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Nov 21, 2000

Thomas Baker, Sr. VP Marketing, on What Business People Really Want from B-to-B Portals

SUMMARY: Thomas Baker is one of the most experienced B-to-B marketers on the Internet today. Prior to joining as Sr VP Marketing, he served as General Manager of the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition from its early days in 1995 until the end of 1999. Like many other online B-to-B marketing leaders Baker has enormous experience in and regard for the discipline of direct response marketing.

We were tremendously interested to learn more about and how Baker applies both what he learned from and the science of direct marketing to the Web.
Q: Why did Dow Jones launch in August? And how is it different from competitors such as and Hoovers?

Baker: After we built the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, we realized there were a lot of things we wanted to do to help businesspeople that we wouldn't do in the context of a business news site. We didn't want to turn into absolutely everything you need to know about business.

To keep it separate, we launched the first site in an attempt to go in that direction. Our hope always was to build it up with a partner. Ultimately we forged a deal with Excite @home and got funding this April. Excite was interested because like most consumer portals a substantial part of their traffic has been people using them for business purposes. Portals have been good at stock quotes and basic company news, but they're less efficient at the stuff business people come to the Web for: who sells what, where can I get help with this project, etc.

With what we really want to do is help businesspeople with decisions. Open up their search results to more useful information and help advise them through created content.

Regarding the competitors, does sound similar in terms of goals, but we'll probably turn out to have a different product approach. If you look at their site, it's more directory-centric. We're building a lot more original content. Hoovers is a great site, we already have a number of conversations going with them. At this time we're trying to answer a broader range of business people's decisions than they currently do.

However, this is a BIG market. We're all learning what the most convenient way is to solve business people's problems. Consumer portals already exist. What we all really need to do is work the way business people work and solve the problems they need solved.

Q: How are you organizing the site to appeal to business people?

Baker: We've got 28 verticals but we haven't gone into very, very vertical slices that other people like VerticalNet think of when they think of verticals. In a lot of ways that comes out of my Dow Jones training. WSJ is based on the theory that people's interests are less parochial and narrow than you think, and some resources they need or questions they have are not industry-specific. They may be region or function-specific. An industry-slice alone is not characteristic of how most people's minds actually work.

Q: OK so you have this great B-to-B site set up, how did you begin driving loads of traffic to it?

Baker: First thing is that we have a couple of extraordinary distribution relationships. All existing users are redirected to, and we are effectively Excite's official business channel. Aside from this we've been in the early stages, primarily testing and experimenting online.

We've tested banners on more than 100 sites, both small biz and not small biz.

Q: What have you learned from your tests so far?

Baker: I'd love to say I learned something that was counterintuitive from what I learned in 18 years as a traditional media person! The place where your advertising runs and how targeted the audience is directly translates into productivity.

Clicks are very easy to get on the Internet and very easy to get cheaply. But if that's your focus, are you generating qualified returning customers?? Probably not.

It goes back to direct marketing. The list is 12 times more important than creative. They may not be the cheapest leads you'll get, but they'll wind up being the best ongoing customers. Cheap leads are cheap for a reason.

Put your banner on the part of a site that makes the most sense for what you're selling. To find out what makes the best sense, test!

Q: Which are more effective, banners or newsletter sponsorships?

Baker: I'd love to say there's a rule of thumb, but the only truism is they can both do well or badly. You don't know until you test which ones are most cost effective. They have very different reach and click through rates. A banner might have a lower click through than a position on a newsletter but that doesn't mean it's less successful.

Q: There's a lot of hype out there about banners being "dead." What do you think?

Baker: Banners obviously help you build your company's identity and product identity in the same sense that space ads do. Just because I saw it and I didn't click today doesn't mean your banner is ineffective. If it's a banner for a sweeps and I don't enter right now, it's unsuccessful. If it's a banner for a Volvo, because I don't buy today doesn't mean I won't buy one in six months and the media mix helped persuade me to do it.

Banners work for us. They seem to work for a lot of people who have a good product. I suspect the reason they don't work for everyone is not the fault of the medium. It's the fault of the message, the offer. There have been people running hundreds of millions of banners for products that weren't compelling. To judge the success of this medium on the basis of a lot of the people who poured money into it is a fallacy. Banners are hard to use well. They require a lot of discipline. And you really have to appeal to the needs consumers actually have.

I'm also really excited about email. I have used it very successfully.

I also have high hopes in using direct mail successfully. It's early yet. It took a couple of years at work and testing at WSJ Interactive to get it to work.

Selling something for free is even trickier than something for fee though. It's funny, it's harder to have a call to action. When you have a for-fee site, it's easy to run an ad saying, "Try it for free." But on this Web site everything's free!

Q: The hottest consumer, online, marketing tactic these days is ecommerce in context -- ads imbedded next to articles about the same topic. Will B-to-B marketers be able to put ecommerce offers for their products in context within the content at

Baker: It's a key part of our business model -- presenting products and services at a time when business people are researching them. Our whole value proposition is you come to our site looking for us to help you sort through a decision. If we can do that and at also introduce you to stuff that may be relevant to your decision, we'll do so.

We sit around here and have discussions about which sites have done the most in terms of integrating content and commerce in an effective way. I think the whole industry is at stage one. Partly the barriers are tech, partly they're editorial. You want to know where editorial stops and ads start. We hope to be leaders in that business space, it's uncharted territory -- how people are going to respond to it and what the best practices are for doing it.

The site's that probably done the most interesting pioneering work in this area so far is CNET. They've really integrated buying opportunities into their content.

Q: Consumer sites like are helping big-ticket advertisers market with content-driven mini-sites. Is that something advertisers will be able to buy on

Baker: I think we'll do it, but my sense is we'll let ourselves be totally driven by what's helpful to the users. My sense from research and talking to customers is they're pretty smart and they really want to know what your relationship is to the thing you're putting in front of them. The clear delineation of advertising as advertising is important especially when making significant business decisions. If someone's coming to buy a phone system for 100 employees, they want to understand how we present an advertiser with whom we have a commercial relationship. It's pretty important -- if we're not honest reviewers, there's no reason to use the site. So we'll probably be on the conservative side of the line between advertisers and our coverage.

Q: Are you going to expand to offline media such as magazines or radio the way some other B-to-B sites have?

Baker: Our goal is to be regarded as an expert brand that can help you make business decisions, especially when applying technology to business. I'd expect to see us in offline settings where you can extend that. One of our parents is a significant offline publication -- that should give you some clue!
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