Be of Use

All I know about sprockets is that they figure prominently in the work life of George Jetson. I really don't know a sprocket from a cog, although I hear that competition between the two products is fierce…and often quite personal. Nevertheless, when I plug the term "sprocket" into the vertical search engine at, I get something that I am sure would make Cosmo G. Spacely gush. And it is an object lesson in the future of B2B content online.

ThomasNet is the online iteration of its 90-year-old series of "big green books"— the Thomas Register that herniated many a corporate procurement officer. These massive, universal directories of business equipment suppliers from Thomas Publishing were as familiar in their day as Post-Its. Now they are gone. Thomas ended the print run last year and transferred its entire directory business to this brilliantly executed web-based directory/search engine/marketing machine.

In the search results for "sprockets," a left-hand box lets me drill into local vendors or to target vendors within some miles of a zip. I can drop directly into vendor catalogs or refine the search by supplier type. And this is just in the left quadrant of the page. In the listing itself, I can email the company directly, while links in the upper-right quadrant let me email the results to a colleague, save for later, or even email multiple companies at once. Everywhere you glance there is a possible action to take, another click that gets you closer to completing the purchase for your company.

I am gushing like Spacely over the ThomasNet engine because it embodies a term I am hearing more about than I am seeing in practice: "workflow integration." In theory at least, publishers tell me that they understand the next wave of digital models will revolve around making content of use when, where, and how people work. ThomasNet mirrors how buyers hunt for materials, distribute vendor lists, and request proposals. And it will go further. Thomas recently cut a deal with Autodesk, the maker of popular 3D modeling software. In the model review process, parts in the models can be searched for directly in ThomasNet's engine so the procurement process is integrated into the design process.

Other business and engineering information providers have built or are in the process of building similar integrations. These links into desktop applications use APIs that pull relevant data from the web publisher into desktop software as it is needed for the task at hand. Online company profiles from financial information firms are flowing into the contact apps salespeople use. One publisher of online programming books feeds coding examples directly into software development tools.

Figuring out how your content actually fits into the target market's workflow can be a daunting task. It is more akin to software development than content publishing. Some companies put a lot of R&D money into usable interface designs and field testing. Or it can be as simple as thinking of your customer in just the right way.

When I asked ThomasNet's director of strategic alliances, Linda Rigano, about the online directory's design, she offered a disarmingly straightforward approach. For decades the process of procurement involved thumbing through the Thomas Register, calling a supplier, and asking if they made a particular part. "On the internet, the buyer isn't picking up the phone, but the website has to serve the function of a person answering the phone." It is ridiculously simple, but the ThomasNet search results page is so rich in possible actions it seems to be in an open dialogue with its user, anticipating a range of questions with likely answers.

This is not the kind of results page we will be finding at Google or Yahoo! anytime soon. The big search brands cannot know the context or circumstance of specialized users. Publishers who covet Google's traffic need to remember that they continue to have something the major engines do not—an understanding of their target market and how it works. Digital distribution does tend to commoditize ever more categories of content, and in the first internet wave we countered that trend with expertise, the notion that our content was smarter and more valuable than the other guy's. In this wave, it will be a matter of content that is made and packaged to be as usable and task-specific as a sprocket (whatever that is) in a doohickey.