March 31, 1999 4:00 AM PST

Will media giants bulldoze communities?

Even global communities can be gentrified.

That is what appears to be happening as traditional media giants erect new "high-rise" developments that are beginning to overshadow the community sites that sprouted much of the Web's early growth.

As offline media and entertainment conglomerates such as Disney and Time Warner increasingly create these "destination" sites, offering exclusive content to create Web communities, the future is looking bleaker for the upstart companies that generated traffic by offering virtual neighborhoods of personal home pages.

Offering free home pages arranged by subject matter provided the initial draw to "traditional" community sites such as GeoCities, Tripod, Angelfire, TheGlobe.com, and Xoom. The idea was to give users "ownership" over some space online so they would keep coming back--and introduce them to "neighbors" who are interested in similar subject matter to get them talking to each other through communications tools such as chat and message boards. The stronger the communities, the more traffic the sites would draw, which would translate into more advertising dollars.

But the destination sites being launched by offline media powerhouses go a step further, offering exclusive content on top of popular brands.

Warner Bros. Online, for example, earlier this year launched ACMEcity, a destination site that allows users to build home pages and communities around Warner Bros. celebrities and entertainment programming. The company offers authorized, high-quality photos and other material for fans' pages. Disney's Go Network uses an array of content and features related to its television and entertainment brands as a way to attract eyeballs and create loyalty.

For its part, Warner Bros. Online is even planning to offer fans with pages on other community sites "technology that will relocate [their pages] without any effort on their part, with incentives," Jim Banister, executive vice president of Warner Bros. Online, told CNET News.com in an earlier interview.

The question is whether the Web's upstart community sites can withstand competition from offline media giants, given not only their exclusive content and brand recognition, but also their deep pockets, marketing muscle, and opportunity for cross-promotion on television, in print, and on other media.

Some of the Web's community sites have been bought by portals, looking to capitalize on the draw and audience base they enjoy. Lycos began the trend with its acquisitions of Tripod and Angelfire last year, beginning the company's multibranded network strategy. And in January, Yahoo joined in with its acquisition of GeoCities.

Some analysts say traditional community sites need to rethink their strategies. Jupiter Communications analyst Anya Sacharow noted that community is no longer about simply grouping user-created home pages under specific content categories.

"The value is a combination of drawing traffic through content and rallying people around a common interest to exchange ideas or communication around that content," she said.

Focusing on affinity is clearly the ACMEcity's objective, according to Warner Bros. Online president Jim Moloshok. Moloshok said that interaction around pop culture and entertainment icons will anchor Netizens to his Web site.

"We have the distinct advantage in more than two ways: we have the content that attracts people, and we have can give these fans access to the stars and access to the properties," he said.

Communities beginning to adapt
Increasingly, community features such as home page building and chat are becoming commodities on Web sites.

In response, some "traditional" community sites are trying to offer more than simple home page building. TheGlobe.com, for one, is trying to reinvent itself as a portal.

"TheGlobe could not be further away than being a home page builder. It's one of the many services we offer, but clearly, if you go look at the site, there's content, there's interactivity, there's commerce--all of those elements that you find at any portal," TheGlobe co-chief executive Stephan Paternot said.

"We now have to go and change the image or change the perception that everyone in the world seems to have about us because we named ourselves a 'community,' and a lot of people think community is home page building," he added.

Communities ready for the fight?
"What's happened is that many of these companies have looked at the phenomenal success of GeoCities and they want a piece of the pie," said GeoCities vice president of communications Bruce Zanca. "They don't have the exponential growth that we have or the traffic that we have. We've got a huge head start."

Some analysts agree that membership growth, led by the successful few, is still the most important metric that entertainment giants have not replicated. And even though premium content can become a potentially strong draw for new users, Forrester Research analyst Paul Hagen said content will not be the deciding factor.

Instead, he said the next step will be enabling members to create e-commerce storefronts on their sites. And if this is true, whoever does that better and quicker will win.

"I don't think content is necessarily the linchpin," Hagen said. "Whoever builds the best infrastructure for doing commerce is going to be the most successful."

Home page communities also point to other advantages over the media companies: choice and expression.

"It's a tightrope, because you want to maintain editorial control. But to be a community brand, you need to enable your users," said Ethan Zuckerman, vice president of research and development for Tripod.

"In many ways we're thrilled to see traditional media companies getting into the business," Zuckerman added. "It's a justification of what we've been doing for years. But it takes a lot of work to turn an offline brand into an online brand, and it takes more work to turn a traditional media brand in to a community-centric brand."

 

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