Media: Virgin on the Net

This Internet service provider calls the shots, says Richard Cook
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The Independent Online
Like liggers who have donned disguise and scaled walls to crash a showbiz party, advertisers are just so pleased to be on Internet that they tend to forget what on earth prompted them to go to so much trouble and expense in the first place.

Well, that's all starting to change. Last week saw the launch of the first Internet service provider with a name that even the uninitiated might recognise. Virgin Net claims to be the first "customer friendly" Internet service of the more than 150 already available. Well, maybe, but what is more certain is that the relationship between advertisers and the Net is finally beginning to change.

"Virgin Net basically offers an editorial service," explains Robert Hamilton, a partner at the interactive creative consultancy Indexfinger. "But then that's also what CompuServe and AOL and lots of others do. The crucial difference is that no one thinks of themselves as a CompuServe or AOL type of guy."

And that's the precisely the point. While Virgin Net offers full Internet access, it steers users towards 3,000 specially selected sites, avoiding duplication of services wherever possible. So there will be one TV listings guide featured, for example, one radio station, one airline. Of course, these latter two will be Virgin Radio and Virgin Atlantic, but in fact the marketing is more subtle than that.

To take just one example: when Dodgy plays the Brixton Academy on December 13, Net users will be able to share the sounds, the sweat, the sensations of the gig down their telephone wires. So far so predictable; after all, since Vladivar paid to transmit a Supergrass gig out on its website in March this year, Internet sites have gorged on a diet of virtual rock.

Where this one is different is that Virgin Net will effectively be introducing its subscribers to a range of brands. And because customers trust Virgin enough to opt for its service, they should, at least in theory, feel more warmly disposed to the companies it deals with. In other words, it's not just Virgin Net that will reap the promotional harvest, but every advertiser who makes the necessary contribution. In this case Virgin Radio will be broadcasting the event, NME will contribute interviews and reviews, and Apple will bravely takes computers to the gig to set up a chat room between those attending fans who presumably would rather be on their computers, and those on computers who would rather be at the gig.

"The problem for advertisers on the Net has always been how to get people to look at their sites," explains Charlie Dobres, head of Lowe Digital, the interactive arm of the advertising agency Lowe Howard-Spink.

"You have to sweeten the pill of your message with something that people want to look at. Internet advertisers should be thinking more about creating the right environment for their brand by programming, like the soap powder companies did on TV by making soap operas."

Which is exactly where Virgin Net comes in, and where no doubt Springboard - the vastly bigger BT/News Corp joint venture - will also be when it launches next year. By recommending sites to users it gives advertisers a chance to preach to consumers apart from those already converted. Advertisers have already taken some halting steps to do this, typically by linking up with sporting events. Consider, for example, the Vauxhall site for Euro '96, which steered clear of the hard sell in favour of funky screen savers and lots of football gossip. Ditto Carling's site for the FA Premiership.

Again, the online magazine shift.control manages to peddle Whitbread's beer brands within the context of a fashion and lifestyle magazine, and without boring users with random references to hops, barley or the brewing process. Instead the brewer collects the names and age of those visiting the site and uses the information to market its brands - for example, by encouraging feedback about its new, vodka-based drink, Volsk. The problem is is that these sites have all been operating in isolation. Dedicated Net heads have had to kiss a lot of frogs before finding a website they can feel comfortable with.

"For all the problems that there still are for advertisers on the Net, the one thing that the development of services like Virgin should do is give us an audience to talk to," says Robert Campbell, creative director at one of the Virgin roster agencies, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe. "There will be a Virgin community that we can access."

And that, more than anything else, is likely to shape the future of these new Internet brandsn