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Tech Industry

Service to target email, not spam

PowerAgent is gearing up to launch a new product that lets small business eschew spam and send targeted messages to interested consumers, who don't have to reveal their email addresses.

PowerAgent, based in Menlo Park, California, is gearing up to launch a new product that lets small business eschew spam and send targeted messages to interested consumers, who don't have to reveal their email addresses.

From neighborhood delis to high-priced perfume counters, almost 50 percent of all U.S. companies have set up a Web site, IDC Research reported in July. But once a site is up, there's always the task of getting the word out.

Starting in October, consumers can receive a message each day that points them to Web sites promoting entertainment events or retail deals in their area, for example. To receive the message, surfers have to fill out an online form specifying their email address, zip code, and interests, such as cars, computers, movies, or travel. But the messages don't come directly from the vendor; PowerAgent aggregates the consumers' requested data and sends it along in an email or a dynamically generated Web page.

For small businesses on the Net, PowerAgent provides a way to send out messages to people in their area or to those across the Net who have specified an interest in the vendor's product category. When businesses send a note from PowerAgent's site, they are given the exact number of people who will receive the note. For $350 a business can send a total of 10,000 messages.

But PowerAgent's strategy is to sell the service to city directories that can then offer it for free to their Web hosting customers. Tomorrow, PowerAgent will kick off its TrafficBuilder program aimed at directory services such as BigBook, CitySearch, or US West Interactive's DiveIn, which offer a site building and hosting service to businesses. PowerAgent consumer messaging can be bundled with a Web hosting service starting in the fall as a way to promote vendors' new sites.

PowerAgent is trying to find a balance between helping online businesses better promote their Web sites and services to specific demographics while guaranteeing that customers won't receive a bunch of junk mail.

"We need to get people to sign up and then deliver relevant information to them. The other challenge is finding lots of businesses that have interesting offers for online consumers," said Greg Waldorf, vice president of corporate development for PowerAgent. "Users have said they have a hard time finding stuff on the Internet. If they can eliminate the junk email and only get what's relevant to them, then that's a great value."

Still, consumers want to know how their personal data will be used, as the Federal Trade Commission heard loudly and clearly during its June hearings about online privacy.

PowerAgent does not give data, email addresses, or zip codes to third parties, Waldorf said. Consumers can cancel the service at any time; no business that sent them messages will ever have their email address unless the surfer forfeited it, he added.

"Our system is designed so that even we can't associate your interest profile with your email identity, and Price Waterhouse audits this system," Waldorf noted.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story inaccurately reported that DiveIn's parent was USWeb, not US West Interactive. NEWS.COM regrets the error.