Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Hoover's Connect: A Visible Path to a Successful Brand Transformation?

The rumbles of Hoover's initiative with enterprise social networking tools provider Visible Path began more than a year ago, but the partnership did not roll out its final production version of Hoover's Connect that uses Visible Path technology until last week - an announcement that also included the news that Hoover's was acquiring Visible Path. The reaction to this deal and product rollout has been somewhat mixed from content industry professionals, some clucking about customers wanting more security built into the product that resulted in slow testing and others doubting that enterprises will adopt an enterprise-based tool for navigating relationship networks that relies on email as its primary content source.

While there may be more than a grain of truth in these criticisms, it appears that Hoover's has taken an important step towards shifting its position with major enterprises from one of a supplier of a business information database aimed primarily at small to medium-sized businesses to one which offers a "hook" into enterprise operations that can help organizations to use Hoover's to leverage their own business information more effectively. Hoover's Connect enables individuals or enterprises to link to contacts identified in Hoover's content to contacts found in personal and enterprise content sources such as email and calendaring services that may lead to a stronger relationship with sales and business development prospects. Controls in Hoover's Connect enable individuals to control just how much information about their trusted business contacts that they share with colleagues, which may limit the quality of information available to them. But this flexibility enables people to give to the system as much as they feel comfortable doing - and to realize over time that in a give-to-get exchange of information with colleagues sometimes giving is a needed behavior.

All well and good, but will Visible Path help the perceived value of core Hoover's content? Inevitably the answer has to be yes, but with some important caveats. Visible Path tools in Hoovers Connect enable people to move quickly from business profile information in Hoover's content to navigating their personal and enterprise relationship "degrees of separation." This enhances the core value of using Hoover's content as a point from which to initiate the researching of potential business contacts through trustworthy information. You can also connect your own networks of contacts to other networks on an opt-in basis, enabling you to collaborate on specific business opportunities with other organizations or individuals in an environment that enables you to expose just the right amount of contact information to partners. That's a smart way to manage this content that parallels how people expose business contact information in the real world.

But as much as this is useful in and of itself, it would be more useful if the Hoover's content could be integrated into enterprise applications more effectively via Visible Path capabilities. As it is, the corporate profiles found in Hoover's database service seem to benefit only indirectly from this integration, and vice versa: there's not a sense that either desperately needs the other to be complete. One would hope that metadata from both services would benefit each other more directly, for example. But this may change over time as the capabilities of Hoovers connect open up more integration opportunities for Hoover's in larger institutions. For smaller businesses and organizations this "good enough" integration of business information with networked contacts may be sufficient for many to continue to leverage Hoover's core databases while enhancing the usefulness of their internal business contacts data.

Hoover's is moving to rebuild momentum as both an enterprise-oriented brand and an online brand that can both fend off newer competition for the attention of business audiences and to take on some of the more established brands in larger enterprises. This is no small feat to pull off, given the rapid rise of services like Generate, Zoominfo and other services that mine Web content and other sources to provide services that can pick away at Hoover's market share even as they try to pick away at Factiva, OneSource and other larger business information brands.
Sometimes being the middle brand in a rapidly changing market is not much fun.

With its Visible Path acquisition Hoover's may be signaling a period in which they choose to add muscle to their capabilities that can push out into areas behind the corporate firewalls where other business information providers have feared to tread heavily thus far. It may take several more go-arounds of content development and major enterprise adoption for this move to pay off fully, but for now it's a very positive step for Hoover's to take towards being a trustworthy business information brand in an era in which individuals and institutions are calling the shots on what really constitutes quality content.
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