InfoCommerce Group Blog

Old Models Never Die … They Evolve

Most of you (I think) remember the heyday of yellow pages when those thick print directories hit your doorstep, often followed weeks later by thinner but still hefty print directories from competing publishers. Now, if you receive a print yellow pages at all, it’s a shadow of its former self.

That’s why I was so surprised to receive a print, 120 page directory in the mail yesterday. It’s called Best Pick Reports and it is owned by EBSCO, a company known to most publishers but very few consumers.

I think it’s fair to call Best Pick Reports a next generation yellow pages. It’s organized by categories (with a focus on home improvement and repairs) and presents a list of local vendors. It’s also printed on inexpensive paper with modest production values, much in the spirit of the old yellow pages directories and suggesting saturation distribution, also a key aspect of the yellow pages model.

But Best Pick Reports also draws on the model of Angie’s List, presenting only local vendors that have been given high ratings by the local community. Angie’s List, however, struggled to sell this information as a subscription service to consumers, while Best Pick Reports distributes its information for free.

Drawing on the resources of EBSCO’s research arm, the company surveys consumers in local areas to develop lists of recommended plumbers, builders, etc. Those that receive high ratings are offered the chance to be listed in the publication for a fee, so while vendors can’t buy a rating, they do pay to play. Companies that do pay to list are assigned what appears to be key phone numbers to track response (another yellow pages innovation). Best Pick Reports also checks the license and insurance status of companies that pay to list.

Overall, it’s a fascinating blending of models. There are elements of the old yellow pages: categorized reference information and mass distribution. There are elements of the new vendor sourcing models: ratings and reviews, trust markers and focus on a limited selection of choices, presented as “the best.” And there are generous dollops of the innovative Angie’s List model, but modified to remove the vexing subscription component. At the same time, this model bypasses the anonymity that makes it hard to fully trust most of the big online review sites.

Is this an ideal model? While it has many appealing characteristics, this is an expensive business to operate. It needs a large and robust research capability (and since not every highly rated firm will advertise, you need to cast a wide net). It has expensive print distribution costs. It also needs a professional advertising salesforce. Moreover, EBSCO is hardly an established consumer brand. But none of this means EBSCO can’t succeed; it just means EBSCO will need to work hard to succeed. And business success that doesn’t come fast and easy usually defines the businesses that are the most successful of all.


Monetizing Mediocrity

I laughed out loud while reading a recent Bloomberg article describing how Apple has a secret team hard at work to improve search in Apple’s App Store. Key to this initiative: finding a way to introduce paid search so that app developers can pay to come up first in search results. Oh yes, as a secondary objective, this secret team is also “trying to improve the way customers browse in the App Store.” Note that they’re improving browsing, not search!

Yes, the App Store, which the article correctly notes is a vital part of Apple’s business, urgently needs to be better monetized. Better functionality? Maybe, they’ll look at that too.

The App Store is a case study in bad design and a bad user experience. My sense is that it was created with the notion that users would primarily browse for apps of interest. But with 1.5 million apps and only 25 categories, you better have a lot of time to kill if that’s the way you want to find new apps.

Search is even worse. It starts with the well-hidden search box. Start typing in a word, and the search software will helpfully suggest phrases. But if you click on one of these search phrases, more often than not, you’ll come up with no results. Further, Apple seemingly permits companies to stuff their entries with the names of competitive products too, so you have to be extremely careful what apps you download, something I discussed in an earlier post.

Searching in the App Store is incredibly literal too. Apparently, concepts like wildcars or Soundex or even relevancy eluded Apple’s celebrated designers. In almost every respect, Apple appears to have succeeded in spite of itself.

Besides serving as a useful case study of how not to build an online store, business information companies need to consider how this impacts their products and digital strategies. Most business information companies distribute their apps through the App Store. It’s important not to take for granted that they will be found. Try searching for your own app in the App Store using common searches your typical user might try. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll be disappointed if not shocked by the results. Saying “download our app from the App Store” is unfortunately not enough direction for users. Also, spending some time to really think through your App Store listing is absolutely time well spent.

You should also keep an eye out for scammy apps that may be presenting themselves in confusingly similar ways in the App Store. Apple doesn’t seem to care, but you may be losing business to other app developers that don’t have your user’s best interests as heart, and this could ultimately reflect back on you. There are a stunning number of apps that seem to be gaming the system.

Apple’s planned solution to App Store search seems to be not to improve it, but to charge money for you to get the results you would expect to get if its search functionality worked properly. And much as I hate to say it, it may be worth paying up, because digital adoption starts with your users getting their hands on your app, and Apple is making that incredibly and unnecessarily difficult to do.


Authority Databases

With an increasing proliferation of databases these days, it can become hard for a business to make sure it is properly represented in multiple data products. That’s because every database producer collects data in different ways and updates it at different times. Increasingly, data producers are licensing data from third parties, and with increasingly sophisticated matching and overlays, it’s often difficult to even say with certainty where certain data elements are coming from. And if all this is complicated to the data producer, imagine how overwhelming it is for the typical business owner.

That’s why opportunities are emerging for what might be called authority databases. These are databases where a business owner supply their information and keep it current. The information about the business is represented exactly as the business owner wants it, and is the most current information available. The database owner then arranges with other data companies to use this data and treat it as definitive. The advantage to the business owner is that business details only have to be entered and maintained in one place. The advantage to the data companies using the data is a trusted source of authenticated information. Business models vary. Currently, the business is generally paying a fee to participate, but there’s no reason the data companies using the data shouldn’t pay. In an ideal situation, both parties would pay.

