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Portal execs on common ground

Five high-profile leaders discuss their strategies for survival in an industry marked by rapid change and a frenetic race to win over Netizens.

SAN FRANCISCO--Five high-profile Internet executives converged today to discuss their strategies for survival in an industry marked by rapid change and an often frenetic race to win over Netizens.

Portal site executives featured on the panel of today's Jupiter Communications Financial Services Forum agreed that their efforts could be summed up in two words: "branding" and "distribution."

"When it comes down to it, we are always looking for distribution," said Jeff Mallett, chief executive of Yahoo. "Any good media company is constantly seeking out new users."

Discussing how a portal can build an audience and win over enough loyal users to stay ahead of the pack, the panelists also addressed the burning question of how effective media equity partnerships will become in the future, and why some portals have shied away from them.

Snap chief operating officer Edmond Sanctis and Infoseek senior vice president and portal site general manager Barak Berkowitz labeled their partnerships with media giants NBC and Disney as the crucial thrust in promoting their portals to millions of home audiences. (Snap is a joint venture between NBC and CNET: The Computer Network, publisher of

But others disagreed with the notion that a media stake will be the universal solution to effective branding. Mike Homer, executive vice president and general manager of Netcenter, maintained that his company's key to widely distributing its portal brand rests in leveraging the widespread use of its Navigator browser.

Homer said Netscape has already begun to integrate Netcenter into numerous Navigator functions, and will leverage the browser's popularity to yield a heftier audience base.

"The strongest marketing position that we have is the people who use our software," said Homer.

Typically the backbone of a portal's viability and popularity rests in content. Portals have focused heavily on aggregating content and services to appeal to both the business market, as seen in financial channels, and the general-interest market, which feeds off local content or sports scores, for example.

Craig Forman, vice president of interactive at financial site CNNfn, warned the audience and fellow panelists that while content is key to brand affinity, portals that rely on outside content may be building a service based on a "house of cards." Online seekers of information are more savvy, and may be more discriminating about the value of information they need, he said.

"The danger is, you build a portal that is based on other people's content, and you don't own any of it," said Forman.

"One of the things that is becoming increasingly apparent is our users are sophisticated, they're demanding, and must likely to transact online, and much more likely to know what the online experience is all about," he added.