InfoCommerce Group Blog


Looks Matter

You’ve probably heard of a company called Square: it manufactures a doo-dad that attached to your mobile phone or tablet that allows small merchants to accept credit cards. Well, Square went public yesterday, and the stock popped nicely, earning the six year old company a market valuation of $2.9 billion. That’s an exciting story in and of itself, but what really jumped out at me was a comment made yesterday by Jack Dorsey, Square’s founder. He said, “We’re not going out there to say we’re getting rid of the banks or card networks. We’ve just put a much cleaner face on that infrastructure.”

Yes, this young company with the multi-billion dollar valuation sees itself, in effect, as a user interface company. Square isn’t trying to disrupt the existing payments networks. It is simply trying to make them more easily accessible.

Certainly, most data publishers are well aware of the importance of the user interface and the overall user experience. But here’s a stunning example of a company that has built its entire business on providing a simpler, easier customer experience.

Thinking about Square this way made me realize it is not an isolated case. Another company that caught my eye recently, called HoneyInsured, seeks to take on an even bigger challenge. HoneyInsured is a front-end to the site where consumers seek to select insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act. Think back to all the horror stories around the launch of and then consider HoneyInsured’s claim: it can identify the best health plan for you if you answer just four simple questions. A complex process becomes simplicity itself.

While all of this is very cool and cutting edge, it’s really not all that new. Think of the number of services (e.g., EDGAR Online) that sprung up to put user-friendly interfaces on the SEC EDGAR database – while EDGAR was completely free to use, these services proved that lots of people would pay for smarter, simpler and easier access.

As the data market evolves, we are increasingly seeing that the interface and the overall user experience matter almost as much as the data itself. The rapid shift to mobile devices has forced data providers to simplify and often dumb down their products to provide an adequate experience on these small screens. And the larger trend of users not having the inclination to read (either your user manual or the content itself) is also forcing content companies to simplify their interfaces. And that’s no small challenge when users are simultaneously screaming for both simplicity and more powerful analytics.

The bottom line is that data presentation matters … a lot. Your user interface can become a prime sales benefit, or a critical competitive weakness. We’ve certainly seen examples of market incumbents being challenged by upstart competitors with largely the same data but much better and fresher presentation and ease of use.

Having great data is now a minimum requirement. Putting tools and analytics around your data is the current battleground. But we’re quickly seeing that the next one will be the presentation layer – the “last mile” problem of translating your data and tools into something users can engage with easily and immediately, and make sense of just as easily. Are you giving your user interface the attention it deserves?



Bad Data, Specious Claim

The U.S. Supreme Court began to hear arguments this week on a case called Spokeo Inc. vs. Robins. The case hasn’t gotten too much attention, but for data publishers, the outcome could be profound.

The plaintiff in this case, Thomas Robins, claims that Spokeo, one of the larger online consumer data aggregators, damaged his reputation by disseminating incorrect information about him. According to published accounts, the record Spokeo had on Robins was a real botch job – almost everything was wrong. Ironically, a lot of the information was wrong in a good way: Spokeo tagged him as wealthy even though he was unemployed, gave him a wife and even awarded him a graduate degree he didn’t have. But wrong data is wrong data, according to Robins.

Here’s the part that gets weird, subtle and scary. Robins can’t point to any specific example of how he was damaged by this bad information. And courts don’t like awarding damages when damages can’t be shown. That’s why Robins is suing under a provision of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which does let consumers claim damages if false information about them is distributed. As Robins sees it, even though he can’t prove he was damaged, he’s still entitled to damages because the information was supposed to be correct and it wasn’t. Starting to feel a chill going down your spine? Well, it gets even scarier when you realize there are quite a few laws relating to consumer and professional information like this on the books. And while the maximum penalty under the Fair Credit Reporting Act isn’t huge – just $1,000 – this is the stuff of dreams for class action lawyers, who can sue on behalf of millions of individuals, with a maximum penalty of $1,000 each.

 If Robins prevails, the information industry will become a happy hunting ground for lawyers who can use these so-called statutory penalties to take data companies to court for a broad range of practices, even if nobody was damaged by them. Business data may be a safer place to be right now, but with the increased blurring of our business and personal lives, the safety could easily be undone by a creative lawyer somewhere.

