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Netscape looks for a wider audience

The company launches an advertising campaign designed to convert everyone from Martha Stewart Living readers to X-Files aficionados into Netcenter users.

Netscape Communications is launching an advertising campaign designed to convert a wide audience, ranging from Martha Stewart Living readers to X-Files aficionados, into Netcenter users.

As reported yesterday, Netscape is embarking on its first offline advertising blitz in hopes of bringing Netcenter into the mainstream spotlight. The campaign, which carries a $30 million price tag, will include television, radio, print, and billboard ads aimed at attracting a college-educated, affluent, Web-savvy, 25-49-year-old demographic. The advertisements, some of which already have appeared in magazines, promote the entire Netscape brand rather than marketing Netcenter as an independent entity.

"We're trying to establish the awareness of Netscape Netcenter as a portal," said Lynn Carpenter, director of Web site marketing for Netscape. "We're trying to hit people with the fact that Netscape is a technology company that has been able to bridge the gap into the portal and new media space."

Today's announcement comes just weeks after Netscape accepted a $4.2 billion acquisition bid from America Online. The combination of the two Internet giants is expected to consolidate the portal space, positioning AOL as the leader in overall Web audience reach, helped in part by traffic routed through Netcenter.

AOL said when the combination was announced last month that its primary interest in Netcenter was the site's appeal among the "early-adapter" crowd that tends to be more Web-savvy than AOL's traditional audience of Net newbies. AOL has noted also that acquiring Netcenter's audience would expand its reach because it is popular with people who access the Web at work.

The new Netscape ad campaign is taking a broad-based approach toward attracting those desirable demographic groups, as evidenced by targeted programming on television programs like The X-Files, er, 20/20, and 60 Minutes; as well as by advertising in magazines ranging from Rolling Stone and Wired to Condé Nast Traveler, Time, and Newsweek.

"Netcenter, although it has more of a business flavor than the standard AOL beginning page, is till trying to appeal to a wide variety of people rather than a vertical media," said Clay Rider, chief analyst at Zona Research. "They're making a bet that they have something with wide appeal, whether you're a Martha Stewart Living fan, or an X-Files fan.

"It's like Coca Cola branding," Ryder added. "The fact is Coke ads are targeted towards every living, breathing being on the planet."

What remains in question is whether Netscape's targeted audience crosses over with AOL's audience, since both companies target affluent, educated users.

That question may come to a head sooner than many expected.

Netcenter potentially could attract the same users that AOL properties are aiming for, even though AOL has maintained that its portal will appeal to a distinctly different audience.

Since AOL acquired rival online service CompuServe, it has marketed its once archenemy as a service geared toward the same high-end, Web-savvy, early adapter demographic Netcenter is after. And today, CompuServe relaunched its Web site with a "preview" version that contains many portal-like features.

With more aggressive marketing muscle in Netcenter's campaign, some analysts question how Netcenter and CompuServe will coexist in the future.

"Does Netscape become the CompuServe of the business and technology crowd, and AOL will be the mass-market brand?" asked Jupiter Communications senior analyst Patrick Keane. "You have to argue that the Netscape and CompuServe audience is very similar. That's a high-end, affluent audience?not Reader's Digest and Parade."