The fourth in a series. Last month: the Internet.

Compuserve, the oldest on-line service, isn't as friendly as America Online or Prodigy, but it offers more business information than either and is easier to navigate than the Internet.

CompuServe's vast collections of articles and demographic information appeal to a variety of business owners. Here's a sampling:

Larry Chase, founder of the Online Ad Agency, a New York City start-up that's just a few months old, uses CompuServe to conduct industry research. Scanning the database of 300-plus newspapers and magazines in the "Knowledge Index" and "Business Database Plus," he scopes out what's been written about the competition and his clients. It beats flipping through back issues at the library. (CompuServe cost: $24 an hour.)

Jeff Behrens, president of the Telluride Group, a $200,000 computer-systems-management service in Newton, Mass., researches potential customers. "I overheard a company being discussed at a chamber-of-commerce breakfast," he recalls. "I looked them up on CompuServe."

Even without the company's complete name, Behrens was able to find it in "Biz*File," a database of more than 10 million U.S. and Canadian businesses. "I got in touch, and now they're a sales prospect," he reports. (CompuServe cost: $15 an hour.)

Frederic Wilf, a partner at $750,000 law firm Elman Wilf & Fried, in Media, Pa., keeps in touch with his high-tech customers via CompuServe's electronic mail. (The cost is part of the basic monthly fee.) He can also do trademark searches for $10 a pop.

Where does CompuServe get its data? The service acts as a broker for more-expensive databases such as Nexis, Dialog, and Dun & Bradstreet; its offerings include collections of consumer and business demographics, SIC-coded company listings, D&B listings, and TRW credit reports. Population breakdowns, by zip code, provide a boost to target marketers.

As with some other on-line services, CompuServe can get expensive as the connect charges and extra fees add up. Lots of good research is available free from the Internet -- if you know how to find it. But CompuServe's real value is in making a variety of information easily accessible.

"I'm paying a premium for the information because CompuServe is the most comprehensive," Chase explains. "The next step up is Nexis, which is way too expensive for me."

-- Phaedra Hise

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Snapshot: CompuServe
Year founded:

Owner: H&R Block

Members: 1.8 million

Business databases: 70

Small-business/marketing forums: 3

Fees: $10 a month for the Executive Option package (offering access to all the information lists); plus add-on charges

Phone: 800-848-8199