Content is at the Heart of ThomasNet.com's Audience Development Strategy
For b-to-b online publisher ThomasNet.com, the old saw about the whole often being greater than the sum of all parts couldn't be more true. In its role of matchmaker between industrial products buyers and industrial products sellers, the company must support both sides of the connection -- and seamlessly -- to be successful. Such development involves building out editorial content and then marketing it appropriately to attract visitors to the ThomasNet.com site as well as assisting sellers with their offerings on both ThomasNet.com and their own sites to facilitate more fruitful interactions between the two groups. To date, ThomasNet.com features information on 607,000 North American industry companies, further indexed for users by 67,000 product and service categories.
Publishing Executive Inbox talked to ThomasNet.com Vice President Brad Mehl about what it takes to keep all its audience development balls in the air.
Inbox: What channels/media does ThomasNet.com use to drive traffic to its site?
Brad Mehl: A wide variety. We believe that marketing is most effective when a brand diversifies its traffic channels and has multiple touch points with an audience. We encourage our clients to do the same.
ThomasNet.com is an online brand connecting those seeking to buy industrial products and services with those selling them. For us, a great Web site is what ultimately builds the brand experience and grows our repeat and new usage over time. We put extreme care into testing new content and functionality on ThomasNet.com to further develop our audience.
Beyond that, we use many different channels to drive traffic:
- links to ThomasNet.com from thousands of other sites (based on relevance)
- partnerships with related professional groups (e.g., ANSI.org, eFunda, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, National Association of Manufacturers, etc.)
- a variety of e-mail newsletters with original content available in multiple formats, including product news alerts, RSS feeds, etc.
- our blog, Industrial Market Trends, publishes the latest developments and key trends in the industry, which includes a social component, since we welcome users/visitors to post their opinions on any of our articles
- social media applications tapping into relevant blogs, Twitter, Facebook and more
- online advertising
- formal search engine marketing strategy
- internal search engine optimization team
Inbox: What value do mass media placements bring to the table? And direct response media?
Mehl: As a b-to-b brand, ThomasNet reaches business professionals; we focus on relevant business and industrial media, yet keep a careful eye on consumer best practices.
Note: The first half of my career was in consumer marketing, and I found then that mass media enables brands to cast a wide audience net very quickly; it is the foundation upon which more targeted parts of the marketing mix can be layered. Many pundits have declared mass media dead due to media fragmentation, the rise of search and online engagement. Those trends are real, but mass media is alive. It just needs to evolve.
Although ThomasNet serves a business audience, we watch trends in consumer media very carefully because b-to-b audience engagement often follows developments in the consumer world. In terms of Internet marketing, we've been on the forefront and have taken a content-driven approach to marketing.
At ThomasNet, we have used direct response media, but over time it has been smaller part of our marketing mix. Many of the tactics we used to do with direct mail are now done online; the Web provides marketers with a more nuanced view of the audience's engagement with the message and deeper analytics so we marketers can dial up and optimize the things that work more quickly. We are driven by data; it's part of our corporate DNA. And we take data to the next level by using multivariate testing which helps us determine the optimal combination of elements on a Web page that delivers the most results.
Inbox: In what ways do you integrate your marketing efforts across channels?
Mehl: The foundation is based on a core theme threaded across our marketing, our products and our services: ThomasNet connects buyers and sellers in the manufacturing world.
This connection is part of everything we do, and lays the foundation for marketing integration. One way of handling integration is by ensuring the marketing reinforces the product. We believe the most effective b-to-b online marketing gives its target audience something useful. So we built our own toolbar with 19 different features specifically for our audience, created widgets with engineering formulas and more.
These things were promoted via social media and other channels, resulting in over 100,000 downloads. In addition, we distribute/co-brand a "Search ThomasNet" functionality to partners with the same or related online audiences.
Our e-mail newsletters are an important part of our communications mix, and they often include original content related to a product initiative. For example, when we launched our RFP tools, our e-mail newsletters included informative pieces about various purchasing tools. They were also promoted in our online forums, a growing user community on ThomasNet.com.
Inbox: How is content development coordinated with audience development efforts?
Mehl: They are one and the same. In fact, content development is part of our audience development group.
Our staff writes a bi-weekly newsletter, covering issues and trends affecting business people across industries. This same content is available in a blog, and we invite users to make comments on that content. Snippets of content are also featured on our homepage and elsewhere on our site. All of this is coordinated by one team, so the integration is a natural outgrowth of the way we work.
Inbox: What's the most important tactic for keeping audiences engaged with ThomasNet.com?
Mehl: A quality product -- it's all about delivering a superior experience on our Web site to ultimately help buyers connect with suppliers. Thomas has been successfully doing this since 1898 -- first as Thomas Register of American Manufacturers, and today, 100-percent online as ThomasNet.com.
Each time we deliver a good user experience, it strengthens our brand, builds repeat usage and fosters word of mouth recommendations. In fact, ThomasNet.com is reaching more people than ever with over 2 million users per month accessing the site.