By: Jennifer Owens Serves Expats, Immigrants

by Jennifer Owens

(Adweek IQ) Expatriates may move far away from their home country,
but Houston-based wants to make sure that they’re
never out of touch.

Since launching in June 1999, the company has rolled out a dozen
multilingual, country-specific destination sites targeting expats,
immigrants and people of common descent living in the United States
– a new twist on language-specific Web networks such as Starmedia,
which serves Spanish and Portuguese speakers from around the world.

Filled with proprietary content and home-country e-commerce, the WBN
sites – which feature country domain names including HungaryByNet,
IndiaByNet and VietnamByNet – aim to be a lifeline back home for those
living abroad, both in English and the home language.

According to WBN president and CEO Matt Flemming, the company’s target
– an estimated 50 million people of foreign affinity living in the
States – is an underserved one. Nevertheless, he says, ‘It’s
emphatically through that [heritage] that people want to hang out with
others like themselves.’

Additionally, Flemming and founder Leo Womack, a Houston-based venture
capitalist who now serves as WBN’s chairman, are also betting on two
growing Web trends: increasing Internet penetration abroad and a
growing demand for native languages online.

‘We’re 18 months away from profitability,’ claims Flemming, whose
company has attracted $12.75 million in funding. Currently, he says,
the total network receives about 150,000 unique users a month, with
traction growing 7% week over week since January.

Much of that traffic is generated by WBN’s marquis sites, including
IrelandByNet and MexicoByNet, for which the company has signed 20
proprietary content deals.

But while both the Ireland and Mexico sites benefit from large U.S.

-based communities, Flemming says that relationship is not necessarily
to the traffic a WBN site may generate.

‘You can have overwhelming market penetration that’s very viral just
because nobody’s had a way to connect with others just like them,’ says
Flemming, who claims that the sites’ demographic is split evenly between
men and women, ages 25 to 45, with an above-average income. ‘A good
example of that is Romania[ByNet], where we’ve had brutal success, but
the relative population size is small.’

To help promote viral interest, each WBN site is established individually,
run by channel managers who themselves are bilingual expatriates. The
managers work with overseas partners to generate content and commerce for
the site as well as with local groups to attract users.

‘It’s going out and talking to the Romanian church in Houston about posting
their church calendar on RomaniaByNet so their congregation can go there to
find out what’s happening,’ explains Flemming.

WBN takes a focused approach to marketing itself, as well. For example, the company’s online marketing is conducted on Web pages that are ‘three levels
deep,’ according to Flemming, who says the approach generated a 2% to 2.5%
average clickthrough rate between January and June.

To WBN, ‘three levels deep’ means finding out where an expatriate or
immigrant might look for information on a larger site, such as a weather
site. ‘We won’t run an ad [on the Budapest page] because theoretically
that could still be tourists,’ says Flemming. ‘We’ll find the second or
third city in a matrix of 20 relevant keywords and then we’ll run our ad.
Sometimes we get 11% clickthroughs.’

The result? ‘We can get members for $10 to $20 a piece, and the lifetime
value of that customer, based on the demographic slice they present as
well as an e-commerce purchase situation, could be $300 per capita.’

And yet, despite such Web marketing, WBN says its primary revenue is
driven by offline deals, such as one with a long-distance carrier that
has since begun offering WBN-branded service that is then advertised
on the ‘ByNet’ sites.

‘You go to the site and type in your name and phone number and hit the
send key,’ says Flemming. ‘And you literally switch your long-distance
service.’ Users then receive a monthly WBN bill and the company earns
a commission on each call. ‘It’s an example of making money without
relying on site usage,’ says Flemming, and it’s an approach that WBN
plans to build on.

WBN’s diverse revenue plans have attracted such investors as New
York-based Seneca Capital. According to Seneca partner Davis Parr, WBN
has been ‘focused since day one on creating a profitable company rather
than one that draws the biggest amount of visitors [it] can find.’

WBN has set a rollout goal of 30 country-specific sites in the next
year. Says Parr, ‘It’s too early to say whether [WBN] has the exact
right basket of countries. Time will tell which ones really take off and
which ones won’t.’ But overall, he says, ‘I think they’ve got enough of
them to work.’


Staff Reports

(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher

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