The Robins case won’t be decided until 2016, but it’s one to monitor carefully. A lot of big players in the information industry are already monitoring it … very nervously.



2015 Models of Excellence: Bucking the Disruption Trend

With the deadline for the Business Information & Media Summit fast approaching, here are four excellent reasons to look forward to your trip to Ft. Lauderdale (or to sign up if you haven’t already).

Trucker Path – Trucker Path is laudable from several perspectives. First, it developed a useful, much-needed and very successful app for truckers to use to find gas, food and even rest stops while on the road. It’s all neatly executed, utilizing GPS to pinpoint the nearest amenities, crowdsourced data and even user reviews. Even the advertising in the app is driven by proximity to the advertiser. This would be a nice business in itself, but Trucker Path has gone further. Leveraging the 300,000 users of its app, it is now launching a matching service to connect truckers to those who have freight that needs to be shipped. Marketplaces like this can be tough to launch, but Trucker Path took its time, and built not only a loyal following, but a trusted neutral brand, all key elements to succeeding with a new industry marketplace. All of this hard work is driving it towards a billion dollar valuation.

Parking Panda – Parking Panda was originally envisioned as sort of an Airbnb for parking spaces. If you lived near a stadium, for example, and wanted to rent your driveway, Parking Panda would connect you to those looking for parking.

The concept has evolved quite a bit since then. Parking Panda has now allied itself primary with parking garage operators, an industry badly in need of a technological assist. Now a consumer can specify a destination, and Parking Panda will identify available parking garages – all with guaranteed availability – provide rates and allow for online booking. Increasingly, Parking Panda users are even able to enter and leave the parking facility using only the Parking Panda app.

For garage operators, there’s also a payoff. They get greater operational productivity, a way to market themselves to better sell available inventory, the ability to vary prices in real time to respond to demand, and powerful customer analytics tools. High profile partners the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, Tampa Bay Rays, and the Washington Nationals.

PeopleTicker – PeopleTicker is a classic, ground-up data play. Numerous systems already exist to help companies compare and benchmark full-time jobs to help them select the correct salary level. But what about the burgeoning contingent or “gig” economy? PeopleTicker saw a need to develop comparable benchmarking tools. It now draws on feeds of data supplied by major employers, augmented by web harvesting and other data sources, to build this unique dataset. Moreover, it’s made a significant investment to build more precision around job descriptions for greater comparability.

Quorum – Quorum is a data analytics company founded by two Harvard school buddies who went from mapping proteins to mapping relationships between members of Congress. Barely a year old, this startup is an online legislative strategy platform that provides legislative professionals access to the world’s most comprehensive database of legislative information, unique quantitative insights, and modern project management tools. With Quorum, users can easily search, save, comment on, and receive email alerts for all bills, votes, tweets, press releases, floor statements, caucuses, committees, and staff contact information from the U.S. Congress and all 50 state legislatures.

Quorum’s advanced quantitative analytics provide information on each legislator’s top issues, most frequent collaborators, ideology, voting history, and legislative effectiveness. By enabling users to easily log meetings, clearly highlight differences between bills, create legislative spreadsheets, and quickly email multiple legislators and congressional staff, Quorum’s productivity features save users valuable time.

Quorum’s comprehensive data, quantitative insights, and 21st-century productivity tools are changing the way people track legislation, build support, and take action – and it just might change the Beltway’s influence peddling industry for the better.

Bucking the Trend

As with all of our Models of Excellence, these are clearly all very different businesses. But all four are trying in different ways to enhance the efficiency of the markets they serve. In the case of Parking Panda and Trucker Path, their solution was to actually build online marketplaces. For PeopleTicker, it’s putting information infrastructure in place to make the market run more efficiently. With Quorum, the goal is to help organize and manage the process of creating and influencing legislation.

