Sympatico makes itself useful

What is it?...

What is it?

Only one of Canada’s most popular portal sites, that’s all. Launched in November 1995 as an offshoot of BCE-owned Internet service provider Sympatico, it delivers Canadian content and Web tools – including directories and guides, discussion forums and a powerful search engine – to more than 600,000 registered users across the country.

The core demographic? Users aged 35-55, with a university education and a fairly large household income. Overall, Sympatico.ca membership skews slightly more toward families and rural Canadians than is the norm – most likely because of the site’s ISP legacy.

Last February, BCE invested $37 million in a joint venture with U.S.-based portal player Lycos. The deal, which resulted in the creation of Sympatico-Lycos, was intended to beef up the portal’s technological capabilities, and help stem the flow of Canadian Web traffic and ad dollars to major U.S. sites. Veronica Holmes, vice-president product management at Sympatico.ca, says the site is now midway through the process of introducing the various Lycos-branded offerings, which include personalization and search tools, along with the Tripod service, which allows surfers to build free home pages.

‘Now that we’ve got the base layer of tools in, that puts us on equal ground with our U.S. competitors,’ she says. ‘It’s a matter then of being even more relevant to Canadians – and that’s where our key point of differentiation is.’

What does the brand stand for?

‘We’ve grown the same way the Internet has grown,’ Holmes says. ‘We started out being very much about people findings things online, and then it quickly became all about community, and then content. And now it’s about ‘doing’ things. That’s really what we have always envisioned – the idea that you can [use Sympatico.ca] to shop, to talk, to send and to find. It’s about utility.’

The user experience is absolutely critical to the brand identity, she adds. Surfers should find the site valuable, reliable, easy-to-use and – above all – relevant. To this end, Sympatico.ca recently introduced a new home page designed to be more in line with the needs of the typical Canadian Web user. The revamped site puts the focus on personalization and advanced search tools, and de-emphasizes some of the less popular features, such as dictionaries and other reference tools.

‘We’ve done extensive usability testing, because we want to make sure we’re getting it right,’ Holmes says. ‘And we’re concentrating on what we do best. We’re sending customers to things we know they want, and things that we excel at. Doing that will lead to a better brand experience.’

How has the site branded itself?

As the sister site to a popular Internet provider – one with more than a million subscriber households – Sympatico.ca enjoys something of a halo effect, says Laurie Laykish, vice-president, group account director with Cossette-Communication Marketing, agency of record for the Bell Canada family of companies.

The portal site has almost always been featured in Sympatico’s extensive TV, radio, print and outdoor advertising – the rationale being that one of the best ways to sell consumers on Internet access is to flaunt the promise of what they can do online.

Because it can ride on the ISP’s advertising coattails, Sympatico.ca hasn’t done a lot of traditional marketing on its own, save for the occasional print ad or online promotion. But that’s about to change, as the site looks to differentiate itself more clearly within the crowded portal marketplace. This year, for the first time, Laykish says, Sympatico.ca is planning a major consumer marketing push that will include traditional offline advertising as well as guerrilla and promotional efforts.

A taste of this came recently, when the site launched its first-ever offline promotion. The contest, developed in partnership with MuchMusic and Universal Music, directed participants to Tripod.ca, to design a Web site for punk-pop band Blink 182. By the end of December, the program had attracted more than 1,500 entries.

Bob Mountain, CEO of Sympatico.ca, says the site is currently contemplating a range of promotional tactics that includes everything from bumper stickers to bus wraps to skywriting.

‘What we’re really now focusing on is being extremely smart about our offline spend, and combining that with an extremely aggressive guerrilla marketing effort,’ he says. ‘That phrase gets used a lot lately – but frankly, I think it’s the only way, in this environment, that you can be successful. The days of dot-coms blowing 50% of their total budget on a single Super Bowl ad are over.’

What have the results been?

According to Media Metrix Canada, Sympatico.ca is the seventh-most-visited site among Canadian Web surfers, attracting 3.7 million unique visitors in November alone. And it is the most-visited of this country’s homegrown sites. Holmes says that approximately three-quarters of the site’s audience consists of Sympatico ISP users.

Also in this report:

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- Grocery Gateway builds ‘total brand personality’: Online grocer communicates consistent image at every point of customer contact p.18

- Chapters.ca plots category domination: Book retailer uses partnerships and blanket buys to carve cyber mind share p.22

- CBC.ca leverages mother corp’s equity p.23