Software developer turns its e-newsletter into branding tool

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At Poet Holdings Inc., VP-strategy and business development Mike Hogan has created a unique company e-mail newsletter—one that almost never talks about San Mateo, Calif.-based Poet or its catalog management software. Instead, Hogan uses the e-newsletter, called "eMarketmakers News & Insight," to comment on Poet’s market: the nascent industry of b-to-b e-commerce.

Despite lacking overt pitches for Poet, the not-quite-daily newsletter, which Hogan created in March 2000, has become one of the company’s most effective marketing tools. Specifically, the e-newsletter, which Hogan sends to prospects and customers, has shown its worth not as a sales tool but as a way of creating a brand image for Poet.

"Most of what he writes is very well received," says John Wojtkiewicz, Yankee Group associate analyst, "because there are so many buzzwords and, for lack of a better term, B.S. out there in the marketplace. One of Mike’s strengths is laying situations out very simply and very concisely. ... Because of Mike, people look at Poet as a straight shooter and a straightforward company."

Defining an industry

Hogan’s best commentary helps simplify what b-to-b is and how it may evolve. He often discusses comments from some of his 1,200 or so subscribers.

For instance, subscriber Leo Schlosberg pointed out that traffic lights were first installed by taxicab companies, not by public agencies, and that insurance companies created professional firefighting brigades.

Hogan wrote that those examples may provide a blueprint for the evolution of b-to-b, where "private e-marketplaces may be the first b-to-b model to truly flourish, because the immediate pain and the immediate financial gain are sufficient to justify such an investment." The resulting private e-marketplaces may eventually provide a public infrastructure for general b-to-b commerce, he said.

And, Hogan isn’t afraid to tease partners, such as Ariba Inc., and competitors such as Oracle Corp. In his April Fool’s newsletter, he said that Ariba CEO Keith Krach had a license plate that read, "DETH2C1," short for "death to CommerceOne," a chief Ariba competitor. He also joked that Oracle chief Larry Ellison "legally changed his middle name to God."

Poet’s president-CEO supports Hogan’s efforts. "It establishes a certain amount of credibility for Poet," Dirk Bartels said. "It says we are accountable. We know what’s going on. And in a young market like this, there’s a certain amount of trust that you have to earn."

Even Mark Walsh, chairman of VerticalNet Inc., which offers its own electronic catalog software, acknowledges the value of the newsletter despite Hogan’s occasional criticism of VerticalNet. "There are a few [newsletters] that I actually click open on a regular basis, and his is one of them," Walsh said. "It’s written with style. It’s informative. It’s not heavy. It’s got pithy comments."

Looking ahead

In the downtrodden b-to-b e-commerce market, Poet is seen as a small but relatively viable player. The company posted a second-quarter net loss of $2.9 million on revenues of $2.8 million. Nonetheless, Yankee Group’s Wojtkiewicz said, "Poet is, I think, one of the strong companies out there."

Hogan remains confident that the company’s cash reserves will enable it to last until the market rebounds. But in one e-newsletter commentary, he did acknowledge that b-to-b’s acceptance could be a long time coming: "Inter-enterprise solutions ... will take much longer because instead of convincing your own employees to adopt these technologies, you need to convince your trading partners to adopt them," he wrote. "In other words, the adoption process is largely out of the direct control of any company. This is the bad news that will slow the adoption of b-to-b."

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