Perhaps more significantly, all four companies didn’t feel they had to disrupt their markets to make a place for themselves. Trucker Path’s new marketplace doesn’t try to cut out the freight brokers; indeed, it welcomes their participation. Parking Panda isn’t trying to find an alternative to parking garages; it’s helping that industry operate more conveniently and efficiently. And PeopleTicker didn’t try to become a recruiter or job site; it simply provides the critical data needed to make the existing market more efficient. What we see with Quorum is a sophisticated effort to organize a complex and unwieldy process for the benefit of those working in that industry. So while disruption is all the rage these days, there are still plenty of strong opportunities to bring what I call “innovation overlays” to markets.

You’ll have the unique opportunity to learn from the innovators behind these fascinating companies at BIMS 2015 in Ft. Lauderdale, See you there!

Say What You Want!

A bill has recently been introduced in the U.S. Senate (S.2044) called the Consumer Review Freedom Act. Its core provision outlaws non-disparagement clauses for online reviews.

What are non-disparagement clauses? Increasingly, businesses are writing into their terms of sale language that prohibits their customers from posting unfavorable reviews about them online, often subjecting them to stiff penalties if they do.

There’s a need for this bill as non-disparagement clauses are rapidly getting out of hand. Interestingly, they first took hold in the healthcare profession, where physicians bridled at the notion of mere patients commenting on how they do business. Such clauses also briefly got some traction in the hotel industry, where hotels sought to fight back against the overwhelming power of sites such as TripAdvisor. It’s also been noted that non-disparagement clauses can even be found in the terms of use of more than a few websites. Merely by accessing these websites, you are prohibited from posting negative reviews. You may also be prohibited from making negative comments to friends and neighbors!

While most people see their online reviews as a simple freedom of speech issue, non-disparagement clauses can lead people to worry that perhaps their online reviews are not protected speech. It’s this potential chilling effect that this legislation seeks to end.

I certainly have sympathy for small businesses that have been subjected to unfair, inaccurate and mean-spirited reviews. Yet at the same time, resorting to non-disparagement clauses is a heavy-handed and clumsy response. Moreover, they have incredibly bad optics, something a number of businesses have learned when they tried to enforce this legal language and the dispute got picked up by the media.

This proposed legislation isn’t the last word in terms of the law of online reviews. Further balancing is needed. But as a way to make it clear to consumers that they are free to post their opinions online, it’s a positive development.

Bad Data Now Illegal in CA

There’s a new law in California that mandates that health plans maintain accurate provider directories. It’s a serious piece of legislation; health plans are even empowered to withhold reimbursements from physicians and other healthcare providers if they don’t cooperate in providing current data to the health plans.

Why has it come to this?  The reasons help illustrate some of the challenges in maintaining commercial databases today.

You would think that health plans would know a lot about the physicians in their plans, at the minimum where they are located because they are regularly sending checks out to them.  But as those of us who have dealt with physician databases well know, it just isn’t that easy.

For starters, many physicians like to receive checks at a location other than their offices. Post office boxes are still common. Some physicians have management companies located in separate offices collect funds for them. And of course, payments now are increasingly electronic – account to account with no address needed. All of this makes it hard to simply using billing information as the basis for a plan directory.

Physicians are also increasingly part of group practices. And these group practices often have multiple office locations. Physicians in these practices move around from location to location, making it difficult for physicians to provide a single physical address. The group practices themselves are often radically decentralized, so there really is no main office even for the group. Some groups cross county and state lines. Some groups have separate administrative offices. And then there are the doctors who work out of hospitals … this is just the tip of the iceberg, but you get the idea.

But the biggest problem of all is the industry’s failing. Physicians see a plan directory as one more administrative burden; health plans see an annoying cost center. The reality is that these plan directories are a prime marketing tool for both groups. Different surveys confirm that some stunning percentage of patients select their physician from these directories. Health plans market themselves on the quality and breadth of their networks. The first question of anyone contemplating a switch to a new plan is, “is my doctor in your network?”

By not understanding and leveraging the fact that health plan directories are a primary discovery tool and a great marketing vehicle, we end up in the sorry situation where government has to legislate accuracy when instead all those involved should be insisting on it themselves.

The best databases are those where the listed individuals or organizations see real benefit in participation. If this is true in your case, promote it like crazy. It’s too big an opportunity to miss.