Quebecers flocking to Web

A revolution is taking place in Quebec. And it has nothing to do with the fact that, come January, drivers in the province will finally be able to make right turns on red lights....

A revolution is taking place in Quebec. And it has nothing to do with the fact that, come January, drivers in the province will finally be able to make right turns on red lights.

Quebecers are going online in droves. Traditionally, the province has lagged behind the rest of the country when it comes to Internet use. But a PricewaterhouseCoopers study in November indicates that household Internet access in Quebec has gone from 29% to 42% in the last year – an increase of 45%.

That makes Quebec the fastest-growing Internet access marketplace in the country. According to Media Metrix Canada figures released in November, French-speaking Canadians now represent 23% of this country’s at-home Internet users.

This growth helps explain why some major online players have begun to take greater interest in Quebec Web surfers.

On Nov. 16, Toronto-based Yahoo! Canada launched its new French-language portal site, Yahoo! Canada en français. Sponsors include such high-profile Quebec advertisers as Desjardins, Les Producteurs laitiers du Canada and Centraide Quebec.

Milena Sandler of GA & Associes, spokesperson for Yahoo! Canada in Quebec, says plans for a promotional effort to support the new portal are still in the preliminary stages. Radio and direct mail are possibilities currently under consideration.

The same week as the Yahoo! announcement, Transcontinental Publications and Globe Interactive (which operates globeandmail.com) unveiled plans to start up a financial portal for French-speaking investors in February.

Jocelyn Poirier, Transcontinental’s vice-president of strategic development and new media, says it’s too early to talk about potential sources of ad revenue. But he does anticipate that Transcontinental will look to create packages for Quebec advertisers that combine both the company’s print and online media properties.

The new portal players, however, will not go unopposed in their quest for online advertising dollars and the attention of the province’s Web surfers. Quebec-based portal brands such as Branchez-vous! are already well established in the marketplace.

‘Homegrown Web companies in Quebec have had a five-year head start on their new competitors,’ says Patrick Pierra, CEO of Invention Media. In addition to Branchez-vous!, Invention Media also oversees a network of sites that includes the free e-mail service MonCourrier.com, and the financial portal MesFinances.com.

Invention Media’s sites go after a broad range of advertisers. According to Pierra, the company’s Web advertising revenues in 2000 were up more than 50% over the previous year. The company surpassed $700,000 in the first three quarters of 2000 – growth that he attributes to high-profile site sponsorships by the likes of Banque Nationale.

La Toile du Quebec and Infinit also rank among Quebec’s major portals. Both are creations of Netgraphe, which in turn is controlled by Quebecor Media. La Toile, in particular, has seen significant ad revenue growth in the past year, generating more than $1 million in the first third of 2000 alone.

Andre Belanger, director of content with Netgraphe, says sites born and bred in the province, like La Toile du Quebec, definitely have an edge over such new competitors as Yahoo!

‘We were first to market years ago, and people are very attached to [La Toile],’ he says. ‘A strong reality in Quebec is people’s desire for specific cultural branding.’

The folks at Yahoo!, however, don’t give any sign of concern that they might be at a disadvantage.

Sandler says the homegrown portals provide a wealth of local content. What they don’t have are many of the personalized services that Yahoo! offers, such as the ability to create one’s own customized Web site. (Yahoo! Canada has also partnered with Bell Mobility to provide online services to French-speaking wireless users – a first for Quebec, according to Sandler.)

It remains to be seen whether Quebec will yield enough online ad dollars for all the players in the market.

Patrick Pierra, for one, is doubtful.

‘Penetration rates of home PCs are a year behind [the rest of] Canada,’ he says. ‘And while the pace of growth is strong, I personally expect that Quebec will lag behind in Internet advertising revenue.’