Information Wants to Be Disrupted

NEW YORK — At the Information Industry Summit here today, attendees and presenters alike had trouble stifling anticipation of the day's big news — which was taking place 3,000 miles away. After weeks of incessant rumors, the unveiling of the Apple iPad, an electronic tablet, had several speakers theorizing how publishers might use the new product to "take back the Web." Despite the excitement over the iPad, however, today's conference managed to focus on other aspects of the changing dynamics of the information industry.

In a session entitled "Information Wants to be Expensive," three panelists spoke about their respective disruptive business models. Although coming from different verticals, the speakers — Gaby Darbyshire, chief operating officer of Gawker Media; Cheryl Milone, chief executive officer of Article One Partners; and Jim Fowler, CEO of Jigsaw — shared like-minded philosophies. They all claim to have embraced customer engagement in a manner that differentiates them from competitors -- whether through crowdsourcing, collaboration, or conversation.

Jigsaw, a company that CRM named a Rising Star in 2009, is an online directory of 20 million business records — a figure, according to Fowler, that's growing by 50,000 records a day. "We are disrupting traditional B2B data sources...through a crowdsourced model," he told the audience. Jigsaw's contact data — and any updates to that data — are provided by its subscribers. In fact, Fowler said, 40 percent of subscribers opt to share contacts and continually edit and upload new information. Why? Businesspeople are coming to realize that, with the transparency of information, simply having contact data for a prospect is no longer a competitive advantage. Only information that's up-to-the-minute and correct can serve as a differentiator. Fowler said Jigsaw's goal as a data-as-a-service provider is to cause a disruption in the data industry similar to the one caused by software-as-a-service in the software industry. 

These things take time, however. Fowler's advice for any company looking to reinvent is to ask its own employees to develop ways to overthrow the business. Fund the ideas that stick -- but treat them like start-ups. "Be impatient for profit," Fowler said, "but be patient for growth."

Gawker Media's disruptive business model has garnered some negative reaction from its competitors -- the traditional news bureaus. "Companies react to us as an annoying little problem they'd rather not deal with," Darbyshire said. "But since we're a small company and we're self-funded, we're willing to take more risks." She added that Gawker is careful about what it publishes but is prepared to publish things The New York Times wouldn't. Yes, she acknowledged, sometimes Gawker prints rumors — but she stressed that the site is transparent about its policies.

One of the reasons Gawker has been so successful is its conversational model, she added. Not only do readers comment on stories, but sometimes the commenters become the main attraction. Also, because Gawker doesn't have the bureaucracy hindering some other news organizations, it's able to turn stories around faster.

Article One Partners developed a global research community that helps patent-holders improve quality and avoid disputes. Patent offices have long struggled with the difficulty of sifting through vast amounts of information required by the evaluation of a patent, said Article One's Milone. That's where the global research community comes in, utilizing a model also known as crowdsourcing. 

[Editors' Note: See CRM magazine's January 2010 Innovation Issue for a closer look at crowdsourcing.]

"We are disrupting the traditional resource," Milone said. "The crowdsourcing can exceed what's not even searchable or digitized."

All three companies excel at being accelerators, but they've also taken the time to install metrics at the center of their respective business models. "Our differentiator from The New York Times is our relentless focus on measurability," Darbyshire said. "We know what stories work for our sites and what readers are interested in." Naysayers might suggest that Gawker, Jigsaw, or Article One lack tradition or perhaps make things too easy for customers. For those with doubts, Fowler encouraged attendees to take a look at how far Wikipedia has come, essentially eclipsing the Encyclopedia Britannica, once considered the gold standard of its industry. Wikipedia may have been subpar in its early days nearly a decade ago, Fowler said, but the "good enough" curve has made it mainstream.

"There's a chance my son won't know what an Encyclopedia Britannica is," Fowler joked, "unless he reads about it on Wikipedia."

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