One characteristic that defines the information age in which we live is the pace of change. Disruptive new business ventures seem to arise everywhere and every day, challenging the status quo in all sectors of the economy, devastating well-entrenched companies in the process. But every now and then, an example surfaces of a long-standing enterprise that weathers the storm and reinvents itself successfully to continue its evolution despite the accelerated pace of markets and technology. One example of such a company is Thomasnet.
What is Thomasnet
Thomasnet is actually the domain name for the company that now brands itself as Thomas. And the online platform that you will find at www.thomasnet.com is a multi-layered treasure trove of information that satisfies a very fundamental business need which cuts across the industrial and commercial B2B space – helping buyers locate needed sources of supply. What Thomas offers their audience of purchasing professionals, design engineers, plant managers, and entrepreneurs is a free platform which can help them find a manufacturer, distributor, service provider, or custom fabricator that can meet their needs for almost any product, service, or material imaginable. Thomas maintains its extensive database of suppliers and products covering the North American geographical landscape and matches those suppliers against a rich taxonomy of some 70,000 categories. This level of detail provides their users with the flexibility to use a variety of search terms such as design details, applications, and industries when seeking a product or service provider. The company calls this area of their platform the Thomas Network.
To use the Network, you enter a search term in the search box that is prominently featured on the home page. Their technology matches that string to the closest fit that represents a product, service, or material, and then displays a list of matching suppliers, products, or even CAD models. An easy to follow UI then lets you dig in to get to the details to find what you need quickly and effortlessly.
History of Thomas
Thomas Publishing Company was founded by Harvey Mark Thomas in the 1890s, becoming incorporated in the year 1898. One of the first publications that showed success was the Thomas Wholesale Grocery and Kindred Trades Register, which later became the Thomas Food Industry Register. In 1905, he introduced the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers and First hands in All Lines, which became the go-to resource for locating all types of suppliers with an emphasis on the ability to find them in specific geographical locations. The initial single volume book was some 1,228 pages covering 98,000 manufacturers in some 38,000 business classifications.
As the U.S. economy shifted from one based heavily on agricultural products to an industrial economy based on mass production of goods, Thomas Publishing Company followed suit. The single volume printed directory expanded with the exponential growth of manufacturing throughout the 20th century, and the company added a set of printed guides called the Regional Purchasing Guides, focusing on smaller local businesses and distributors.
Additional publications surfaced through the decades of the 1900s, and the Thomas Register grew to over 30 volumes and some 70,000 business classifications, changing with the advances of technology, the introduction of new materials, the development of solid state electronics, the advent of high-speed computing, up to the internet age of information.
With the dawn of the internet era, the company moved gradually away from print to a become an internet company, starting in the 1990s. The last printing for the Thomas Register was in 2006.
At the helm running Thomas is President and CEO, Tony Uphoff. Before joining Thomas in January of 2017, Tony served as CEO of Business.com, where he led the turnaround, build out and successful sale of the company in June of 2016. Prior to Business.com, Tony was CEO of UBM TechWeb, where he led the transformation of a declining print-centric business into a fast-growing digital media, live event and marketing services powerhouse. He also served as President of VNU Media’s Entertainment Group and Publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, building out and expanding the brands via digital media and live events. Uphoff was the founding CEO of Internet Media company Beliefnet and served as Publisher of InformationWeek in the mid-90s, growing the brand into the largest in the history of B2B media. Uphoff also served in several key management positions at Ziff-Davis during the company’s rapid growth in the early 1990s. Tony anchors the popular weekly Thomas Index video reports and has been named “Folio Forty C-Level Visionary” by Folio Magazine, “Top Media Innovator” by Mins B2B and is regularly named in the Top 100 business media execs by B2B Magazine. Uphoff serves as a Trustee of Linfield College, sits on the board of HIMSS Media and serves a mentor at Mucker Labs.
Mark Knudsen, President of Product Data Solutions and who is also the great-grandson of the company founder, is responsible for the overall strategic direction of the Navigator platform on Thomasnet.com® – which includes online catalogs with 6 million products, a library of 10 million CAD drawings, and the e-commerce technology that supports it all. The platform generates approximately 80% of all Thomas users.
He joined the business in 2001 as Director of Project Management, where he managed the content solutions product line and publishing technology. Mark was later appointed Vice President, Content Solutions in 2006, and has been featured in publications such as Reliable Plant and Industry Week.
Mark holds an MBA in Marketing and Finance from New York University Stern School of Business and a degree in Music from Connecticut College, with a fondness for jazz and classical.
Shawn Fitzgerald is the Chief Marketing Officer at Thomas, where he oversees the overall company marketing strategy, including the growth of the Thomas Marketing Services division. Shawn earned his BS in Mechanical Engineering from Lehigh University in 1996, landing him a job with ASME managing the development of standards for natural gas pipelines, elevators, and weld testing. Three years later, continuing his career in the industrial space, he joined Thomas to form the CAD business unit acquired from AutoDesk. As the division grew traction from SMBs up to Fortune 1000 businesses, he shifted to focus on transitioning the company from print to digital.
