With marketing maneuvers and portentous pronouncements, Richmond-based Web sites have fired the first shots in the battle for your eyeballs. 

The Shape of Things Dot Com

"Richmond Bytes," the stark rectangle above a local highway declares.

Richmond what? You shake your head and drive on. Whatever.

But around town other billboards, too, spread piratical sails, steering crude messages into the marketing maelstrom, growling and arrgh!-ing at you in the same vaguely obscene way as the companion radio spots you might hear while driving past one. But instead of skull and crossbones: "Click This." Or: "It's Hit the Fan."

It is richmond.com, the Style sister company Web site; a local portal or guide site, to be more precise. Until last month, it enjoyed an uncontested predominance on the cyberseas of Richmond, ruled the waves. Then appeared richmond.citysearch.com, a local franchise in the 77-member Ticketmaster Online-City Search Inc. chain of localized Web portals. Now its billboards — muted lemon-yellow, unremarkable — stand off from richmond.com's across the choppy lanes of commuters. Now its tempered radio ads (a couple discussing things to do) seek the weather-gauge here, seek the right position upwind. Seek you, that is.

Now its cannons roar, and have drawn first blood. Richmond.citysearch.com absconded with three richmond.com staffers last month, and tempted others. That's standard procedure in the wired world of mercenary allegiance. But now, with the marketing and personnel broadsides subsiding into a steady din, in the offing loom the sails of two more familiar and better-backed Richmond brands, Ukrop's and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, drawing perceptibly nearer.

You know Richmond is getting serious about the Internet when Jim Ukrop, consummate Richmonder, says things like he does in the current issue of Virginia Business: "We would like to leverage our brand equity to become our customers' trusted buying agent. ... We hope to develop a Web site where, if you wanted to buy a book, instead of going to amazon.com, we would have an engine that would provide the best price, whether it's financial services or whatever. We'd get a commission off that and maybe return part of that commission to the customer. It could also be the place you come to for news, weather and sports. We'd become a portal."

Think about the nice, elderly man who carts your groceries out behind you Saturday mornings. Now think about "buying agents" and "search engines" and "portals." Vertiginous, isn't it?

Jim Ukrop's son, Scott, vice president of marketing at the grocery and bank chain, gently applies the brakes: "Anything with the Internet ... is a fluid-type discussion." For now ukrops.com is informational-only (but offers links to national Web retailers for items such as books and CDs). His father's vision is yet "a ways off. Our short term relates to the stores and bank."

A ways off, but, at some point, on. "We would like to ... tie it all together with the bank," Scott Ukrop says, explaining purchases could be debited from or financed through First Market Bank accounts. "We think it's an important part of our future."

Ah, the future. It arrived this year in Richmond, twice. In February came richmond.com, a friendly you-are-here, let's-be-a-community kind of site offering exclusive and shared news, features and listings, and a series of knobs and levers to push and pull, such as Web cams, short surveys, stock quotes and free e-mail. "I think of it as a dashboard to other things in Richmond," says General Manager Peter Conti Jr.

But, he adds, richmond.com's print, outdoor and zany-to-borderline-nutso radio ads are purposefully un-Richmond: "I think it's [good] positioning. There's more people fighting for eyeballs, so we're trying to get our message out. We're trying not to be too traditional or stuffy or boring."

While the site, which Conti says employs 15 full-timers, has been up and running the better part of a year, the marketing campaign commenced with the arrival of richmond.citysearch.com. But that was coincidental, he says: "We wanted to wait until we felt the site was strong enough to unveil."

It was strong enough in November, then, when richmond.citysearch.com went live. The site is a local outpost of citysearch.com, a company owned by Pasadena, Ca.-based Ticketmaster Online-City Search Inc. Emily Saltzman at citysearch.com in New York says, "What we want to be is the site that helps people go online and get things done" — everything from buying event tickets and finding movies to setting restaurant reservations and golf tee times. The key, Saltzman says, is "strategic alliances" — preferably exclusive deals — with those provider organizations.

Amy Carney, general manager of richmond.citysearch.com, has little to say about the company's local marketing campaign or future plans. "We picked Richmond because it's just a great place to be and it made sense for who we are," she says. Carney notes the site activated less than two months ago, and, reluctant to disclose statistics about usership, simply says they are "above expectations and growing."

"We've broken a record [among citysearch.com sites] in the Southeast in terms of page views," she adds.

(A page view is tabulated when a user downloads any of the pages on a particular Web site.)

The richmond.citysearch.com marketing program began at Thanksgiving with billboards, radio spots and what Carney calls "guerrilla marketing": showing up at events and concerts and giving away merchandise such as T-shirts and bottle-openers. "It's also kind of a team-building experience for us," she adds.

The site now has 13 full-time staffers locally but draws on the template and content provided by headquarters, particularly the Ticketmaster side of the operation. "We're about functionality," Carney says. "Our slogan is 'Get to the Good Stuff,' and we enable users to do it all in one place."

Once upon a time, that one place here was a Web site named gatewayva.com. Active since February 1995, however, the Media General operation has not grown beyond six full-time staff or marketed itself much outside the pages of the Times-Dispatch, of which it is simply an online mirror.

That could soon change, though. Recently gatewayva.com created timesdispatch.com — for now a distinction without a difference, as the sites share identical content, but perhaps a harbinger of things to come. "We are looking at ways in which we can better serve our readers," says Gary Burns, director of electronic publishing.

Bill Millsaps Jr., executive editor of the Times-Dispatch, has the authority to be blunt: "We're working on something, but we're not ready to talk about it," he says. "We've got quite a few irons in the fire. ... We're in the process of doing some things to differentiate" timesdispatch.com from gatewayva.com, maybe even add Web-exclusive features.

That sends shudders through other portals, who view Media General as a befuddled or at least sleeping giant that if it set its mind to it could inhale online advertisers in double-digit market-share chunks. "We are a trusted market-maker," Millsaps agrees, but when it comes to this new, alien enterprise known as the Web, even he worries about competition, about what's next: "The barriers to entry are so low. If you like uncertainty, it's the place to


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