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Branding is emerging as a key issue as more and more companies go online. But picking the right strategic partners is a big challenge.

The presidents of Prodigy, America Online, Delphi, Ziff-Davis Publishing Co.'s Interchange Online Network and Genie made a rare group appearance at an industry roundtable during the Interactive Services Association's ninth annual conference last week in San Francisco.

Their discussion focused largely on the issue of branded services. With traditional publishers and TV networks developing online products, the commercial services are trying to tap into well-known names like CBS, Time and The Washington Post to draw subscribers.

America Online was one of the first to move wholeheartedly in this direction, but most of the others are now following similar paths. And they're increasingly trying to give content providers the tools to create services that are closer to the look and feel of the core product.

"It's important for newspapers to retain their own identity online," said Prodigy Services Co. President Ross Glatzer.

Consumer online services have become a "real business," said Dan Bruns, president-CEO of Delphi Internet Services. "It's becoming a game real media companies want to play. Technology trends are now giving way to content trends, including brand. Our goal is to help the brand, not make it [an icon] on an online menu."

Michael Kolowich, president of Ziff's Interchange service, predicted the rise of "online celebrities," saying, "I see the emergence of mini-brands around individual personalities or editors, people who develop a following."

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