Do such databases exist? Indeed they do. Universal Business Listings has for a number of years offered an authority database where businesses could input authoritative data on their companies. Universal then syndicated this data to hundreds of online databases, getting them to accept it as authoritative. That’s an important little detail, because it prevents this data from being overwritten by data coming in from other sources.

You’ve probably also heard about new regulations meant to increase the accuracy of health plan provider directories. Wouldn’t it be great for physicians if they could enter their basic information in one place where it could be picked up by all the health plans they are associated with? Well, a non-profit organization called CAQH is doing just that. The benefit to the health plan is that it doesn’t have to constantly chase its plan physicians to re-confirm their information. The benefit to physicians, who can be affiliated with a dozen or more plans, is the efficiency of maintaining their information in just one place, rather than having to provide it over and over again, endlessly to multiple plans.

These are just two examples of authority databases. Hopefully they’ll get you thinking about your own market, and whether there might be an authority database opportunity in your future.




Three New Products to Watch

LinkedIn Launches ProFinder

It’s a smart if probably inevitable move: LinkedIn is leveraging its deep base of professional users and resumes to roll out a new marketplace for freelance and contract professionals. The way it works is simple: you post your freelancer need, LinkedIn forwards it to freelancers who have signed up as “LinkedIn Pros.” Postings are apparently forwarded based on categories selected in advance by the LinkedIn Pro, not some more sophisticated algorithm.

ProFinder is very much in the awkward and dangerous early stage all marketplaces contend with: not enough buyers or sellers right now. My posting for a content strategist (with admittedly random criteria) yielded no matches, something LinkedIn will need to overcome fairly quickly. That said, this is an excellent example of how to generate multiple revenue streams from distinct markets off a single platform. Keep an eye on how LinkedIn evolves this new service: they’ve shown themselves to be pretty sure-footed this far in the professional connections space.

pinGo Introduces Display Advertising

You may recall our 2014 Model of Excellence winner SpinGo. In a nutshell, SpinGo is a master database of events that it distributed through thousands of media outlets that want local events listings, but don’t want to do the work of checking and maintaining the listings. Basic listings are free, but SpinGo also offers paid listing enhancements that give these listings more prominence.

Now, SpinGo goes a step farther, allowing event organizers to create an online ad (in a totally self-serve environment) that lets them advertise their events on the news pages of many of its media partners. SpinGo shares revenue with its media partners of course, and reinforces its position as the one-stop shop for event organizers to list and promote their events online.

Quorum Analytics Closes the Loop

One of our 2015 Model of Excellence picks, Quorum Analytics, caught our eye because it is bringing powerful analytics to the world of lobbying and advocacy, starting with the world’s largest database of legislative information, both federal and state level.

But identifying legislators to target is only part of the job. Real legislative influence depends on grass-level support. That’s why Quorum has just released the Quorum Action Center. The Action Center enables supporters – think members of a trade association, for example --  to quickly take action on issues of importance by writing, calling, or tweeting their legislators, signing a petition, and even sharing content on social media—all from a single customizable web page. By making it easier to harness interested constituencies to make their opinions known to legislators on topics of interest, Quorum becomes a true plug-and-play tool for those in the business of influencing the legislative process.



Supercharge Your Audience Database

Time, Inc. recently announced a brilliantly simple and smart deal with a company called Audience Partners just in time for the 2016 election season. Simply stated, it is overlaying its massive consumer database with voting data from Audience Partners that has created a National Online Voter File database.

Yes, just in time for the elections, Time can now offer political campaigns access to its audience, but now with the ability to target not only by Time’s demographic data, but also by political party affiliation. And lest I leave you with the impression that Audience Partners only offers simple party registration data, let me be clear: there’s much more. The National Online Voter File allows targeting by voting frequency, donor history, types of elections the voter typically participates in and more.

Hopefully, your head is already spinning with the possibilities for your own audience database. In the B2B world, a voter overlay wouldn’t be my first choice because that’s a volume game: you need a huge audience to be attractive. But let your mind wander to other possibilities a bit closer to home. Is there public domain or even licensed data that you could overlay on your own audience database to create new high-value marketing opportunities? All this added intelligence about your audience is also something you can leverage internally as well, getting smarter about who you are talking to and what content they engage with.

None of this is a new concept. I remember back to the good old days of pressure sensitive labels and postal mail. Even back then, mailing list compilers were slamming together lists of mail order buyers to identify coveted “multi-buyers.” And “master files” of names, sometimes with hundreds of possible demographic and behavioral selections were readily available.

As a B2B example, I often offer up the example of Randall-Reilly, which has publications serving the trucking industry. It overlaid its basic audience data with a rich public domain database that allowed to it append truck ownership data. Suddenly, it went from offering modestly value truck driver contact information to hugely valuable market intelligence and targeting capabilities as it now knows the exact make, model and year of the trucks its subscribers operate.

This is perhaps the simplest and fastest way to supercharge your audience database. Think of what data you and your advertisers would kill for, then rather than trying to acquire it yourself, see how you might acquire it through one or more overlays. This has been a good business for 30 years; it’s even better today.