner ads. Under this model, companies would seek to associate themselves with "quality" Web sites and their content, not unlike single-sponsor shows of the early years of television, such as the "Bell Telephone Hour," the "Colgate Comedy Hour," and the "Hallmark Hall of Fame."

"We will see the same kind of intimacy as the sponsor with the TV show," said Pat Meier, principal of the public relations firm Pat Meier & Associates. "Bell Telephone always was associated with culture--ballet, song, some form of substance. It's the soft sell; Bell Telephone wasn't always in your face with commercials."

This kind of sponsorship could also breed a new kind of financial relationship with site operators as well. Some sponsoring companies might offer Web publishers a cut of the revenue generated by the sale of products advertised the their sites, Cleary said. Still other sites might charge for hyperlinks.

The future will also see more cross-pollination among sites. "A site that sells wines may develop ancillary businesses or link to other companies that provide related products, such as stemware, cheese, books, or a trip through the Cabernet region," said Linda Kazares, president of consulting firm Ambit International.

That's exactly what the founders of Channel A are hoping for.

As Executive Editor Chin puts it, "We want to be what MTV is to music, what CNN is to world news, and what the Home Shopping Network is to retail."