As a PR man who is involved everyday in what consumer brands are
doing on the internet and watching its relevance to the consumer masses
grow, I fully appreciate the buzz surrounding the Freeserve success
story - in many ways it’s driving itself. But those PROs and, indeed,
most of the general public who do not share my sentiments might well
wonder what the fuss is about.
The same was probably true a few months ago for the Dixons directors
who, as Freeserve was preparing to launch, probably didn’t really take
that much of an interest in the internet. But a million customers later
and a soaring share price, it was suddenly on top of their agendas - and
those of the media - and had CEOs from all over the country reaching for
the phone and doing the same.
Now there are over 160 ISPs, most of which are aimed at consumers,
trying to grab a share of the 12 million internet users in the UK, and
at the same time grow the market.
But the hype continues for Freeserve for a number of strong reasons: it
pioneered free internet access; its unexpected success got everyone
talking about the web; the Dixons brand name makes consumers more
comfortable with the internet; huge distribution capabilities and big
budgets have strengthened its leading market position; and it has
captured the imagination of the City, analysts and other internet
businesses with its highly successful flotation.
The timing was also key. Six to eight months ago, one of the main
challenges for any PR consultancy representing a consumer internet brand
was convincing the popular media that businesses like Amazon, Yahoo!,
AOL et al, were worth writing about. But, all of a sudden, we had live
internet chats on the Big Breakfast with George Michael and the debate
over whether the internet can be corrupting, and before we could click
our mice, most of the adverts we saw on TV and in print were footnoted
with a web site address.
The increasing relevance of the internet to consumers helped PROs
convince the media it is worth writing about. This, in turn, drove the
market, which generated more relevance. And when an internet service has
a household brand name behind it, such as Dixons, Tesco, the Sun and now
the Mirror, you can multiply that relevance by ten. Add a successful
flotation and the reaction is phenomenal.