We all know what a buying guide is — information on vendors,

vendors, arranged by category, to help buyers quickly and easily source products and services. The utility is clear and well-established. Buying guides are having a bit of bumpy ride right now as search engines are increasingly able to yield “good enough” results, but regardless of the means of discovery, the need for buyers to find sellers will never go away. What’s interesting is that while the buying guide model has been around for over a hundred years, it hasn’t significantly evolved. Granted, buying guides are more comprehensive and granular than ever before, but the model has not changed.

You may recall in the early days of the web it was widely predicted that we would soon have “automated agents” endlessly scouring the web on our behalf to find specific merchandise at specific prices. It was a concept right out of an episode of the Jetsons that never went anywhere … but this may be changing.

I spent some time looking at a company called Next Jump. It’s in the news today with a deal with MasterCard to create a consumer shopping portal, but that’s only part of the story. Next Jump is a data-driven technology play that connects buyers and sellers in a fascinating way.

First, Next Jump hooks up with online rewards and discounts programs, often operated by corporations. It picks up employee/participant data as part of these deals. With names and addresses, I have no doubt there are demographic overlays involved as well. For credit card company rewards sites, it picks up credit card transaction data. Then it asks users of these sites to volunteer their interests and price points.

Second, Next Jump goes to retailers and says “give us products you want to move, price them attractively, and we’ll micro-target promotions to this network of buyers.” Next Jump promotes the products to the customers most likely to buy. Not surprisingly, conversion rates are through the roof. Even better, there is no list exhaustion and no spam concerns. With each promotion, Next Jump further refines buyer interest and intent.

Yes, at some level you can say this is conventional online marketing with better targeting. True … to a point. But because buyers have expressed specific interest and because Next Jump then adds purchase propensity into the mix, there’s something much more important going on here. I see buyers expressing specific needs/interests. I see the intermediary returning a carefully selected list of matching offers. Isn’t that functionally a buying guide? Or to use my freshly coined term, “guided buying?”

B2B applications? Why not? What an intriguing way for a company to procure office supplies, semiconductors or almost any other type of merchandise. This could be a peek at the buying guides of the future, and a solid first step to those automated agents we were all promised way back when. Best of all, however this evolves, it’s clearly a data-driven business with a clear role for a neutral intermediary.