Is less really more when it comes to b-to-b advertising? Such companies as Engage Business Media, Cambridge, Mass., and B2BWorks, Chicago, have been espousing the merits of advertising on low-traffic vertical industry sites when the target is the b-to-b buyer.
Yet the approach is not widely practiced.
A handful of pioneering marketers say vertical industry advertising takes nerves of steel and Plastic Man's flexibility, but report that the end results are well worth it.
There's no question b-to-b marketers understand the benefits of a focused media buy. Consider that much of the $9.9 billion b-to-b marketers spent on b-to-b print advertising was for space in print trade publications focused on vertical industries, according to the trade association American Business Media.
Yet just a fraction of the overall $410 million spent on b-to-b online advertising in 1999 was focused on highly targeted vertical industry sites, the Internet's answer to print trade publications, said Jim Nail, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc.
"Advertising on verticals has not been widely tried yet," Nail said. "We're finding that most b-to-b marketers have focused on building their site and e-mail marketing using their own internal customer list."
While many see the future of b-to-b advertising on vertical sites, few have explored this option, he said.
Block the next guy
Brothers in business Tony and Freddie Seba shocked their advertising agency when they announced they'd spend a sizable portion of their company's marketing budget on Web sites with skimpy traffic. Partners in PrintNation.com, an e-marketplace designed for the 40,000 small and midsize print shops in the U.S., the Seba brothers were armed with $5.75 million in venture capital, much of which was earmarked for marketing.
In October, PrintNation.com, Irvine, Calif., secured advertising on such sites as AmericanPrinter.com, PrintingImpression.com, QuickPrinting.com, MicroPublishingNews.com and GraphicArtsBlueBook.com. There were a dozen sites in all.
Some of the dot-coms had sizable traffic, but others barely even bothered to keep site stats, said Tony Seba, president and CEO of PrintNation.com. It didn't matter all that much to the Sebas.
Going on gut instincts, PrintNation.com purchased exclusive rights to be the only dot-com advertising on many of the sites for one year, a strategy that's proven invaluable as the months have progressed. The agreements also give PrintNation.com the first right of refusal for Web site advertising after the first 12 months are up.
"What we did on these Web sites was a defensive maneuver," Tony Seba said. "We were trying to block any competitor that would come in after us. In that sense it has been a brilliant strategy."
With an early-mover advantage, PrintNation.com has parlayed mind share into another $25.5 million in venture capital, closed in April. A bevy of competitors has risen, but few have been able to gain the traffic of PrintNation.com because of its advertising dominance in its vertical and a lack of available venture capital to newcomers.
As it looks toward continued advertising without the benefit of exclusive representation, PrintNation.com's focus will continue to be on its vertical market. The next time around, PrintNation.com will use the click-through data it has accumulated thus far to plan its media strategy. Interestingly, some of the lowest-trafficked verticals generated the highest response rates.
An odd pairing
Hospitality industry buying hub Zoho Corp., Sunnyvale, Calif., took a different tack. It found that a mix of high-traffic consumer sites and low-traffic vertical sites made the most sense, said Julie Gavrilis, the company's head of marketing. Zoho was entering a market created by PurchasePro, the highly successful b-to-b buying hub, which had since spread way beyond the hospitality industry.
Zoho's goal was to cultivate an audience exclusively made up of hoteliers, casino operators and cruise line executives. It wanted that audience to know it wasn't planning to broaden into any other types of purchasing.
Zoho worked through Engage Business Media to come up with an appropriate marketing mix. It purchased advertisements on the Web sites of HotelOnline.com and National Hotel Executive, as well on the massive travel portal Expedia.com. While the vertical industry advertising reached executives surfing on the job, the Expedia advertising reached them when they were on message boards looking for comments about their properties.
"You have to know your audience, and where they are really going in addition to where you'd expect to find them," said Gavrilis, who worked with Engage to create informal focus groups detailing the surfing habits of hospitality executives.
The sites Zoho advertised on, as well as Engage, have been able to provide detailed reports on advertising traffic, allowing Zoho to adjust the campaign as it has gone along.
That's not always the case. Forrester's Nail said the bugaboo for most b-to-b marketers is the lack of sophistication at most vertical sites.
Eleven million buttons
For yet another b-to-b marketer, ubiquity was the ticket. ToolSource.com, a marketplace for professional auto technicians, has staked a sizable portion of its online advertising budget on a site that's not yet live, said David Lokes, exec VP at ToolSource.com, Ellicottville, N.Y.
Lokes has reached an agreement with All Data L.L.C., Elk Grove, Calif., to be the exclusive advertiser of automotive tools on its site, which will feature engine schematics for every make, model and year of automobile made since 1967. Scheduled to go live this summer, the site will feature ToolSource.com's name and logo on every one of its 11 million pages.
"We wanted to make sure we had an uncluttered presentation as the tool part of the automotive mechanics Internet solution," Lokes said.
As part of the deal, Tool-Source.com was able to secure the rights to context-sensitive links, which bring up specific Tool-Source.com products for specific pages. For example, certain obscure tools used only on Saab automobiles will come up when the mechanic clicks on the ToolSource.com logo from that year of Saab automobile.
And he isn't concerned whether his target audience actually uses the Net.
"There's an unusually high percentage of mechanics with Internet access," Lokes said. "Sixty-eight percent of mechanics use the Internet, which is higher than society overall." He said he was confident the vertical site would be an excellent place to acquire new customers.