Chastened MSN UK trying a new tack

A year ago next Monday, rival online services were quaking at the echo of the Microsoft Network's giant strides.

MSN UK had just passed 100,000 users and Taylor Collyer, Microsoft Network (MSN) UK's then marketing director, was moved to announce: "If we're not within spitting distance of the leaders by the end of 1997, I'll be disappointed."

Today, Microsoft is still nowhere near the leaders with just 150,000 UK users and only 300,000 users in all Europe. By contrast, in the UK, CompuServe has grown to about 400,000 users while AOL has become the fast-moving service, announcing it had passed 250,000 users in October. A frequent rumour even suggests that MSN will pull out of offering Net access.

However, MSN has come up with a clever paradigm shift: move the damn goalposts and claim that subscriber numbers are irrelevant.

Asked about the lack of subscription growth and questions sparked by making so much content free access, Oliver Roll, group marketing manager for MSN UK, is defiant.

"If you're a paying subscriber you get community, the Lord's cricket site... there are things still only available to the subscribers," he says. "The bulk of the information will be free of charge. It's a non-issue. Our job is to reach the broadest group of customers. The currency is definitely changing; the currency now is subscriptions and ads, but it's becoming transactional and distribution revenues. Because we'll be the number one site in the UK for features and content, we will get those revenues.

"Most people haven't cottoned on to the fact that subs is a completely outmoded way of viewing the business. People don't care about subs. It's all about reach. You can get access from hundreds of different players. We want the relationship when you get on the Web, a relationship with more Web users than anybody else."

In fairness, the giant's revisionist approach to what the online world should be raises some fair questions and Roll is not shy of admitting that MSN has made some errors, most notably, the early focus on TV-style entertainment such as a soap opera series, a men's magazine and so on, has gone.

"Our customers don't look at these sorts of programs," Roll said. "It's too early or the Net to replace TV-style programming. That's why the programming that we do is news, travel and listings services; users don't want to veg out in front of the box."

That change of focus has meant some different faces but Roll says UK headcount has remained constant at about 40. Even allowing for a new approach though, MSN has work to do. One of its most lauded areas - the Expedia travel booking service, still doesn't let UK users buy flights over the Net. Also, the long-mooted Sidewalk listings guide still hasn't reached London.

"In the near future we will be looking at whether to bring Sidewalk to London. You'll know this fiscal [quarter]," says Roll.

He is also optimistic that with the recent purchase of the HotMail free e-mail company and the agreement to implement the Inktomi search engine will help build accesses to MSN.

"All of these things are moving forwards to make us a collection of online services and information. Underneath the MSN brand you'll have things like HotMail and Inktomi, Sidewalk and Expedia, as well as content from partners. We'll add value by our skill in developing best-of-breed features. Our aim is to become Microsoft Office for the Internet."

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