Special Report: Consumer portals step up b-to-b features

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Increasingly, consumer Internet portal giants such as Yahoo!, Netscape and MSN have been digging deeper into the b-to-b space. Best known for their broad, comprehensive content, the trio is now also going after corporate decision-makers with a more targeted approach, building drill-down sites loaded with industry-oriented information and news, marketplacelike capabilities and a host of other useful e-services.

Yahoo! Inc.’s b-to-b audience includes workers in small companies and Fortune 1000 companies alike, said Shannon Ledger, VP-general manager of production. Yahoo! Small Business, launched in August 1998, includes content, services and commerce opportunities for those who lack the buying power of a bigger organization. Meanwhile, Yahoo!’s Business to Business Marketplace, created in March 2000, allows businesses to search for a variety of products and services across most industries.

This January, the portal went even narrower by creating three Yahoo! Industry Marketplaces—the first wave of many to come—for IT hardware, IT software and electronics.

Thinking small

AOL Time Warner Inc.’s Netscape launched the small-business portal Netbusiness in September 2000. Like Yahoo!’s b-to-b sites, it also offers comprehensive content and functionality, including industry news and resources, community-building tools and a marketplace.

Previously, Netscape featured a small-business channel on its portal, but it lacked depth, said Marcia Parker, director-programming for Netbusiness. "It is very difficult to aggregate the small-business market, but we believe that we can do for small business what AOL has done for consumers—provide a simple, easy-to-use experience, help them get on the Web, and … help them get to the news, information, resources and marketplaces that they need."

Microsoft Corp. debuted its bCentral small-business portal in October 1999, offering tools to help start a business online, put together a Web-based marketing and promotions campaign and manage a business more effectively.

Since then, bCentral, which includes content, community and commerce functions, has launched an array of largely fee-based technologies and services, such as customer service and sales management tools. Over the next few years, bCentral plans to add services across all key segments of the small-business market.

Goliath vs. David

While it makes sense for large portals to move into b-to-b marketplace areas, it isn’t easy, said Tim Clark, senior b-to-b analyst for Jupiter Media Metrix Inc., New York.

"The trick is to grab any of those people in the mass audience that could be relevant and might do transactions in the b-to-b space," he said. Thus far, Clark said, none of the portal giants have been especially successful.

The reason for this, said Steve Butler, senior b-to-b analyst for eMarketer Inc., New York, is the sheer number of portals they’re competing against. Also, these giants’ b-to-b offerings are still too general, he said. Butler believes that they will continue to gravitate toward building narrower, industry-specific portals.

To create new competition for vertical b-to-b portals and exchanges, the giants have had to establish strategic partnerships. "Most of the [large portals], if they are adding transactions of some sort, are not doing it themselves," Clark said.

BCentral, for example, has a variety of partnerships, some with third-party services such as e-Stamp Corp. and LiveCapital, and others that allow its services to be distributed to such sites as Inc., Inc. and American City Business Journals Inc.

Despite some interest in vertical markets, Yahoo!, Netscape and bCentral are keeping their focus on the estimated 28 million U.S. small businesses.

"We’ve got [that many] people to reach first," Netscape’s Parker said. "That’s our core audience and we want to serve them."

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