changing roles
special feature

The Changing Role of the Information Vendor

Thomas Pack

ONLINE, March 2000
Copyright © 2000 Information Today, Inc.


In the end-user market segment and many others, traditional vendors are facing new categories of competition.
Dramatically increasing competition, a fragmenting market, and a need to educate information seekers on the value of high-quality products are a few of the trends shaping the role of today's information vendor. Some companies are responding by targeting new user groups. Many vendors are exploring new approaches to content and delivery. All information providers face an environment entirely unlike anything seen before.

Well, maybe not entirely. One of the first newspapers was the Acta Diurna (Action Journal), begun by Julius Caesar in 59 B.C. It published political news, details on criminal trials, and highlighted events at the Colosseum. Distribution consisted of posting the paper throughout Rome in places where people congregated.

Some of today's information vendors face a similar situation. Of course, modern distribution systems can send highly filtered information in a customized format directly to a desktop. But for the past few years, the continual flux in business models, technologies, searching behaviors, pricing strategies, and consumer loyalties has left some segments of the information industry in the role where it began: posting information in a widely accessible place and hoping somebody comes by to read it.


The modern era of the electronic information age began with Dialog and Factiva and UMI and IAC and other companies that either collected information in a database or collected databases and made them available electronically.

Many of these organizations are now "trying to reinvent themselves for the new markets they wish to serve--getting on the desktops of business people," noted Dick Harris, President of Responsive Database Services. Traditional electronic information vendors, he said, are now working to "meet end-user requirements by aggregating content and trying to come up with end-user- friendly interfaces."

In the end-user market segment and many others, traditional vendors are facing new categories of competition. Harris said one is represented by "the Internet-based companies like Northern Light or Office.com. They're offering Internet approaches. I won't call them solutions. They're just approaches over the Internet to find content. I think we're going to see many creative approaches to try to develop the market--[along the lines of] sign up with an ISP for three years and get a free computer. I see lots of these innovative ideas. They won't necessarily work, but companies will be trying new ways to market something nobody has tried before.

"I think you're going to see this category of organization expand with startups, but you also are going to see others withdrawing from this type of service. Some of the big portals that offer free information might back away from services that require a pay-per-view business model. On the other hand, they may provide a gateway [to a fee-based information provider]. Some portals will work with aggregators, and they'll work directly with publishers, and they'll also help mine free information sources. That's probably the newest category of organizations that's beginning to appear. It had little or no impact three years ago, and it doesn't have a large impact now, but where it will be in a few years remains to be seen."

Traditional vendors also are competing with traditional publishers more than before. "You're going to see increasing trends of publishers putting up their own Web sites, giving free issues away on a current basis, and charging people who use their archives." Harris said. "This has been going on for a number of years with a few companies, but I think it's becoming far more prevalent now." He also said he believes many publishers will begin exploring business models based on ecommerce. "Publishers may find that they can make all their articles free because they figured out how to enable ecommerce between advertisers and readers, and there's some piece of the action going to the publisher who manages the Web site and creates the interaction."

Another category of competition is represented by "database producers like us," Harris said. "More and more we are going directly to the marketplace while maintaining the traditional channels of distribution for reaching other segments of the market. We've had very good success in selling to the corporate, academic, and public library markets directly. Yet our services are used through our distributors by these same markets. What do we do that our distributors don't? We optimize our interface and the ability to retrieve records utilizing all the value-added components that we build into our databases.

"I think you'll see more and more database producers like us offering their own services directly. Many of them did it on CD, but they have many more opportunities on the Internet, and more opportunities to build-in the kind of highly personalized value-added access to the content they produce. The cost of doing this is within the range of any small database producer who has a strong customer base and can offer it the features it wants."


In their quest to reach end-users, some firms are now completely bypassing information professionals to sell their products. Harris said, "Major companies are trying to attack the budgets at corporate levels beyond the library and information center. When they sell desktop applications, they're typically selling to executive management. They're not going through the information center. The library still plays a very important role, but the market that's expanding is the market for current awareness services."

A problem with selling directly to end-users, however, is that the market hasn't been well-defined. Louise Garnett, Vice President of the information-industry research firm Outsell, Inc., pointed out that in the past, a vendor "sold information to librarians and other professionals through a direct sales force. It was pretty straightforward and a lot of strategic marketing wasn't really needed. Now, with selling to end-users, that begs the questions 'Who are the end-users?' and 'What product would fit them?' So target marketing is becoming increasingly important."

How are vendors identifying groups of potential users? "Every company is approaching it a little differently," Garnett said, "Some of them aren't doing it at all. They're just launching a product and then seeing what will fit. That's often the case: 'Let the salespeople figure it out.' It depends on how proactive or reactive they're being. It's clear they don't have a lot of experience with target marketing approaches. Some of them are hiring marketing people outside the industry who are used to that type of analysis. I also think we have a lot more of what's being called permission marketing, which is using a Web and email approach to market to people who have said they want to be marketed to. So that's been a big change for information providers: The Web is now a crucial sales and marketing tool for them to generate leads."

