No matter how much financial damage a company suffers in a quarter, talk to the marketing men and somehow losing cash is a good thing. In fact, it seems the more the company loses, the more positive the overall picture.
Martin Turner, CompuServe's top marketing man is no doubt paid a lot of money to avoid tricky questions from pony-tailed journalists. But despite every reporter in the western world arriving at the conclusion that things are going awry, prompted by Q2 losses of #34 million (see PC Week 26 November), Turner assures me that Compuserve is booming, thank you very much.
Booming or battling, CompuServe is going through a forced change that will see its image move from friendly consumer service to corporate chum.
By tradition, CompuServe has always been a bit stiff. Its staff may call you Sir and are never seen out of Burton suits. Similarly the service is well known for its reliability and it is this CompuServe hopes will endear it to the corporate market where competition is increasingly fierce.
As a first step away from the consumer market, CompuServe's latest interface, CompuServe Interactive (CSi) 3.0, is rather more formal than AOL's latest release, known simply as version 3.01. After half an hour navigating through the new tools the target audience of the two interfaces becomes blatantly obvious. CompuServe uses strict grids in its design with safe looking icons and user interfaces. It also uses phrases such as "You have new mail" read out by a terribly proper newsreader-type, while AOL pays huge sums of cash to Joanna Lumley to purr "You've got mail", complete with dolby stereo.
CompuServe won't admit it, but the lines have been drawn and the company is now looking at the corporate customer as its main target audience.
It is not as good at hooking in consumers as AOL or even MSN, which both have a clear consumer driven mandate for tantalising that most demanding of audiences.
But the turnaround in CompuServe's strategy is not a signal of lacking in the creative minds that brought us the GIF format and chat forums.
Indeed at the recent press launch of CSI 3.0, the suits showed off several consumer-oriented additions to the new software and did not shy away from comparisons with AOL.
But the consumer market has made its decision, particularly in the US and has given AOL and MSN the biggest thumbs up. It's not very surprising, CompuServe is still stuck with numbers for Email addresses - which just isn't cool for schoolkids on the Web - and retains an older, more mature feel throughout its software upgrades.
Turner grinned at the word "stiff", adjusted his tie again, and told me how well Europe was doing compared with the US. The loss of the WOW service is obviously an embarrassment for the company, "but we are learning from our mistakes," commented Turner, who assured me that consumers would not be forgotten in the future.
With the new logo, new name and new interface, CompuServe could be accused of going through an identity crisis. But the efforts of the company's creative experts will go much further with the new CSi 3.0, especially when it comes to browsing the Web. Instead of the appalling CompuServe browser existing users have had to put up with for far too long, CSi now uses a re-badged Internet Explorer. This in itself should endear end-users to the re-launched service which still boasts the most extensive library of on line information known to man.
In short CompuServe is up and off and doing all the things it needs to in order to survive and embrace the coming years. It's still wearing a suit and it still calls you Sir, but it's pretty, it's fast(er) and it doesn't block access to sites Clinton finds offensive. Indeed at the end of the CSi launch party last week, PC Week left the CSi marketing team wandering around CompuServe's extensive adult forums. Obviously promoting the power of the new interface.
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