Compuserve's UK MD talks to the editor

Compuserve has been through a rough time recently, what with its fiercest rival, America Online swallowing it up after parent company H & R Block made it clear the struggling online service was not high on its list of priorities.
Written by Richard Barry, Contributor

That said, experts agreed that once Compuserve had been bought by the insatiable AOL, it would be torn asunder and rendered totally unrecognisable - yet another victim of corporate America.

But not so. Martin Turner, Compuserve's eternally optimistic UK managing director, told Richard Barry, editor ZDNet UK News that life with AOL really ain't that bad after all.


ZDNet News (ZDNN): So, after the take-over did things change dramatically at Compuserve?

Martin Turner (MT): Not at all, honestly. It was completely unnoticeable.

ZDNN: But surely AOL's image/style made itself apparent in your glorious Reading offices?

MT: No really - it's just meant that we now have an organisation behind us that is focused on our content. We can really concentrate on getting the best content possible up on the service with a company backing us up all the way. That was never the case with our old parent (H&R Block). Bertelsmann is very focused on what we are trying to create with Compuserve.

ZDNN: Content is king right?

MT: Absolutely. Compuserve's job is to provide the very best content available for its subscribers which number well over 400,000 in the UK alone.

ZDNN: That's a lot of subscribers. Do you know what they're like?

MT: They're about 25+ earn over £25k a year and they're mostly male. Busy professional people with productivity on their minds.

ZDNN: So what's the focus of Compuserve now? How are you going to keep this discerning group of individuals on Compuserve when they could be leafing through FHM's site?

MT: Well our editorial style recognises the type of people we are targeting. We've adopted a Daily Mail/Times style but we don't have journalists writing articles for us. Our job is to aggregate content - the best content from wherever it is available is brought to Compuserve.

ZDNN: So you're simply copying what someone else has written and putting it on your service?

MT: What we're identifying is the best sources for information. So with news it would be PA or Reuters we'd get content from. It would be inappropriate for us to try and emulate what they do because they are the best in their field. ZDNet for example are the experts in computer related news. It's certainly not something we feel defensive about. We feel we are being very selective.

ZDNN: Are these 20 something people likely to go along with Compuserve's community model - in other words, your chat rooms and forums?

MT: We think we have a sort of club going, I mean would you like to go to a club where anyone and everyone can get in or one where people are invited? The net is chaos - we're creating order and an environment where like-minded individuals can log on and share their interests. Interestingly Microsoft has a different approach. On MSN everyone's invited and so you have the same anarchic situation that exists on the Internet with very little direction. What they're missing is a couple of things: it isn't just about content it's about community. I think the next attempt Microsoft has at making MSN work will try to imitate Yahoo and Excite; where you get people visiting in large numbers but no community develops. Targeting the information you provide for your customers is vital.

ZDNN: But you can get that on the net if you search around.

MT: Yes but what we're doing is providing a package. These people don't have the time to search around. We provide everything including extra content which creates extra value.

ZDNN: And you think people are willing to pay for that extra "packaging"?

MT: Absolutely. It's very important these people feel they can trust the information we provide. We concentrate on productivity and value for our customers. They're paying for it.

ZDNN: But why should people have to learn a whole new way of getting information [by using Compuserve] when the information is there on the Internet?

MT: You're right but we're trying to bridge the two and making our system as consistent and easy to use as possible. Our new client will work hard toward that. But I agree, we have to work hard to make getting information easy otherwise the business won't work.

ZDNN: It could be argued the business hasn't worked - hence the take-over.

MT: Well the business has worked, we've got over 400,000 members and I'm running the UK setup which is a very profitable business. Have we been succesful? I believe we have. We built this from nothing and have remained profitable (in the UK). The membership fell significantly in the US - that's true but that's more of a reflection of the success of AOL and other players. I'm no expert on the US market but we're very proud of what we've done in the UK. Success isn't just about numbers - it's about member loyalty and ultimately that is reflected in the amount of time and money they spend with us.

ZDNN: So do you think MSN has got the wrong model by concentrating on numbers?

MT: Yes I do. You have to know who your audience is and cater for their needs very precisely. Microsoft has never managed that with MSN and I don't think the company has that sort of focus. Numbers are important in this industry because numbers mean advertising revenue but that's not what we're focused on. We want people to visit the site and stay with us because the content we provide is what they are looking for.

ZDNN: Tell us about this new client. Does it take Compuserve closer to the Internet?

MT: The whole community interface is Internet based. We're using Internet technology and are committed to that. But there is a need to create more value on the net. We're not about to knock down the walls around CIS and let everyone in.

ZDNN: Will it be more like a browser than the traditional user interface?

MT: You'll have to wait and see

ZDNN: And I'm sure Compuserve will give ZDNet UK News an exclusive look at the client when its available?

MT: Well the client will be ready by early 1999. Give me a call then.

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