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CompuServe lashes out over forums

CompuServe says it won't stand for MSN snagging its forum managers.

    CompuServe (CSRV) says it won't stand for Microsoft Network snagging its forum managers.

    Some may have thought that the online service had thrown in the towel when America Online (AOL) announced its intention to purchase CompuServe's consumer division. But a recent company memo indicates otherwise.

    The memo, written by a CompuServe vice president, stated in no uncertain terms that the company will not look kindly upon defections of contractors who run forums.

    "Make no mistake about my attitude on this matter: MSN is a major competitor," Bob Kington wrote in a private CompuServe forum. "There can be no doubt whatsoever that MSN thinks and behaves toward us as an enemy."

    The memo goes on to state that forum managers who work for MSN will be viewed differently than those who are loyal, even though they have not signed an exclusive relationship with CompuServe.

    "It is difficult--if not impossible--to imagine having as close a relationship with a business partner who consorts with a direct competitor, as with a business partner who is tied to CompuServe exclusively and is truly committed to making our future productive and profitable," stated Kington, who also emphasized that all contracts will be honored.

    MSN insists that it did not poach forum managers from CompuServe; rather, according to company representatives, the managers came to them. One prominent forum manager said his agent approached Microsoft's online service.

    Either way, the memo underscores the cutthroat atmosphere in online services and other Internet access companies, in spite of--or maybe because of--recently announced mergers like the AOL-CompuServe deal.

    Regardless of why the individual forum managers are leaving, the bottom line is that online services are afraid right now of losing traffic to competitors.

    Despite what a lot of pundits have said about the Internet being like television (including those at MSN), what they're finding is that what people want right now on the Net is interaction. On AOL, they get that interaction through chats and on CompuServe through forums.

    "I think that everybody in cyberspace has determined the most important thing is to aggregate large quantities of eyeballs," said Ron Luks, who runs an online forum management business and is one of the new people MSN said it had signed in a press release. He will be managing computing forums on MSN while still maintaining forums on CompuServe.

    Luks said he decided to go to MSN because it is a strong service with a lot of potential for growth. But he also has enough faith in CompuServe to stay there. "You can do it with a big splashy show. The other way of doing it is to work from the bottom up, and that's where I think forums come into play. My experience has been that forums provide a very loyal customer base."

    CompuServe insists that the number of defections represents only about one percent of forum managers and that this does not harm the service.

    Steve Conway of CompuServe said the fact that MSN is putting out press releases playing up the recent hirings--some of which are going to be on both services--indicates that MSN is trying to beef up its forums to compete with CompuServe's.

    "MSN is aggressively trying to get people to come over in order to build up its forum capability," Conway added. "What's going on in particular with the pending combination of AOL and CompuServe is MSN is suddenly much further behind the pack. I think they are trying to find an audience and identity."

    But at least one forum manager, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he was contemplating defecting because CompuServe has had so many problems.

    Kym Lukosky, MSN's community programming producer, said MSN was approached by a third party on the managers' behalf. She added that discussions have gone on for months, adding that there is no deeper message to be read into the hirings than the fact that the Microsoft service wants quality forums.

    "MSN is committed to looking for the best and building our community and these people are the best," Lukosky noted. "Microsoft knows that community is important on the Internet. We know that that's important to our members."