Scramble to build a super showroom in cyberspace

Meg Carter examines how BMW and Yellow Pages are pioneering new services on the Internet
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The Independent Online
IT IS strange how fast things can change. Within months, the idea of setting up a site on the World Wide Web to promote a product or service has become almost passe. The emphasis is now on how businesses differentiate their presence on-line and exploit the potential of the Internet.

Yellow Pages and BMW are the latest companies to set up UK Internet sites. Each claims its presence is unique, offering an added-value service rather than simply repackaging corporate material. Both have taken the unusual step of running advertising in the press.

"The challenge now is to create something people choose to come to. Companies can no longer rely on people visiting their sites out of curiosity," says Mark Curtis, the director of CHBi, the media specialist that created Yell, the Yellow Pages site which launched on the Internet last week. For Yell, this means developing a service, the first comprehensive directory of UK Web sites: 3,000 are listed so far with brief descriptions.

The site has three sections. At its core is UK Yellow Web, a British version of Yahoo, the American directory listing what's on and where to go across the World Wide Web. UK Yellow Web directs browsers looking for any UK or UK-relevant information with direct "hotlinks" enabling almost immediate access to every site. Yell also comprises Film Finder, which lists times and reviews of films showing in 400 cinemas, and Electronic Yellow Pages, an on-line version of the original directory.

"Yellow Pages wanted to create a new brand within its existing product portfolio [Yellow Pages, Talking Pages and Business Pages]," said Mr Curtis. "There are very few on-line brand names, although many brands have gone on-line. There is a difference." As such, marketing and promoting the site is essential. Its press campaign, launched last week, is being supported by promotion, including the UK's first Internet site awards, to be staged jointly by Yellow Pages and .net, an on-line magazine. Mr Curtis said: "Rather than simply using the Internet to promote existing products, Yell is a new service and should be promoted as such." This is a view shared by BMW GB. It is advertising its UK Web site and promoting a service available only on-line: the BMW Approved Used Car Directory. The directory is an interactive feature enabling users to key in requirements and receive a breakdown of every relevant car available and the nearest dealer. The site also includes an information service, sections on product details and financial services, corporate news and a built-in promotional offer.

"It's more than using the Net for the sake of it: we want to use it to sell cars and build the brand," said Nick Lewis, the product manager of BMW GB. BMW's on-line directory features prominently in the BMW site's advertisements using traditional media with the slogan: "Now there's a good reason to surf the Net." Many companies do not understand how to use the Internet so few adequately promote their sites: "They're unclear of just what they can achieve," says Ajaz Ahmed, a director at AKQA, the consultancy that created BMW's site. BMW is committed to developing services using new media and, adopting the motto "think global, act local", it is encouraging different territories to set up Web sites, They already exist in the United States, Canada, Germany, Italy and South Africa. All are linked.

BMW also intends to have all of its 160 UK dealerships on-line by the end of the year. A local training initiative will run throughout 1996. "Local dealers can promote the site in the local press and local media," says Mr Ahmed. "They will also be able to run their own promotions on- line, working within the confines of BMW branding guidelines." The network will also be used for product information and updating manuals, in tandem with BMW's dealer television network.

It is also considering the potential of linking with like-minded advertisers, establishing direct links to the sites of other brands to promote complementary products and services and to redirect browsers with a similar customer profile. This can be achieved by establishing a "hotlink" between two sites: "It could lead to the evolution of on-line, brand communities," says Mr Ahmed.

It is a concept CHBi is also considering. Yell already offers direct links to all other sites listed and Mr Curtis predicts the evolution of "super-sites" - joint sites created by a collection of like-minded, complementary brand owners. He said: "Already, it's not enough just to be there. You have to offer something of value to attract the consumers. A super-site would enable businesses to pool ideas and share development costs."