Virgin Net is made for you - or so the marketing blurb says. But can the ISP that lives in the shadow of Britain's cuddliest businessman make an impact on the Internet scene? It's a question that faces Virgin Net Publishing Director Alex Dale every day when surveying the scene from the compact office suite that is the Virgin Net HQ, just nestled behind Notting Hill Gate tube station in West London.
Dale, whose own use of the Net includes keeping up with his favourite band, The Beloved, is convinced that Virgin is attracting more new users than anyone else at the moment and that it has a better idea of what it means to create a community feel on a service - claims that are hotly disputed by the likes of AOL, CompuServe, MSN and new kid on the block News International's LineOne.
Dale is the kind of entrepreneur you'd expect to find at Virgin. He's young - only 30. He's flamboyant - he was sporting a snakeskin design shirt when I visited, and he's Web savvy - like many he views the Web as a blending of broadcast and print mediums. With a background at Virgin Radio, a production trainee at the BBC (Money Programme) and an involvement in Virgin's failed Channel 5 bid, it's hardly surprising.
Virgin Net is the result of collaboration between Virgin Communications and International CableTel, which own 51 per cent and 49 per cent respectively. It consists of 50 staffers working on content and platform development at Notting Hill Gate and 80 staff on customer care and technical support in Newport, Wales. Virgin Net launched on 19 November last year. Dale won't put a figure on subscribers for the moment, but analysts suggest a figure between 3,000 and 5,000.
Like many ISPs on the UK Internet scene, Virgin Net's strength lies in its strong brand name and its alliances with many other leading Internet players. These include: US Robotics (modems); Netscape (browsers); Broadvision (dynamic Web pages); Oracle (database software); Autonomy (intelligent agent software); Sun (Ultra servers); Muscat (search software); Software.com (messaging software); and Excite (linking to the Excite search engine).
Virgin Net is primarily an ISP because its core focus is to let subscribers link to the Net, but it can justify calling itself an OSP, an Online Service Provider, by virtue of the fact that it does have some closed content, albeit a limited amount, in the same way that CompuServe, AOL, MSN and LineOne do.
Initially, it offered a very attractive three-month free service with 10Mb free Web space, but this has now been whittled down to one-month free service and subsequently u10 a month for unlimited access. Virgin's subscriber offerings include Freepages (electronic directory service) and search services. They're both useful services, but clearly available on the Internet in other forms at no cost. Freepages is a classified business directory divided into 3,000 business classifications and over 27,000 locations.
Industry watchers suggest that Virgin Net is keen to build up its subscriber base by charging a low connection cost so that it has a community of users to which it can sell products within the Virgin group. Although it's too early to say whether this is its prime strategy, Dale readily admits that this is one of the directions the service is going in.
Where are you getting subscribers from?
"Most of them are ex-AOL subscribers. Otherwise, newcomers to the Net."
What have you learned about your subscribers?
"The interesting thing is, we've found that our Search Channel (using Muscat software) has become the most visited location on our site. What we're trying to do now is create more of a community among our subscribers so that they're attracted to offers and services that are appropriate to them. The good thing about our Search Channel is that it directs users to over 3,500 sites that we've reviewed."
In what way are you developing the service?
"It's a process we call personalisation. We don't think the Net has really taken off for families or the person on the street. This summer you'll see a range of services that will bring content specifically to individual subscribers. This will relate to listings, for example, telling you about films in your area, and personalised news, shopping, healthcare and education.
"In the shopping area, it will include special offers that are tailored to your likes. The education (with Research Machines of Cambridge) offering is very important to us. That's a key reason for going online for many people and I think we'll cater for that need well."
Can you explain what shopping will mean?
"A range of things. When subscribers shop, they'll be able to get discounted goods - points that can be exchanged for real goods, and points that can be exchanged for coupons. These coupons (or vouchers) will be sent directly to them. We're working closely with Broadvision to make all this possible."
You're very serious about personalisation in relation to shopping then?
"Oh yes. It's early days, but it is the future. In banking and financial services it's going to be huge. They'll have to personalise their offerings to gain real advantage."
You've also been working with The Independent newspaper. In what way?
"We produced editorial about the election with The Independent. We also ran special chat events during April with Independent journalists as well as personalities like Polly Toynbee and John Rentoul, Tony Blair's biographer.
"During April, we also opened up a wide range of threaded discussion groups on topics such as crime, the environment, taxation, devolution and so on.
"Running chat areas is important to us within our philosophy of creating a community within Virgin Net."
What kind of services do you think make money on the Net?
"Obscure things for a start. By that I mean things that are difficult to find elsewhere like Californian wine, also Amazon.com with its online book shop and sports merchandising. Also services where the buying decision is complex or where the price is constantly changing, for example, shares. Another area is late availability such as holidays and air fares."
So will we see Virgin Airways doing this kind of thing?
"A site is being developed, but it's not part of Virgin Net's plans to offer late availability for flights."
What do you think of LineOne, the new service from News International?
"I think it'll be the last new service. Maybe Cable and Wireless are still to come, but that will just be access. The thing about LineOne is that the content is an accident of ownership; The Sun and The Times are very odd bedfellows. They're just throwing everything in the pot."
What gives Virgin an edge?
"It's about the kind of customer care we offer - it's based on a 24-hour freephone service. It's also about the kind of personalisation that we're bringing in this summer. Also offerings like Autonomy, which incidentally, we had before LineOne launched."
Ken Young is Group Editor of Internet World ([email protected]).
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