Of course, many vendors still value the role of the information professional despite the changes in the market. Anne Caputo, Director of Info Pro and Academic Programs at Factiva, said, "We have tried a lot of different marketing models, and one that has seemed the most successful is to find a strong champion within an organization. After trying many different avenues, we've realized that many times the information professional is the most effective conduit into a company. So although we have to market and create communications programs for many different kinds of audiences, we've realized that a strong communications and marketing program still needs to exist with the information professional."

According to Caputo, an important change in the role of today's vendors is that they are looking at information professionals as partners instead of just clients, "because we know that partnering with them means they can help us reach into the depths of the end-user community within their companies. So they not only consume our products directly, but also lead us to additional consumers. We believe they are powerful allies in that regard, so we need to give them skills that make them very effective partners.

"Our particular view is that we need to go beyond training for our own product and give them skills such as how to do marketing, how to do knowledge management assessment, how to do information inventories, and even things like how to do presentations--how to become more powerful and effective within their roles. There's no bottom-line direct benefit to us other than we believe that if they are more successful, we ultimately will be more successful, too."


"We're in a stage right now where pricing is a very murky issue."
The multitude of changes in the market have led to myriad pricing policies. According to Caputo, "in some ways pricing has gone in an enormous circle. We're returning, in part, to some of the precepts of pricing that we started out with. It used to be that pricing was essentially transactionally-based, and there was a stated price list. It was like going to buy a Saturn. The price was the price. It was based on the most valuable commodity at that time, which was connect-time to the mainframe.

"As more and more large sales opportunities appeared, pricing began to be much more flexible, beginning with simply discounted pricing, a percentage discount, and then a very wide array of pricing opportunities: by the seat, by the user, by the article, flat-rate pricing, subscription pricing, site-license pricing, and so on. The technology has changed so that some of those models are no longer even technically applicable. Connect-time makes no sense in the world of the Web, for example. Site license pricing may make no sense when you're talking about both intranets and extranets.

"So we're in a stage right now where pricing is a very murky issue. It's a process based on a salesperson negotiating with a customer in a fairly complex way, and a lot of that has been done in proprietary ways so there are non-disclosure requirements. You can't talk about pricing offers that have been made to you and compare them.

"But I see that beginning to change. I noticed last year at SLA, for example, there were several meetings in which people were willing to talk openly about pricing they got from various vendors. So I think we're moving back in some ways to our original notions of pricing, looking at a variety of options, but with much more open disclosure and many more standardized options because the labor and the intensity of having to negotiate contracts one-on-one continually is a very costly proposition."


Changes in the market are challenging vendors to develop not only more attractive pricing policies, but also more efficient systems that appeal to disparate groups of information seekers. Caputo, who worked at Dialog for more than two decades before joining Factiva, noted that "the very complex, but powerful, search language at Dialog required a lot of training, and we assumed that information professionals would be willing to learn it because the payoff was very large. That's no longer true. There are many more competitors, and many more different partitions of the audience, so we have to make not only the content more appealing, but also the way searches can be conducted more appealing.

"Information professionals have less time to learn intricate, complex systems, and they are offering training to their own constituencies, so they're looking for interfaces that do many of the things we used to ask them to do--indexing, for example, and creation of search strategies. We're all floating on an enormous content feed--thousands of different sources, six or seven thousand in Factiva alone and thousands in any of our competitors. That means we are looking for directional tools--tools that direct people to the right piece of content. Instead of selecting databases by name or by traditional pathways, users are looking for what information science people call a concatenation of data. They're looking for us to collect data that fits together sensibly and present it in ways that are understandable, not by database name or even specific subjects, but by application. Another thing they're looking for us to do is create indexing, or what is now being called metadata, that makes the most relevant material accessible rapidly."

According to George Plosker, Senior Director of Content Support for the Gale Group, the demand for new types of systems is part of what makes it "very, very tough to be a horizontal information provider these days." Plosker noted that not only have changes in relationships with publishers made it "harder and harder to provide the kind of depth in certain vertical areas that people like," but also "when you put end-users in a horizontal product, they can never adequately negotiate the content in order to get the kind of precision they need. Whereas, if you go into something that's vertically defined, there is more of an implicit relevance by subject area. And that gives the end-user the potential to be successful in terms of more relevant retrieval to answer their questions.

"Obviously you're not going to have end-users putting in strategies like market 3n share/de. That kind of thing is just not going to happen. I tried to train people to do it for years, and I could just tell by the look in their eyes they were struggling with 'What is a descriptor?' They couldn't really get their arms around it. I think the big push is to broaden the market, and many organizations see vertical strategies as a way to do that segment by segment, as opposed to being all things to all people."

Plosker added, "It's necessary for the vendors to continue to work hard to achieve a seamless, elegant search interface that provides the precision and leverages the vocabulary, but does it in such a way that it puts almost no burden whatsoever on the occasional end-user." He said he doesn't believe vendors have done a good job of creating such an interface. "If we had, then it wouldn't be so difficult to provide a counterpoint to the free stuff on the Web."

