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'Push' for customer service; automatic delivery is natural for newspapers - but products have to serve customers.

SO-CALLED PUSH technology may be the hottest thing in the online business, but regardless Of whether newspapers engage in push or pull, they must improve customer service "dramatically," Bruce Koon, managing editor of Mercury Center at the San Jose Mercury News, told a cyber-savvy audience in San Francisco.

His co-panelist,Tom Kohn, planning/product manager for USA Today's Information Network, had another word of caution for push technology enthusiasts: "You have to think of the user. What do users like?" Both appeared at the session on push products at the Newspaper Association of America's recent Connections '97 conference.

Push technology--which automatically delivers to the user's desktop computer news, information, and advertising--can be an ideal arm of newspapers, Koon suggested.

"What newspapers have always done well is collecting large amounts of information, organizing it, writing and editing it, and presenting it in a lively way for our audiences" he said.

"What push--and pull--are really all about are new methods of delivering what we normally do. What we are really talking about is delivering multiple products to multiple customers on multiple platforms. Whether it's push or pull or a combination of both, your focus is still going to be on content development"

This means building a whole new relationship with customers, and if it succeeds, Koon said, publications must learn to manage the alliance by closely examining their online infrastructure so the service works smoothly.

At Mercury Center, he noted, the process is called "audience management"

Mercury Center's push areas, he noted, include an e-mail notification service with customized news, a "Good Morning Silicon Valley" report, and the regional entertainment site Just Go.

Once the system is set up,"very little human intervention is required," Koon assured, adding that Mercury Center plans to modify its system so that an editor can choose which headlines will appear in different tabs.

While acknowledging the importance of new technology in facilitating push or pull, Koon said the "real success of these services is going back to the basics for those of us in the newspaper business. This means good report writing and recognizing a consumer need. Begin with the content that speaks to your strength and then migrate to whichever of these delivery products works best for you. From there, you can learn and evolve and, with some luck, find success."

Kohn, too, stressed content, along with employing the right technology.

Based on USA Today's experience, he said, the toughest job for push developers is "to stay true to your goals. Stay focused. Don't let the technology run you but pick the technology that works for you."

Still, he said, USA Today is more involved in pull than push but has recognized that the whims and wishes of users are paramount. "Users like ready-made content," he said. "They like things like My Yahoo. It's personalized and packaged for you, whether its sports, weather or politics. And, best of all, you can have it delivered."

Kohn said advertisers also are interested in push because it can give them the same people every day, and ads can be placed in targeted content.

At USA Today, he said, push is getting attention as the paper "wants to move down the road toward customization and personalization .... We also want to enhance our brand"

In choosing potential partners for push, Kohn said, one of the first questions the paper asks itself is,"Can we automate this?"

The company, he explained, doesn't want to hire an entire new staff. In offering in-Box Direct, a compilation of USA Today's top stories e-mailed to users, the paper strarted from scratch, using limited human and financial resources, Kohn related.

"When we're selecting a partner, we also try to think about whether there is money in this and if there is some promotion in it," he said.

In his realistic approach to the viability of push, Kohn said USA Today views it as simply another way to get its product to its customers and, in some ways, just another niche product.

"I don't think push is going to change the world," he remarked. "It's no different than pull or e-mail. I think you should not lose sight of the business you're in .... You have to stick to what you do best and use technology to your own advantage."

However, moderator Julie Chapman, director of business development for NetStart Inc., saw a bright future for push. She called it "one of the year's hottest topics," but added that consolidation has increased rapidly in the past six or eight months.

"Netscape and Microsoft are now strong players in this marketplace... particularly with the recent release of the Microsoft browser and the soon-to-be-released Netscape browser," she pointed out. "So we are seeing the big guys coming in and really looking at incorporating this capability into their browsers."

Chapman said many publishers are interested in push because the "user's computer does the hard work so you can talk rich, multimedia content and not be subjected to limited bandwidth"

She also contended that the service lends itself to subscription base services, which lead to revenue opportunity.

Also, while push may be sold to corporations, it appears to be more geared to individual consumers who value its convenience and the control it gives them, Chapman opined.
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Author:Stein, M.L.
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Sep 6, 1997
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