Friday, December 7, 2007

ZoomInfo offers more evidence of a 'controlled circulation' advertising benefit quickly emerging on the web

Get ready for new "controlled circulation" models on the web, ones that target you based not on your preferences for music or soft drinks -- but on what you consume in your occupation. Think of it as B2B social networking.

First, some set-up ... One of the great media inventions of the mid-20th century was the notion of affinity-based, controlled circulation publishing. Those creating magazine titles that catered to defined groups -- rather than mass media volume plays like network television -- went granular.

By focusing on concentrated audiences, these publishers walled up "universes" of buyers that passionately sought specific information as defined by discrete hobbies or occupations. Bill Ziff Jr. honed in on the hobbies, and grew a media empire on titles that linked up dedicated buyers -- of things like electronics kits, models, automobiles (and the jackpot, personal computers) -- to the sellers of the actual goods behind the passion. The ads inside these special interest pubs generated high premiums, based on the tight match between engaged (and well monied) buyers and drooling sellers.

Norm Cahners took the model in the direction of industrial business niches. He provided free monthly magazines based on slices of industrial minutiae that delivered useful albeit dry information to those specifiers of myriad corporate goods and services. You order gizmos for your buggy whips? You probably spend millions of dollars on procurement per each kind of good per year. Let me introduce you to some sellers of those goods who want to make you a deal.

The Cahners Publishing magazines -- on things like plastics use, integrated circuits developments, materials handling and design engineering -- were free to readers, as long as those readers identified themselves as corporate decision makers with budget to spend. Again, high ad premiums could be charged by linking engaged readers (with huge annual budgets) with advertisers who needed reach hard-to-find and shifting groups of corporate buyers.

Soon the burgeoning lists of these readers, sliced and diced by buying needs, and sanctified by audit bureaus as valid (mostly), became very, very valuable. As a controlled circulation publisher, if you had the top one of two monthly magazine titles that generated the definitive list of those buying all the industrial values, say, in North America -- you were sitting pretty. You controlled the circulation, defined and refined the audience, and so told the sellers how much they needed to pay you to reach those buyers. You priced high, but still less than these sellers would need to spend to send a warm body carrying a bad into each and every account (on commission).

In effect, the controlled circulation publishers collected straight commissions on billions of dollars in commercial and special interest goods being bought and sold. They were a virtual sales team for all kinds of sellers. Editorial was cheap. Life was good.

And then 10 years ago the Web came along and pretty much began to blow the whole thing apart. Engaged users started using Web search, and explored their vendors' web sites on their own. Vendors could reach users directly, and used their websites as virtual sales forces too. Soon there were wikis that listed all the sellers of goods in certain arenas of goods and services. Those seeking business or hobby information could side-step the editorial middleman and go direct to the buying information on goods and services they wanted. We're only into the opening innings on this, by the way.

But the same disruption that plagues newspapers like the San Jose Mercury News and The Boston Globe -- both of which should be doing great based on their demographic reach -- is undermining the trade media too. It's the web. It's search. It's sidestepping the traditional media as a means to bind buyers and sellers. The web allows the sellers to find the buyers, and the buyers to find the sellers with less friction, less guessing, less cost. Fewer middlemen.

And this means the end of controlled circulation has we have know it. ... Or does it?

Just as the web made has made it a lot harder for media companies to charge a premium for advertisers to reach a defined universe of some sort, the web could also allow for a need breed of controlled circulation, one that generates "universes" on the fly based on special interest search, not based on special interest magazines.

The current web ad model has evolved to be based on blind volume display ads, with the hope of odd click-throughs, usually of less the 0.5 percent of the total banner ads displayed. Advertisers know exactly what their ad dollar gets them, and it's not enough. Even when seekers click on ads, they usually get sent to a home page that was just as easily reached through keyword searches from a web search provide (for free), based on their real interests. Enter Google. And you know the rest.

Why the history lesson? Because we're now beginning to see some new variations on the controlled circulation theme on the web that create additional models. Controlled circulation could be back. It that could mean much bigger ad bucks than web display ads or even key-word-based ads can generate. It's what has Microsoft gaga over Facebook. And News Corp. gaga over MySpace. And Viacom beside itself because it has no such functional base yet.

Controlled circulation is coming to the web on one level via social networks, mostly for consumer goods and services -- sort of what Bill Ziff did for hobbyists in the 1950s and 1960s. Social networks like Facebook and MySpace endear their member users to cough up details about themselves -- just like controlled circulation publishers used to require for readers to get free magazines on specific topics. Based on the need to expose yourself on a social network to get, well ... social ... you therefore provide a lot of demographic details that can then be carved up into the equivalent of controlled circulation universes. Based on your declared consumer wants, fad preferences, age and location, you give advertisers a means to target you.

This model is only just now being probed for its potential, as the Beacon trial-and-error process as Facebook these days attests. Soon, however, an accepted model will emerge for binding consumers and sellers of goods and services, a model better than banner ads, one that can go granular on user preferences (but not too granular, lest privacy bugaboos rear their paranoid heads). When this model is refined, everyone from Microsoft to Yahoo to Google and Time Warner will need to emulate it in some fashion. It will be the third leg on the web ads tool: display, search-based, and now reader-profile constructed controlled circulation.

Which brings me to ZoomInfo. (Disclosure: ZoomInfo has been a sponsor of some BriefingsDirect B2B podcasts and videocasts that I have produced). What's so far missing in all of the Facebook hysteria is the Norm Cahners part, of how to take the emerging controlled circulation web model and apply it to multi-trillion dollar B2B global markets. How to slice and dice all the companies out there with goods and services you -- as a business buyer -- need to know about? Instead of the users giving up profile information on themselves as a way of providing profile-constructed controlled circulation, why not let the companies provide the profiles that the users can access via defined searches based on their actual needs?

Wade Rouch over at Xconomy gives us a glimpse of this model based on what ZoomInfo is now doing with "business demographics" or what Zoom calls Bizographics. This is the B2B side of what social networks are doing on the consumer side, but with a twist. By generating the lists of businesses that provide goods and services sough via a search, and even more lists of the goods themselves, users can educate themselves and the bond between B2B buyers and sellers is made and enriched. All's that's needed is the right kinds of searches that define the universe of providers that users can then explore and engage with.

ZoomInfo is but scratching the surface of what can be an auspicious third (but robust) leg on the B2B web knowledge access stool. By satisfying both seekers and providers of B2B information on business needs, ZoomInfo can generate web page real estate that is sold at the high premiums we used to see in the magazine controlled circulation days. Occupational-based searches for goods, information, insights and ongoing buying activities is creating the new B2B controlled circulation model.

What's more, these defined B2B universes on the fly based on occupations and buying needs amounts to giving more power to the users via what Doc Searls correctly calls Vendor Relationship Management. It's a fascinating concept we'll be seeing a lot more of: Matching buyers and sellers on the web based on their mutual best interests. Mr. buyer, please find Mr. Seller -- on your terms, based on your needs.

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