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Digital lessons learned

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Throughout my career in the media and information industries, I have witnessed firsthand the significant, if not revolutionary, change in the way that b-to-b knowledge workers engage with information. This transformation in user behavior—and user expectations—has had a dramatic impact not only on media spending but also on the fundamental competitive and leadership structure of the b-to-b media marketplace.

When I joined GlobalSpec in 2002, the technology bubble had burst. We were entering a recession, and the future of the Internet as an advertising medium remained uncertain, especially for b-to-b marketers. Many said the digital revolution—and the Internet itself—was a flash in the pan. While companies in our space were approaching the Internet cautiously, we made the decision to forge ahead as a pure-play, Web-based e-media business. Even then it was clear to me that b-to-b technical users would adopt specialized vertical search engines connected to robust product/spec databases as the new and preferred method to find products and suppliers. So I decided then that, for GlobalSpec, the future was right now. Our goal was to establish ourselves as the definitive e-resource for engineering, technical and industrial professionals on the buy side and offer b-to-b marketers on the sell side a full array of e-media formats that delivered target audiences with both precision and scale.

Over the past six years, GlobalSpec has grown from essentially a one-product company to a comprehensive, multiformat e-media company. When we initially began our expansion, many cautioned me that we were going too fast and expecting too much from the adoption curve of the b-to-b sector to the Internet and e-media. I'm glad we didn't listen. Today we serve our market with the largest, most sophisticated industrial-product database available, and one that is integrated with a best-in-class specialized vertical search engine. That service remains our flagship offering, with 5.8 million registered users. Having registered users enables us to deliver uniquely contactable, information-rich hard sales leads to our clients—a great competitive advantage. We then leveraged our registered user base to rapidly create 64 highly specialized e-newsletters that now have more than 9 million subscriptions. In 2009, we leveraged our user base again to enter the virtual trade show market. Last year, we tested three e-events; this year, we are actively selling 40 of them. All our services generate hard sales leads. Many of them also deliver branding, and all of them monetize inside a high-margin e-media business model that didn't exist even six years ago.

What have been our lessons learned and what would be my advice to others? I offer the following insights and suggestions:

  • Be "usercentric" in everything you do. Stay on top of your user audience with a razor-sharp focus. Know with certainty how they search, what they search for, what content is "must-have" for them and what applications must surround that content to truly delight them.
  • Make sure you have deep domain expertise in your product-development organization. Today, product management requires a blend of editorial perspective. It is based on expert domain knowledge and application creation skills that facilitate against core work-flow tasks. Of course, great technology and an intuitive user interface stitch it all together.
  • Rapidly test and learn. It's all about iterating on the fly with users, embracing a continuous beta-environment philosophy and practicing agile development.
  • Allow and encourage failure. It's how you learn the fastest.
  • The CEO or business unit head must drive your digital strategy. This is one of those cases where top-down works well. Don't dish off your digital strategy to bus-dev or an online "czar" and expect it to be taken seriously by your P&L-responsible business units. Transformation and innovation are best championed by your top leaders; only then will they be believed and embraced.
  • You must proactively self-cannibalize. Do this or a competitor will do it for you.
  • Don't ever stop investing and innovating. This is especially important in downturns.

The future we all talked about back at the beginning of the decade is here. And if the truth be known, it has been for a while. Good luck to all of us.

Jeffrey M. Killeen is chairman-CEO of GlobalSpec Inc. He can be reached at jkilleen@globalspec.com.

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