We wrote recently about Epocrates, the drug information company that is a rare case of a successful advertising-supported business in the business and professional market. It’s worth mentioning another class of ad-supported business information services, buyers’ guides, which is in a state of transition.
Typified by ThomasNet (fka The Thomas Register), Sweets Network, a part of McGraw Hill Construction, and GlobalSpec, buyers’ guides are compilations of manufacturers’ catalogs – ThomasNet for industrial parts, Sweets for architectural components, and GlobalSpec for a wide range of industrial goods. Many buyers’ guides originated in print as compilations of individual catalogs and were distributed in multi-volume books or binders. Over time, these products have evolved into online collections with more value-added features, such as parametric search, downloadable specification files, and CAD drawings that are useful to those who specify, select, and purchase products or components.
Unlike bona fide reference databases, such as Epocrates, buyers’ guides typically follow the yellow pages business model: vendors pay little or nothing for a minimal listing, but more prominent or detailed listings cost significantly more. In some cases, the buyers’ guide publishers even build mini-catalogs for advertisers. In all cases, lead generation applications are an important feature of buyers’ guides.
Over time, reference databases and buyers’ guides may converge, but there are some notable gaps that must be bridged. Reference databases are usually carefully edited to ensure that information is accurate, normalized, and categorized for searching. Unlike a bona fide reference product like Epocrates, buyers’ guide depend heavily on vendors to submit information about their products, and the publishers exert little if any editorial control, except to normalize products for searching. Unlike Epocrates, which maintains a wall between its editorial operations and advertising sales, buyers’ guides often intentionally meld the two; advertisers’ happiness depends on showing their wares to the best advantage and, ideally, on generating sales leads.
The question of whether reference databases or buyers’ guides will be the winning model ultimately comes down to the situation in which the products are used. The higher level of accuracy and completeness typically found in a reference database may be critical in situations where the information is used directly to drive a transaction that may have life or death consequences. Buyers’ guides, although having less accuracy or completeness, may be good enough in situations where the user is an intermediary in a multi-step purchase process that has checks along the way. In those cases, “good enough” may in fact be good enough.