Shikhar Ghosh, 43, cofounder, president, and CEO of iBelong, a Waltham, Massachusetts-based startup that was launched in 1998. IBelong develops, hosts, and manages customized Internet portals for special-interest groups, as well as for businesses.
What do the AFL-CIO, the American Motorcyclists Association, and the National Federation of Republican Women have in common? They all have lots of members who share similar interests, who are hungry for information and conversation about those interests, and who are increasingly comfortable with the Internet. IBelong helps such “affinity” organizations to leverage their brands online and to attract the next wave of Internet users. “Most people feel a closer tie to brands that have a direct presence in their lives,” says Ghosh. “Given a choice between Yahoo! and, say, their university’s alumni portal, people will choose the alumni portal.”
The key to iBelong’s strategic vision is relevance. Its portals provide the usual Web fare — news feeds, stock quotes — as well as content that reflects members’ passions. At the AFL-CIO portal, for example, union members can read the latest labor news and shop for products made by companies with labor-friendly HR policies. IBelong builds its affinity sites for free and then takes a percentage of the revenues generated through advertising and commerce. (The company charges a fee to create portals for businesses.)
Of course, shared passions don’t always translate into booming businesses. Should AOL and Yahoo! watch their backs as affinity portals such as those built by iBelong recruit users in hard-to-reach segments of society? Ghosh acknowledges that brand recognition gives megaportals a major advantage — for now. But, he says, iBelong is betting on the power of its endorsed network of portals (in June, the company already had more than 60 live sites, and it continues to add 3 or 4 sites every week) and on the vast purchasing power that those members represent. “More than 90% of people in the United States belong to some organization. But most important, this is a powerful model of selling. People like to support organizations that they care about.”
Cathy Olofson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer and editor who lives in Belmont, Massachusetts. Contact Shikhar Ghosh by email (email@example.com).