It may be hard at first blush to find a reason for some of the latest mergers of Internet companies: Yahoo buying GeoCities, a collection of hobbyists' pages; Lycos snapping up Tripod, another free home page site. And don't forget that America Online is casting a lustful eye on the auction site eBay.
It's all about "sticky sites," the buzzword of the hour online.
Last fall the drive was to create portal sites, the first page people see when they log on. Now the drive is to be the site that no one ever leaves. Whether the site is selling ads or hockey sticks, it's an imperative to keep users around as long as possible. Longer sessions mean more revenue.
These sites want loyalty, and lots of it. Online, where miles of space are covered in a mouse click, keeping users coming back to a site can be an insurmountable task. Unless, that is, you know your users and what they want.
But don't think this is a strategy just for the big boys of the Net. A sticky strategy makes even more sense for companies that don't have ambitions of making their sites a portal. And strategic partnerships make it possible for relatively little cost.
To understand sticky sites (just try to use the phrase in a meeting without hearing at least one snicker), study the evolution of Yahoo Ever since the web gained mainstream popularity, Yahoo has been one of the busiest sites around.
Three years ago, Yahoo was much like a 7-Eleven store, somewhere people popped in and out of rapidly to pick up the mere essentials. In fact, the average user was on Yahoo less than two minutes per session and saw only three pages.
That makes it pretty tough to make money when the revenues come from exposing users to ads. So Yahoo started the odd practice of adding unrelated functions to its search engine.
First came news headlines, then My Yahoo with personalized pages and, later, stock portfolio tracking. In recent months they've added online calendars, address books, and even airline flight tracking.
In essence, Yahoo became the Swiss Army knife of search engines. Sure, it'll suggest web sites for just about any topic. But now there are 18 other services listed at the top of the page. And it's working.
In December, Yahoo users spent an average 60 minutes a month on the site, up from 41 minutes just three months earlier, according to MediaMetrix. But it's not enough. That's why the company shelled out $3 billion in stock for GeoCities, a collection of 3.5 million sites created by its users. The integration is still underway, but it is not hard to imagine how the new, improved Yahoo will work: Searching for information on antique buttons? Well before you head out to other web sites, Yahoo can suggest some of the more than 200 such sites on GeoCities. And each of those pages will have a banner ad sold by Yahoo and lots of links to other Yahoo services.
If it is done properly you'll be grateful to have so much information so handy. If it isn't, you'll be as happy as a bug struggling to break free of flypaper.
In many ways, service companies with web sites are poised to be the ultimate in sticky sites. The key is to think about the company's service in the big picture of the customer's needs. For example, a movie theater company could add restaurant and shopping listings to their site. They could also sell CDs, books and movie-branded merchandise off their site as well.
Think about the movie-going experience. How often do you eat out before or afterwards? How much movie merchandise have you bought? If you go to their site to find a show time and buy a ticket, why not find the full range of related services? You won't need to go elsewhere.
It's an ambitious effort, but it can be done without necessarily adding any staff. We often suggested to clients a number of other sites that provide complimentary services and are candidates for strategic partnerships.
There is no reason to reinvent the wheel. Companies need to focus on their core business and tend to as many of their customers' needs as possible. If there are other companies doing something better and cheaper than you can, then make them a partner.
The trend is already happening. Look at the number of sites offering free web-based email. Now there are companies offering third-party online date-books through their sites. And news organizations such as Reuters are offering customized wire report feeds for clients that never before considered themselves a news source.
Stick around it's just getting interesting.
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Todd Copilevitz is Director of Interactive Strategy for The Richards Group, a 25-year-old Dallas-based agency that offers fully integrated interactive services to its clients.