BIMS Preview: Tony Uphoff on How Thomas Created a New Operating Dashboard to Drive Its Future

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This is not just another transformation story. Thomas (formerly Thomas Publishing) has made a radical leap from directory publisher to becoming a "data platform company that runs like a software business focused on user experience."

The key to that evolution is a trifecta of real-time audience and market data streams that function like Google analytics on steroids, giving Thomas a powerful internal operating dashboard that enables the company to be agile, insightful and effective. In the closing keynote of the upcoming Business Information & Media Summit Nov. 12-14, Thomas president and CEO Tony Uphoff will walk us step-by-step through the process of creating a modern operating dashboard that redefines what a business information company can do (including showing the dashboards in action in real-time onscreen).

Here, Uphoff offers a preview of what that operating dashboard entails, what it’s allowed Thomas to do and the power that comes to B2B from the ability to serve the customer in real time.   

Connectiv: Is this an evolution of what B2B has done previously or is Thomas going in a new direction?

Uphoff: I believe this is a new direction. You can argue that B2B has been trending in this direction but we’re starting to see a step change in the way B2B media companies are thinking about how they run their business and how they present their value to the market. There is nothing new about having data in B2B. You can go back to controlled circulation and it’s the reason trade shows still survive and thrive today because there’s a register of qualified buyers. What’s starting to change is the value of the data and understanding how to leverage and view the data. We think about our customers, our users, in the same way as a SaaS user. What we do today is set up data systems so we can serve that user in real time—give them the information they want in the format that they want any time they need it—and introduce advertising as part of that information flow that adds to their buying process.

We’ve got it written on the walls at the company—if we solve users’ daily challenges, by definition, we are solving the challenges of the marketer. You can see some DNA from the old business information and media in what I’m describing but there’s been a tipping point where companies like Thomas and others are operating differently by harnessing technology and becoming data platforms. It’s not just dressing up an old audience database and calling it a data company.

Connectiv: You did a great interview with Tony Silber earlier this year in which you said that Thomas is focused on new KPIs such as active users, time on site, repeat visits. Why those KPI’s specifically? What’s falling off your radar?

Uphoff: We’re always evolving KPIs. We did a survey with a company called Strategen which has pioneered the idea of related jobs to research. No matter what your job is, you can analyze the buyer/user of that product and look at all the tributaries of relatable jobs. That allows you to steer your product—traditionally, you may have been solving one part of the puzzle but users would be frustrated because they’d have to turn to three or four other sources to get the rest of the pieces. What we’ve done with the user experience of Thomas and our core platform of ThomasNet is incrementally add content, tools, workflow tools and features that enable us to address what the buyer is dealing with on a daily basis.

Rather than have media KPIs like clicks and hits that don’t make a lot of sense, we focused on user KPIs. How many registered active users are we getting? How much activity do we get for any fixed period of time? We don’t use paid search at all anymore. I pay little attention to visits via SEO, primarily because I’m more interested in repeat visitors and how many visitors we get each day and how many of those visits are from our daily e-newsletters. That reflects how well we are serving the user rather than how well we might be gaming a search engine.

Then we get into some deeper KPIs—we have about 205 different filters that are turned on when someone becomes a registered user with ThomasNet. We look at KPIs around what we consider high value user behavior, such as submitting an RFP to an advertiser. Viewing a certain number of products or supplier profiles. Time spent on the site but especially return visits within a brief period of time. We tend to track those types of behavior data in-depth.

Connectiv: You’ve talked about how this better serves the customer. What’s the payoff been for Thomas?

Uphoff: We’re creating growth in the company on a top-line and bottom-line basis. At the end of the day, we, like everyone else, are in a performance-based business. We’re running the company as much more of a software/platform business and our speed-to-market, our ability to bring new products into the marketplace or make enhancements to existing products has gone up exponentially.

If you look at the current version of ThomasNet (we call it ThomasNet 4.0), we’re pushing code every week. We run a formalized weekly sprint and Agile development process. We now have a unified product road map across the three product platforms—they’re all engineered to work together. The process used to be siloed, where one brand gets the resources and the rest try to figure out how to compete for resources and we would take an extraordinarily long time to update a product. We’ve seen growth in audience, growth in advertisers and growth in new business. At the same time, the acceleration of product strategy is a big deal for us. To me, the speed is even more important than the efficiency because if we have an idea that we want to take to market, we should be smart enough to do that in a reasonable period of time.

Connectiv: For a company that really wants to become data-driven, what do they need to be prepared to do?

Uphoff: There are some things that are obvious. You have to determine whether you have the assets and resources to actually become a more technologically-driven data and platform company. And I don’t mean to infer that the only path forward is to become a data and platform company. I believe that is an enormous part of the future of business information companies but we’ve both seen models that will survive without completely centering the company around real-time data capabilities. But increasingly, it will be difficult to grow companies that don’t set themselves up to compete for audience use based on the value they can create by harnessing the power of data and software.

I’ll give you some examples of this. ThomasNet has about 800,000 active registered users. Every two seconds, a user is selecting a product or supplier on ThomasNet and we’re up to 2.5 petabytes of buyer data and growing. The second platform we have is a software, syndication and development tool that offers CAD and BIM (if you’re not familiar with BIM, it’s business information management files that buyers download). Every second, it loads one of those CAD files.

Third is a platform for opportunity intelligence that runs on 12,000 industrial websites. It allows advertisers to identify in-market buyers for what they sell, filter it, shut off bot traffic, identify high-value buyers, identify where those buyers are in the purchase process and engage sales based on how their digital marketing is working. It allows you to track all your Thomas programs, all your CAD and BIM downloads, anything that happens on your website regardless of whether Thomas has a connection or not. That’s a free service we offer to advertisers and will roll it out to the entire industry for qualified companies.

I use that as a long-winded way of answering your question—that’s an extraordinary commitment that this company made. The vision that the company and family had over the years, they made that commitment to technology. All we’ve done in the last couple of years is hone the strategy and accelerate the development of that technology ourselves rather than outsource it.

Matt Matt Kinsman is vice president of content + programming at Connectiv, the only association focused on the integrated b-to-b model—including publications, events, digital media, marketing services and business information. Prior to joining Connectiv's predecessor American Business Media in 2011, Kinsman was executive editor of Folio:, the leading information provider for the magazine industry.