Can Push Come (Back) to Shove (Subscribers)?


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Along with online pet food sales and the paperless office, push technology was one of the Web's early laughingstocks, an emblem of taking the everything-will-be-wired paradigm just one innovation too far. Not so fast, say Toronto-based Serence and San Diego's InfoGate (which acquired the assets of push poster child PointCast). Both companies are partnering with content providers to revive the push principle as a way of getting tight-fisted Web users to start paying up.

According to Serence CEO Alan Wille, his small Windows client lets users choose among 300 "channels" of content, from Web log sites to major brands such as The Sporting News, and get personalized headlines fed to their desktop at designated intervals. Users then click through to the partner site's content. He claims more than 100,000 users have installed the client, and some partners (albeit the smaller ones) report up to 20% traffic hikes just from their placement on Serence.

Some partners like SportingNews.com are looking to experiment with this push technique to sell premium services such as fantasy sports league updates or highly personalized team trackers at incremental monthly fees, perhaps below $5. Convenience and personalization are the keys to fee-based services, says Wille. "Any time the end-user is able to easily personalize what they receive, the value of the service goes up like crazy," he argues.

As a revenue-generator itself, publishers will need to bring their own model, however. Serence wants publishers to see the advertising potential here, such as slipping ads or perhaps paid text links into the desktop cluster of headlines so that it offers a client persistent exposure. Maybe, but it seems more likely that a basic push headline service or ticker like Serence could be part of a larger premium package of personalized content and services, one of several elements that distinguish a fee-based content service from free areas.

InfoGate also thinks the world may be ready for push, which has research showing that one out of ten people who try their private label desktop client end up subscribing. With a more ambitious model and software than Serence, InfoGate is a pay-only console that is branded for clients such USAToday.com and CNN.com. Pricing is set by the media partner, but usually comes to $5 to $7 a month.

InfoGate gives its media partner the "pole position" and a branded skin on a multi-window console, but it also rounds out the value of the service with personalized content that it buys from 3,000 other providers. "The belief is that even something like CNN doesn't have enough content to [get people to] pay the kind of prices we are asking," says Paul Love, vice president business development, so you sweeten the deal with a massive aggregation from other publishers and a high degree of personalization.

Love can't disclose specific numbers but says, "We have a great subscription rate across most of the partners." He has five clients launched and another five in the pipeline. InfoGate is a turnkey solution, which pulls the content from the partner sites, hosts it, and also provides the fulfillment back end for subscribers to the branded media sites. The attraction for content providers is that InfoGate brings a revenue stream to the table, an immediate revenue share on any subscribers the partner attracts, and little risk. "All they have to do is send us the feed and work with us on look and feel and promote it," says Love.

Some of InfoGate's early metrics indicate that push deserves a second chance and a second look by publishers. With the Web now a presumed tool in most workplaces, the typical InfoGate user has the client running seven hours a day, and 70% use it daily. "Once people get it, it seems to be an addictive service," says Love. While still in its first year under the premium model, InfoGate's subscriber cancellation rate is quite low, he claims.

Some of InfoGate's early metrics indicate that push deserves a second chance and a second look by publishers. With the Web now a presumed tool in most workplaces, the typical InfoGate user has the client running seven hours a day, and 70% use it daily. "Once people get it, it seems to be an addictive service," says Love. While still in its first year under the premium model, InfoGate's subscriber cancellation rate is quite low, he claims.

Understandably, both Love and Wille bristle at the mention of the term "push," both insisting that technically their client software "pulls" content to a user's desktop according to the publisher or user's prescribed schedule. Whatever we call it, the idea of feeding content to the desktop is worth revisiting now because the cultural landscape of Web use has changed markedly. The medium is ubiquitous, especially at work, and people view it as a kind of utility that is always on in background. Also, both Serence and InfoGate use much better behaved, less intrusive technologies than PointCast or others ever did. And finally, after years of wading (or surfing) endlessly through too much information, getting what you need delivered to your taskbar in a timely way looks a lot more valuable to many of us than it once did. Who knows, maybe someday if InfoGate and Serence can manage to make a little money for beleaguered content partners, they won't be ashamed to label themselves "push."