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Calendars key to portals' progress

Just as 1998 was the year the Web discovered free email, 1999 is turning out to be the year of the calendar.

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Just as 1998 was the year the Web discovered free email, 1999 is turning out to be the year of the calendar.

Portal sites are racing to get ahead in the calendaring game, forming alliances and making acquisitions to offer their users online scheduling tools. And while this application may not be destined for the ubiquity of Web-based email, it could provide Web portals with a means of synching up the needs of their users and the sales goals of their advertisers.

Recent activity in the portal space has included the acquisition of Jump Networks by Microsoft, the acquisition Portals: the new desktop? of When.com by America Online, the launch of a calendar service by Lycos in conjunction with Amplitude.com, and the launch of a calendar service by Excite in conjunction with Starfish.

Calendaring offers two advantages for portals. One is the potential for greater "stickiness," the amount of time a user spends on a site and the frequency of his or her visits.

The second advantage, more specific to calendaring, is the treasure trove of detailed personal information that a calendar can provide for the purpose of targeting ads. Has the user penciled in a wedding anniversary or birthday? Diamond brokers, florists, and champagne vendors will pay the portals to find that out and offer their goods just when the user might be in the mood to buy them.

"What I like in calendaring is the connection to actual transactions," said Allen Weiner, analyst with NetRatings. "This allows for what I call 'place-based marketing,' or putting marketing capability in context of a place so there's a higher degree of transaction completion. A banner ad may not lead you to an actionable task. The beauty of this is that it leads to actionable tasks."

From a marketing perspective, calendaring may appear to present the perfect symbiotic relationship: the portal provides a useful, free service, which doubles as a repository for valuable, granular demographic marketing information regularly updated by the user. But from a privacy perspective, the model raises some troubling questions--namely, do users really want florists and greeting card vendors thumbing through their personal schedules?

But these issues are not a problem, according to Weiner.

"Optimally, you, as the user, are in control," Weiner said, suggesting the use of a dial that determines the degree to which e-commerce pitches are keyed to the calendar. "You can rev up the dial as much as you want or set the dial to 'low.' It's a good example of putting the end user in charge of transactions."

As for stickiness, calendars offer some enticing opportunities to keep eyeballs glued to the portal, particularly if the calendar is well-integrated into the portal's other utilities and offerings. Microsoft, while comparatively late to the calendaring game, scored points for acquiring Jump, a company with a special focus on integrating email, the calendar, the contact database, task lists, and other utilities within one interface.

"Getting the Jump acquisition let Microsoft get a big leap ahead," said Jerry Michalski, an analyst with Sociate.com. "Microsoft wants to integrate these things better than anyone else has, because when they integrate all those things they build a platform that people can build their businesses on."

However, some point out that portals are not proving to be the "stickiest" sites. Rather, they are facing competition from transaction-oriented sites--specifically, auction sites such as eBay.

"Stickiness is not a measure of efficiency--it's a measure of how engaging you are," said NetRatings analyst Peggy O'Neill. "eBay is offering an experience. The people who go to eBay to bid keep coming back to check on their auctions. It's entertainment.

"Calendaring is one more bell and whistle to put on the portal to get users to stay there," O'Neill added. "If you're checking your stocks and your email, you're going to spend a lot of time there, and it becomes hard for you to switch sites. The cost of switching sites goes higher as you put more and more of your life on one site."

Lycos, which bought personal home page communities Tripod and Angelfire, is pitching its calendar offering as a bonus for personal home page builders.

"We have more than 3 million users who are used to publishing and sharing information," said Michael Himmelfarb, director of product marketing for Lycos. "The calendar is a natural extension to publishing a Web page. It's perfect for local organizations like church groups or the Boy Scouts to publicize events in a community format."

The published calendar takes advantage of the Web's strengths, Himmelfarb pointed out, while some of the Web's inherent limitations detract from basic personal calendaring.

"Web calendars are just not equal to having [Microsoft's] Outlook or a PDA in functionality or speed," Himmelfarb said. "There are some inherent disadvantages. But the sharing side is the big win right now. That's where we're leveraging the inherent advantage of the Internet."

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