United They Fell, Divided They Stand.

Pathfinder, Time Warner's web site, broke the most basic rules of the online business. The result: it is now part of Internet history. What did they do wrong?

When Time Warner debuted its Pathfinder Web site in 1994, some analysts saw it as the future of big media on the Internet. With its ability to leverage successful magazine titles like Time, Money and Entertainment Weekly, Time Warner envisioned Pathfinder as its foundation as it looked to build its online image.

Five years later, Pathfinder is history. The reason: Time Warner broke some of the most basic rules of the online business.

First, the site never had a clear purpose. Was it supposed to be a portal? A Web-based community? No one knew. What it did accomplish was burying the strong brand names of Time Warner’s successful magazines. Instead of capitalizing on popular brand names like Entertainment Weekly and Time, the company was forced, unsuccessfully, to build and establish the Pathfinder brand name.

The most telling statistic of the uselessness of the Pathfinder site may be that 98 percent of Time Warner’s traffic went directly to the individual magazines’ Web sites. In fact, that statistic may have been the one that finally led Time Warner to dump the Pathfinder site and concentrate instead on promoting the individual sites of its magazines.

“This is an evolution, and it follows the way consumers have been using our sites,” Jeffrey Coomes, vice president of marketing at Time Inc. New Media, told the New York Times. “Now we’re working on promoting individual brands, like Time.com and Fortune.com, and their features and function.”

Pathfinder’s failure can also be attributed to its overloaded homepage [http://www.pathfinder.com]. In an effort to lure Web surfers to the site, Time Warner crammed too many fancy graphics and bells and whistles onto its opening page. The result: a cluttered page that took longer to download than most people have the patience for. In addition, Time Warner attempted to display all of the online versions of its magazines on the Pathfinder homepage at one time.

Time Warner also learned that simply grouping their magazines together and shifting print content online does not work. To cater to the online medium, electronic magazines must become distinct entities that supply relevant and unique content.

By closing the Pathfinder site, which will be phased out in the next several months, Time Warner is rededicating itself to promoting its individual magazines online. According to published reports, Time Warner will replace Pathfinder with “hub” sites that combine magazines, features and links to Timer Warner’s other Web sites. For example, Fortune and Money will share a financial hub with CNNfn, while People and Entertainment Weekly will share an entertainment hub, tentatively called Entertaindom.

The Pathfinder Web site has drawn considerable criticism from industry analysts. Most agree that Time Warner made the right decision by pulling the plug. Their only complaint is that Time Warner took too long to do it.

Does Pathfinder’s failure mean that big media companies will stop lumping all their brand names together in the future? If there is a lesson here, it hasn’t reached the folks at media behemoth Walt Disney. The company continues to invest significant resources in its “GO Network,” which serves as a portal to the individual Web sites of Disney properties like ESPN and ABC. The difference may be that Disney executives view GO as a portal, but time will tell how the strategy will hold up in the face of the demise of Pathfinder.

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