Opportunities emerging for vertical portal sites

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While many broad-appeal sites are vying to be portal sites for the masses, a few marketers are looking to create niche portals that draw just a narrow segment of business users.

Opportunities for the emerging vertical portal site are promising, including the ability to generate revenue through banner ad hosting, but the site must be executed and maintained properly.

"There is a genuine need for the information proposed for the niche site," says George Short, publisher of electronic products for Thomas Regional Directory Co., New York.

Industrial-only info

Unlike the typical horizontal search engine site, the information housed at Thomas Regional is "100% industrial."

For example, if a potential buyer searches for the word "cranes" in Thomas Regional, the user would find detailed information organized into specific crane categories within a selected geographic area, Mr. Short says.

By comparison, results from a horizontal Web portal produce a confusing potpourri of everything from industrial cranes to Steven Crane to whooping cranes.

Jeff Pundyk, editor in chief of CMP Media's CMPNet, Manhasset, N.Y., agrees that niche portals offer a lot more business opportunities than generic portal sites, which are "much more focused on the masses."

Mostly business content

Launched originally in November 1994 as TechWeb, CMPNet's finely tuned content for the business professional includes technology news, purchasing and product reviews.

But it's not all business. To build loyalty during non-working hours, CMPNet offers game reviews, shareware and help for buying a home PC.

"We have morphed our site many times, and all of our significant morphs have occurred as a result of listening to our visitors," said Mr. Pundyk.

Noting that changes have to be driven by your market, he recommends talking frequently to your users.

Scott Craven, project manager of ProcureNet administration for Pittsburgh-based Fisher Technology Group, says he differentiates between those sites that create a portal around users' needs and wants, and those that create a portal around "what you'd like their needs and wants to be."

In courting ProcureNet's target audience of online purchasing agents, Mr. Craven's strategies include demonstrating that his site offerings are "beneficial to their work and their lives in general."

Mr. Short agrees that this is key to building a viable niche site.

"Constant attention to customer and market changes is critical," he says. "In other words, keep an eye on things 'cause it's moving fast."

During the first half of 1998, more than 150,000 distinct visitors searched the Thomas Register site, he says.

Registration is requested

In order to verify market reach, many vertical sites request but don't require visitor registration. Thomas Register encourages registration only so the user can have access to all site features and functions.

While much of CMPNet is open to the public, access to proprietary industry content requires registration.

ProcureNet's forthcoming site revision will require registration for selected features, including online ordering, access to contract pricing and "the ability to build and manage shopping groups," Mr. Craven says.

But maintaining a strong virtual presence also requires a lot of hard work in the real world.

For vertical market promotion programs, marketing in traditional and emerging media is key, advises Mr. Short.

Like many custom content sites, Thomas Register's success in the online market benefits by an established presence in print.

Kim M. Bayne is author of "The Internet Marketing Plan" and host of the syndicated program "The Cyber Media Show With Kim Bayne," heard weekly on public radio.

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