By Alleen Brown
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"Sidewalk's early stuff was a joke. It was so cluttered. Now they've gone the other way. They've simplified things graphically," he says. "But if a main goal is to market products they already have"--Expedia, say--"they're going to have a hard time attracting an audience. People aren't going to come to a Microsoft site, because they can go to a different Microsoft site. If Sidewalk thinks they have something people want, they should let it live or die on its own. It seems like they're trying to capture that big 'S' word: Synergy. And that sounds good in the boardroom, but so far it hasn't worked on the Web."
In response to skeptics like Levine, Dinndorf and other execs at Microsoft simply reference the early numbers. Thousands of local advertisers and national promotional partners have already signed on with Sidewalk's new service, including the Twin Cities-based Northwest Airlines Corp., Visa U.S.A., and Wells Fargo Bank. Dinndorf says Microsoft has taken in $26 million for the nationwide product launch and has seen advertisers renew their annual contracts at a rate of over 60 percent. In the main, she says, their advertisers are more prone to consider online commerce and are excited about the chance to target consumers with product-specific listings and reviews. For instance, businesses can purchase different packages in the Yellow Pages section, which--depending on what they pay--can be souped up with bigger, bolder fonts and advanced graphics. They can even link shoppers to a separate home page.
Whether advertisers' newfound interest in Sidewalk will turn into long-term profit for Microsoft is anyone's guess. In the October 12 issue of Internet World, writer/analyst Nelson Wang hates to admit it, but concludes that Microsoft has "come up with an elegant model for attracting users, and thus advertisers." In the same week's issue of Editor & Publisher, in-house online analyst Peter Zollman believes the new service is trying to do too much, and predicts that it won't be long before sidewalk.msn proves itself a "useless flop."
This guessing game is nothing new to Jim Pounds, vice president and media director at Periscope Communications, a Minneapolis ad agency. He says a solid online-advertising model has yet to emerge. So while advertisers are keenly interested in the Web's marketing potential, they're spending less money on the medium than they were a year ago (in other words, the novelty has worn off). One reason behind this wait-and-see attitude is that there's no standard measurement of a Web site's performance. Some sites measure traffic based on the number of hits; some, such as Microsoft, prefer the term "unique visitors," each with a discrete user profile. And many, including the Star Tribune's online site, measure the number of pages users access per visit. "It's a fragile time," Pounds says. "Someone tells you they have 165,000 visitors a month, and what does that mean? Is that number flat? Is it exploding? I don't know. There's no way to know. It's too early to really tell." So while the analysts debate Sidewalk's utility, it will be a long time before there's a reliable methodology prospective advertisers can use to judge the reach of any Web site.
Meanwhile, Sidewalk's local employees plan to keep their references in order and surf the wave until they're thrown overboard or the waters calm. "It's funny," one says. "If this thing doesn't work, we're gone. But if this thing does really well, Microsoft might decide to focus primarily on the consumer guide and cut staff who were hired"--back in the olddays--"to write content for the entertainment guide."