Carphone Warehouse last week agreed to pay £370m to acquire the UK's third-largest internet provider, AOL UK.
Such portals provide a huge opportunity to target the millions of users who go through the welcome page each time they log in - but they remain underrated by PR executives.
Under the deal, Carphone Warehouse is effectively buying AOL's customers and supporting infrastructure. AOL will continue to provide a co-branded portal with new content and other audience services.
The biggest player in the UK portal market is MSN/Windows Live, which attracted 17 million unique visitors in August (according to Nielsen/NetRatings) - almost one in three of the UK population.
Second most popular is Yahoo! (which provides the content for BT Total Broadband) with a still-impressive 13 million unique users; then comes Lycos Europe with six million; followed by AOL, and Orange, with around five million apiece.
Many users might find news and features from MSN a distraction as they mainly go online to check their Hotmail, but, nonetheless, each of these portals has an impressive editorial team. AOL, for example, has 80 journalists across news and features desks, while MSN has 30 full-time staff plus freelancers.
MSN UK head of editorial Matt Ball says. ‘I find it extraordinary that even with a potential audience of millions, the portals are neglected, by and large, by PR agencies.'
One reason for this is perhaps because until recently, much of most portals' content was provided by third parties - but this is rapidly changing, a situation that few PROs seem to have capitalised on.
Ball says: ‘We have massively increased our number of editorial staff in the past 18 months. We are getting a few more calls these days, but still I find that when celebrities are doing the promo circuit, for example, they don't seem to get on the portals.'
A second reason why PROs may shun portals is because they perceive online coverage to be less impressive to clients than a wedge of good old print cuttings.
‘I'm not sure how well PR executives understand online media - certainly that's true of my experience within the music industry,' says Yahoo! Music editorial supplier Ben Gilbert.
He adds: ‘Perhaps because access to these sites is free they aren't taken as seriously. Generally, it is still harder as an online journalist to get access to the real top-level stars.' But some sites do not help themselves, with contact information for journalists conspicuous by its absence. AOL, for example, posts editor profiles and editor blogs, but Yahoo!'s portal provides no direct point of contact or staff details. Gilbert admits: ‘PROs might find it hard to get details of who to contact for what.'
The editorial content of sites such as MSN, Yahoo! and AOL is sprawling - each ‘channel' (AOL Entertainment, AOL Motoring and AOL Lifestyle, for instance) is virtually a publication in its own right, in terms of journalists,
audience and competitors. ‘We have about 20 different channels that can be accessed from the main welcome page,' explains Simon Hinde, AOL UK's director of day-team and welcome screen.
‘The most popular are probably news and sport, followed by money then motoring. There's also lifestyle(encompassing health, parenting, careers and so on) and entertainment, including music, films and TV. Generally, we target middle-Britain families,' he adds.
In terms of how PROs should approach portals, most say a similar type of pitch used for traditional media works best, although the recommendation is to think more ‘broadcast' than ‘print'. And, as technology develops, the possibilities of the web open up new opportunities.
Four Communications account director Phil Ryan says: ‘Portals offer quite a lot of creative scope now, especially with the advent of broadband - their editorial desks are often very open to new audio-visual ideas.'
Ryan cites examples such as Jamie Oliver cooking live on AOL for Home Cooking Day.
NTL director, portal group, Chris Bunyan says: ‘We are particularly interested in video and interactive content from PROs. Video is extremely popular on our sites [the NTL team provides content for ntlworld.com, virgin.net and blueyonder.co.uk]. Above and beyond that, it's all the usual stuff: prizes, product launches, interviews and exclusives.'
As technology continues to advance and broadcast and online media become ever more intertwined - broadband-enabled TVs and internet-protocol set-top boxes (IPTV) are all being developed - more consumers will be accessing portals.
PR professionals who are tuned in to these developments and are able to mine excellent contacts in what may at first appear to be a difficult medium to navigate will clearly be able to reap the rewards.
See Related Stories
PORTALS: contacts at some of the giants
Matt BALL, UK head of editorial
T 0870 60 10 100
Sharon WATSON, UK homepage editor
T 020 7131 1000
Stephanie SANDERS, head of content
T 020 7462 9223
Anita BEVAN, head of content
T 0870 376 8888