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Charges added for e-greeting

CLEVELAND – AmericanGreetings.com has started charging users to send Christmas greetings that sing and dance, but can’t be hung on the mantel.

The company’s formerly free e-greetings for holidays, birthdays and other special occasions now cost $11.95 a year for unlimited use. Everyday greetings are still free.

The fee also was imposed at American Greetings-owned Egreetings.com and BlueMountain.com, which it bought for $35 million from high-speed Internet provider ExciteAtHome in September.

Charlie Fink, president of AmericanGreetings.com, expects the fourth quarter to be the 6-year-old company’s first profitable one on the strength of Christmas e-greetings.

He said Internet companies have come to realize that, like magazines and other media, they need advertising and subscription fees to survive.

“In 1999, we thought advertising alone, if you built the site big enough, would be large enough to support it,” Fink said yesterday. E-greetings sites are second only to search engines, portholes and Web giants like Amazon.com and eBay in their number of visitors, said Betty Yeh, an Internet analyst for NetRatings Inc. She said Yahoo and many other sites are starting to charge for content.

“With the ad dollars drying up, the move from free content to paid subscription is definitely becoming a trend,” Yeh said.

Although AmericanGreet-ings.com, BlueMountain.com and Egreetings.com make up three of the top five online card sites, according to NetRatings, Fink acknowledged there are free alternatives.

“We expect we’ll lose some people to those,” he said.

Flowgo.com has free e-greetings, such as the animated “Dancing Elf Baby.” But they won’t be free for long.

Within 45 to 60 days the site will offer users a package of e-greetings and other entertainment for a fee, said Shawn Gold, president of Los Angeles-based eUniverse. He said they plan to learn from American Greetings’ mistakes.

“American Greetings, I guess, is the Marines of online greeting cards – the first one to go over the hill,” Gold said.

Fink said research conducted last month by American Greetings and Hallmark shows that people won’t stop sending paper cards or migrate to online cards because of the anthrax scare.

John Frenden, a 29-year-old Cleveland attorney, said he doesn’t think online cards are as personal.

He said he doesn’t mind purchasing cards, addressing them and mailing them out.

“I guess it seems more sincere when you go to that trouble,” he said.

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