That, Plosker pointed out, is now an information vendor's major goal: "It used to be to get to the desktop. Now it's to provide a highly value-laden counterpoint to what people can get free off the Web."


Vendors need to not only provide a value-laden system, but also, according to Stephen Abram, Vice President of Micromedia, expand their role in educating consumers about why free information usually isn't a bargain. "Vendors are having to spend a lot more time making more explicit the value they add to content," Abram said, "and what's getting lost, temporarily, is the role added-value indexing, abstracting, and cataloging plays--the high-level metadata the traditional publishers do. So there's some work that needs to be done there in alliance with the library community to explain the difference between an AltaVista and a real search engine combined with good metadata.

"I think the vendor community has a responsibility to talk about all of these different interfaces we're putting out and what they mean. And I don't think that the information professional community is as broadly equipped as it needs to be in that area. The majority of information professionals didn't go to library school when there was a Web. They've learned as they went along and trained themselves, but the problem is not having a coordinated theoretical approach to what's happening on the Web.

"So you've got people talking about their favorite search engines, and they say it's AltaVista or HotBot, but if you ask them to categorize them, they'd have trouble saying which ones are reverse-chron indexes, which ones are relevancy ranked, which ones index the question not the answer, which ones index the popularity of the site, which ones are added-value indexes, and which ones are just computer-driven bot indexes. There's a huge education role to be played for end-users and for librarians as to how things have fundamentally changed from Dialog classic to today's suites of retrieval options."


Besides educating consumers about the value of products, many vendors are finding they need to provide more technical support and training than they did in the past. "That's critical," Abram said. "What we're finding is that the biggest problem is there are three windows on your screen. There's the Windows window, the browser window, and then there's your product. Most of us are going in to train on our product, and we're finding that more than 80% of the time, we need to train people because of their lack of literacy with Windows or their browser.

"So it's going to be interesting, as the vendors, in order to get their products out, take on the responsibility of training the marketplace to use products that people perceive they're using well, but aren't."

But not all vendors understand the importance of training and technical support. Louise Garnett of Outsell said, "I come from the IT industry, and I know that you absolutely have to have the support. But I don't see that all the vendors have come to that realization yet--that it's absolutely critical for their success. Vendors are not used to being in that role, and I don't think they necessarily want to get IT involved in the process because it makes for a longer sales cycle.

"So we see a lot of vendors are moving to some sort of intranet tool. The big aggregator type of companies realize they have to provide intranet tools, and I think that's where they're really providing the service and support."


If the market is so competitive that some vendors are essentially posting their information online with the hope that someone will come by to read it, then cyberspace may now be a perilous place to do business. There even have been rumors that the industry soon may face a shakeout. As Garnett said, "There's too much information chasing not enough people."

But Garnett also believes many parts of the market are still immature. "I think we're still pretty early in the game at this point," she said. "I think we'll see a competitive fight for market share, but the market right now is still 'squishy.' There are still many opportunities."

But aren't user groups signing long-term contracts and, therefore, closing many windows of opportunity before even more players enter the game? "There doesn't seem to be really good relationships between the vendors and the users," Garnett said. "I think there's a lot of frustrations between them. So there's not a lot of loyalty. If there's not a lot of loyalty, people aren't getting into long-term contracts that they may not be happy about. We [at Outsell] have noticed that the user community will sign up for something with a near-term commitment to try to make it work, but if they find something that serves them better, they're willing to switch, unless the content is so unique that they can't switch."

The market may still have room for many vendors, "but there isn't room for everybody doing the same thing," pointed out Dianne Hoffman, President of Hoffman Information Services. "In the sciences, which is my area of expertise, the main bulk of money sits in the medical area, so many medical Web sites came up. There are hundreds of medical portals out there trying to create communities. There will be a shakeout there because they're all doing pretty much the same thing.

"So, yes, there's going to be some shakeout among companies offering the same types of services, but there's also a tremendous opportunity to make new and unique products. On the Internet, you see a lot of your customers meeting their own information needs and solving their own problems. If you see enough of them solving the same problem, there's a product in there."

Hoffman said an example is an index of information on scientific methods created by BIOSIS, where she used to work. She said the company started indexing Web sites in addition to journals after they noticed hundreds of Internet sites "where researchers were putting up their own protocols for certain procedures. They were doing that because they felt that the methods sections of the journals weren't detailed enough. Those were a whole bunch of scientists solving their own problem because nobody was out there seeing what they needed."

That type of grass-roots activity may inspire products, but isn't it also a threat to the role of today's information vendor? "No," Hoffman said. "The threat is that people will keep tripping over each other trying to get to the same pots of money. But I don't think anybody is necessarily imperiled. I see only opportunity."

Thomas Pack (thomaspack@aol.com) is a freelance writer based in Peewee Valley, KY.

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