The successful online portals and marketplaces today are well-known; the failures aren't but are multiples of the winners. Here's a snapshot look at what it takes to build winníng web portals based on real-life lessons.
Ten years ago I was immersed in a meeting of Information Technology professionals and business leaders from the Pennsylvania Industrial Resource Center Network. They were trying to come up with new ways to serve their base constituents, Pennsylvania manufacturers, and get them into the world of e-Business. Lo and behold, one rather entrepreneurial center director brought up the idea of an online business web portal site, targeted to this market. On it a company could showcase itself to the world, access new quoting opportunities and resources such as suppliers and information. The argument was compelling, and the people seated around the table cautiously threw their hats into the ring of support, one by one. So just what were the best methods of how to build web portals?
Here comes the problem: this idea was not a new one. In 2011, even less so. There are loads of online web portals out in cyberspace that aren't working and can barely pay the rent. There are, however, targeted communities or successful web portal sites out there that are getting it done. We read about them in the trade press and marvel at their "instant" success. So what makes a Yahoo or a Hoovers Online a wínner where many other attempts turn out to be losers? The team in State College wanted to find that out - fast.
Connect People With Each Other
We did some competitive analysis for the manufacturers' portal, and found an interesting thing. Lots of online portals were repositories of links to other places - societies, associations, other portals - all good stuff, but missing something. That something is the personal touch.
The most successful business web portals have a search feature that allows you to touch companies or individuals that you request, based on your input. This is the entire premise behind a search engine site like Google or a directory like Yahoo. Your query tailors your response.
For the manufacturers portal we wanted to go that even better. All of the manufacturers on our site had a listing akin to a yellow pages slot, but with much more information. Contacts at the companies, core competencies, special awards, certifications of performance - all this stuff and more had to be provided. The goal was to provide listings, and therefore query returns, that would instantly tell the online viewer who that company is, what they stand for, and what they can do - all before you have to pick up the phone or click-thru to another slow-downloading website.
"Wait a minute. Isn't that information hard to come by?" Yes. If it was easy, everybody would do it. What we found in investigation of portals with little traffic was weak levels of often inaccurate information, sometimes searchable and sometimes pooled in interest groups. The trouble was that it was difficult to find out a lot of juice on any entity without going through multiple pages of click-thrus, paying to get it, or picking up the phone. Ah-hah! This user found an inherent weakness that our web portal would not have.
Have A Unique Niche For Your Online Portal
Everybody tells you to have a unique niche these days, so I won't belabor this. This is something you'd need to do in any good marketing effort, even offline. Unless you have mass amounts of equity or capital, it is almost impossible to be the Yahoo or eBay model of all things to all people. There are already giants doing it. Specialty portals like eSteel or even those that trend socially like eHarmony for lonely singles have decided to be the biggest fish in their vertical pond if they can. Niching allows you to achieve scale faster (see below) and sooner dominate a market, whether it's manufacturing, certain commodities like steel that are bought en masse, or even online dating. It can also be a horizontal niche based upon some unique way to deliver a successful online marketplace or web-based reverse auction site for generating business quotes.
Develop Rapid Scale
A key element of how to build web portals for success is rapid scale. It needs to get the masses on it and using it, and fast. Scale of users is what makes an online portal valuable to the advertisers that support it. There has to be a large, target market of potential buyers out there that the big corporate sponsors want to get in front of. The more scale you have, the better rate of page view advertising or click-thru revenue you can generate. The portal we developed needed a strategy to get massive scale by, like, yesterday. To that end, we needed a strategy to get every manufacturer in Pennsylvania onto our site as a registered subscriber and as a user.
Deals were struck with database information houses, partnerships were established, and that group of statewide Resource Centers who already have contact with companies throughout the state was engaged to take the message to the people about this portal and why each company should spend some time there. We also put into play a major marketing awareness campaign. Scale of nearly 20,000 companies was achieved within a one year timeframe. We had a large database, but alas, only a small percentage of those were active users.
Add Long Term and Transactional Value
Successful web portals need something to make them sticky. This is akin to providing valuable content in your blog posts for better SEO. If you don't have the time, there are assorted experts you can leverage to extend your reach. What did we do? First, we partnered with an online RFQ service that allowed our contract manufacturers to bid on open work. Moderate success here. We added a Free Ask the Expert section to field questions on manufacturing process, lean, six sigma - even financing. The goal was a response from our expert network within 24 hours. For the most part we made that happen.
By Karl Walinskas (c) 2011
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