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Encyclopaedia Britannica is on a multimillion-dollar quest to become the premier information site on the Internet--a departure from its traditionally stodgy approach to new technology, and one that some observers say may be too late.

The company wants to position its ad-supported consumer Web site as both a source of information and a finely tuned search engine leading to sites selected by Britannica staffers for quality and accuracy.

"We're reinventing our business,'' said Paul Hoffman, 43, senior VP-publisher of Encyclopaedia Britannica since July 1997.

"The whole future of the company is based on how we do in the electronic space," he said.

"This is going to be our lead product, a product that combines the Internet guide with the encyclopedia.''


Late last month, Britannica launched a search for an ad agency to handle the new Internet service, sending a request for proposals to four interactive and four general ad agencies, said James Kennedy, VP-consumer and brand marketing.

Based on responses, the company may choose one interactive and one general-market agency, or bundle efforts with one shop.

A decision should come by month's end.

The new agency will replace Foote, Cone & Belding, New York, which mainly handled direct marketing.

FCB isn't taking part in the review.

Razorfish, New York, is developing the Web site and will run a test during May to prepare for the anticipated September launch, Mr. Kennedy said.

Four Points Digital, Chicago, is launching ad banners to test the effectiveness of Britannica's online ad campaign. Four Points referred calls to Britannica.


The question is whether Britannica has waited too long to join the Internet action.

"They're copying things that have already been done by countless other companies,'' scoffed Abhishek Gami, an analyst at William Blair & Co.

"If they'd been first movers, they'd have had the ability to create a market. Now, they're very late to the game.''

Unlike the company's subscription service, which taps the 231-year-old company's archives and is marketed primarily to schools and libraries, the new site will target Internet users with links to more than 150,000 Britannica-approved Web sites.

Britannica is negotiating with partners to furnish information and services to the site--the company already has a relationship with online bookseller expects to have them in place by fall.

And, for the first time in Britannica's history, there will an ad sales force.


"Our brand represents material you know is authoritative and trustworthy,'' said Mr. Hoffman, formerly president of the magazine division of Walt Disney Co. and the author of 10 books.

"The kind of partners we'll choose to be a part of that site will have to have the same brand qualities. We'll try to cut through the clutter of the Web, give you information you can depend on and not force you to become an expert on how to search the Web,'' he added.

Britannica's site won't be elitist, he said, but it also won't be for everybody.

"We're looking for people with a certain kind of intellectual curiosity,'' Mr. Hoffman said, pointing to the commercial success of cable's Discovery Channel and Disney's Discover, which has a circulation of 1.2 million. "We want to create a site for curious, intelligent adults and high school kids.''

If the site succeeds in drawing that audience--which traditionally boasts higher income and educational levels--he's convinced advertisers will line up to display their wares on banners there.


Britannica will tap two additional revenue streams: a percentage of goods sold through e-commerce, such as books on a subject highlighted on the site, and sponsorships offered for special displays, such as a salute to women in history.

"They bring a lot of branding, but my fear is if they get too embedded in advertising and sponsorships,'' said Ana Aleman, director of interactive media at ad agency SpaceTime, Chicago. "It might tarnish the name of Britannica.''

Britannica does bring a strong, high-end brand name to the Internet.

And there are many users who will gravitate to a site that cuts through the chaos, sorting out the bogus from the believable.

"The number of Web sites and portals being slapped up by so-called `experts' is growing out of control. A name like Britannica slices through,'' said Mark Wilhelm, president of e-commerce consultancy Networks.


But the brand name cuts both ways, and the Internet hasn't always been kind to older, established companies looking for a stake in cyberspace.

"People will have higher expectations,'' Mr. Gami said.

"People are going to expect, even demand, that their product is of the highest quality. The name can work against them,'' he said.

Mr. Hoffman understands the stakes for Britannica in the 21st century.

"We're not in the book business,'' he acknowledged. "We're in the information business. The Internet is fast becoming the principal way of delivering information. It's a must for us to conquer it.''

Mr. Borden is associate editor at Crain's Chicago Business.

Contributing: Mercedes M. Cardona.

Copyright May 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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