360merch to Launch Affinity-Based Network

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This week 360merch is expected to launch what it calls an affinity-based marketing and communications network for the promotional products community.

The company will create customized, co-branded microsites for clients called Promomods where visitors can purchase promotional products for their companies at a discount. The products available at each site will vary according to the destination's target audience.

VerticalNet.com may offer upscale items such as fleece jackets, high-end baseball caps and pens, for example, or music licensing association ASCAP.com might focus on funkier items such as baby doll T-shirts and glitter deejay bags.

"We bring the right product to the right customer at the right place," said Dave Balter, CEO of 360merch, Boston. "We're distributing targeted products through those channels instead of a wide range of products."

While other premium sites also offer the ability to create custom microsites, their business models differ from 360merch, Balter said. "Starbelly, Branders and MadeToOrder.com have a valid marketplace, but they're trying to grab everybody and bring them there," he said. "We're not looking to do that. We're not looking to build company stores. We don't build retail sites. We build wholesale distribution channels."

Industry observers see this new online distributor as a positive for the promotional products category. "It's an interesting, different approach," said Ray Finfer, director of marketing communications at Promotional Products Association International, Irving, TX. "Anybody offering something different and unique has to be good for the industry."

As a destination site, 360merch.com will compete not on volume, but on the unusual nature of its products. It plans to offer items such as digital business cards, decoder rings and fire alarm Christmas tree ornaments.

"We offer promotional products that are very targeted," Balter said. "We're not interested in 700,000 SKUs. We're interested in 1,000 SKUs that fit that audience."

360merch was formerly known as Retro-Fit, a 4-year-old offline business with 600-plus clients, including AOL, Intel and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. However, Balter feels the online market is ripe for his offering.

"Many of out clients looked to advertising as their source of revenue," he said. "They are now realizing the amount of revenue they can generate for themselves [by offering promotional items online]. Plus they're looking for services that will keep their clients from going to their competitors."

VerticalNet and Penton Media will launch Promomods this month. ASCAP and edatafinder.com also plan to add the capability to their sites by the end of the year.

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