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Community focus: Traditional industry community sites look to e-commerce

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Online communities are a hot topic these days, as the traditional Web sites participating in this area are undergoing a transition.

While individual companies are looking at adding online communities to their sites as a way to boost traffic, many of the traditional industry community sites are looking for e-commerce solutions to enhance their content focus.

Publisher-sponsored news sites such as Cahners' Manufacturing Marketplace and Penton's PDEM.Net (Penton Design Engineering & Manufacturing) offer news, databases and forums like their consumer counterparts, and they're in the process of adding commerce.

Jerry Steinbrink, executive director of electronic media for the Cahners Manufacturing Group, Radnor, Pa., said Manufacturing Marketplace will enable e-commerce through distributors on its site later this year while continuing to concentrate on content.

"We took our forums down [three months ago] and the reaction was negligible," he said. "The big draw is the ability to search our content."

Industry.net sells documents

Industry.net, conceived in the early 1990s as a b-to-b "super site," has also moved more directly to e-commerce under the ownership of IHS Group, Denver.

Industry.net COO Steve Austin said his site's new design aims to sell documents from IHS' library of 15 million milling specifications, industry standards, vendor catalog pages and federal regulatory documents.

"You come into the front page now and you can go to military specifications and, through a controlled vocabulary, very quickly zoom in on the exact document you want," Mr. Austin said. "Then we give you a price and you can download it or get a hard copy."

Gene Godick, CFO for Vertical Net.com, Horsham, Pa., said his site, really the only site that still offers true online communities, is responding to the need to cut the cost of commerce by offering auctions, and this summer will launch Storefront Pro, an e-commerce package aimed at putting some distributors online for the first time.

All those catalogs will be searchable at once, "so you can buy from all those vendors," he said. Auctions will help move used goods and smaller quantities, further boosting the bottom line of VerticalNet's members.

Mr. Godick said his communities have business value, too.

"You can go to us to search for a job, leave a lead, spec a product, buy books and software relevant to your industry, and have chat sessions," he said.

Helping merchants, buyers

Sites like VerticalNet can also help their merchant partners raise their general visibility on the Web.

Brett Hanson, VP-sales for Imprint Technologies L.L.C., Roseville, Minn., credits VerticalNet with raising his visibility on major search engines. "We did not expect this when we signed on with VerticalNet," he said.

Mr. Hanson's involvement with VerticalNet has also helped Imprint Technologies secure larger orders than it did before, he said.

Kevin Jones, president of NetMarket Makers L.L.C., Berkeley, Calif., which produces newsletters and conferences on b-to-b online markets, said these kind of sitescan also help buyers.

"If three guys in [VerticalNet's] Wastewater Online [community] need a pump, and you find similar discussions in Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste, you can offer this as a block buying group," Mr. Jones said. "Vendors aren't always eager to see customers go to lower margins, but the power has moved to the buyer, and they have to live with it."

Sites can benefit by going with the flow, Mr. Jones said.

Chuck Shih, research director for extranet applications at GartnerGroup, a Stamford, Conn., market research company, said he measures this buyer empowerment with a "free-market index," indicating how open b-to-b sites are to participation by all players in a market. The goal should be the kind of transparency found on stock and bond markets, he said.

"Good portals are vendor neutral and open to many suppliers," he said.

Ollie Curme, a general partner with Battery Ventures L.P., a Wellesley, Mass., venture capital firm, said the goal of b-to-b sites should not be to work with market intermediaries, but to create new, lower-cost "infomediaries" like PetroChem.net, Stamford, Conn., in which Battery Ventures is an investor.

Trip Foster, PetroChem.net's director of marketing, said his site first drew 6,000 registered users with a mixture of financial news, industry news and forums but then worked directly with 25 top petrochemical makers to create a trading system for petrochemicals.

"The important thing is bringing the big players to the table immediately, giving them a vested interest in the trading system," he said.

Commerce-centric publishing

If publishers take the hint, Mr. Jones said, their business model will have to change.

"It will be more commerce centric; you won't have personality pieces or lifestyle pieces," he said. It will be "service-level journalism taken to a greater degree."

Despite the challenges, publishers such as Cahners' Mr. Steinbrink are confident they can succeed.

"In a couple of years, there may be thousands of people trying to connect buyers and sellers in b-to-b, but I have to believe a company like Cahners has a little bit of a leg up, and a built-in marketing arm for whatever they want to do on the Internet," he said.

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