He furthered this digital transformation of Thomas by building teams of sales engineers, managing an online catalog product, and developing new digital products to drive revenue growth. In 2014, Shawn founded TMS, and under his leadership, the division was recognized as HubSpot’s 2014 Agency of the Year and became a HubSpot Diamond Partner and a Google Partner. In his current role as CMO, he recently led the rebranding of the 120-year-old company, launched the catalyst for a growing data business unit, and began a tour of regional events for industry, which culminated into an invite to share data with the Department of Commerce at the White House.
The Thomas platform provides suppliers with opportunities to promote their business to a highly targeted, influential audience that are the key decision makers in the purchasing of products and services. To capitalize on these opportunities, their platform is organized around a set of products, each of which serves to satisfy different objectives.
The Thomas Network
The Thomas Network contains over 500,000 detailed supplier profiles, 6 million products, 10 million 2D and 3D CAD models that can be downloaded in a variety of formats, and over 300,000 articles and guides to assist buyers and engineers with understanding products and services as well as staying current on the latest trends and developments across a broad spectrum of more than 50 vertical markets. Suppliers can position themselves in the network to be found in search results for specific categories – there are also site advertising opportunities as well as newsletter and article sponsorships, all of which help create brand awareness and help them be found as users access the platform.
Companies that sell products can also take advantage of the Network’s Product Catalog capabilities by adding their product line item details to generate additional exposure. If design engineers are a specific target that a company is seeking to reach, Thomas can create and host 2D and 3D CAD models of standard and configurable products, making it simple for those design engineers to choose and specify that manufacturer’s products right into the bill of materials for the design. This action is one of the most valuable means of acquiring new business as it reaches the engineer at the point when design decisions are being made.
Thomas Marketing Services
As there is not a “one size fits all” approach to helping a supplier create brand awareness and market visibility, Thomas Marketing Services satisfies the need for a customized solution that leverages a variety of effective tactics tailored to the needs of the business. Depending on the type of supplier and their target audience, Thomas Marketing Services can develop and deploy a customized marketing strategy to capture opportunities and convert those into customers. Some examples of the services they offer include:
- Content development (blog creation, e-books, white papers, website copy, video)
- Website Design
- Search Engine Marketing (SEM) / Pay-Per-Click
- E-mail Marketing
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
- Social Media Marketing
Companies can even sign up for a free Digital Health Check, to establish a baseline for how their current marketing efforts stack-up against competitors.
In an age where buyers have gone digital, analytics are vital to identify and drive business opportunities. The Thomas WebTrax application provides actionable data to engage in-market buyers, allowing companies to follow a buyer’s activity from the Thomas Network to the company website, including tracking actions such as submittal of an RFI or phone contact. With the ability to integrate these RFIs into a company’s marketing automation tools, WebTrax provides needed visibility for the tracking, identification, and engagement of sales opportunities from the web behavior of site traffic.
The WebTrax dashboard provides real-time data access to companies from multiple sources, including the company website and activity on the Thomas Network. Demographic and Firmographic filters allow for narrowing the results by desired criteria relating to specific industries, company size, revenue targets, and audience characteristics.
The Thomas Navigator technology allows companies to deliver comprehensive, digitized product data to the buyers and engineers that seek to locate specific products and access rich, accurate information to make critical decisions that impact performance and cost. Navigator can represent a company’s product line, whether they are standard off-the-shelf items or complex, configurable products that a user customizes on demand. With advanced search features, Navigator delivers the full details of a supplier’s product offering, including dimensional data, performance specifications, and full part numbers. The Navigator technology also serves as the Thomas CAD engine mentioned earlier, enabling users to instantly access and download specifications and models in over 25 different industry standard formats, dynamically built from the Navigator database.
Built off the Navigator technology, Thomas recently launched a new product called Thomas Connect. Thomas Connect allows companies that use multiple online sales channels, such as OEMs that sell through distributors, to create and maintain product information in one place, publish it online, and then syndicate that data to their channel partners. This publishing and syndication platform solves an ongoing challenge with multiple sales channels – how to assure the currency and accuracy of the information. For those companies needing assistance with organizing data, Thomas offers services to convert product data to digital format from print catalogs, spec sheets, or other formats into the specialized structure needed by major distributors in the industrial marketplace.
Does Thomasnet Work?
The question is – does all this technology deliver results? Their clients think so, which helps account for the staying power that Thomas enjoys while similar enterprises have collapsed in the age of digital access to free information. Thomas faces the challenge of needing to deliver on two fronts – to both their user base who are on the buy side, expecting access to detailed information and to the suppliers (the sell side) who pay Thomas for promotion with the expectation of business opportunities. Judging by client videos and case studies, the answer to the question “Does Thomasnet work?”, is a resounding yes. Without a robust and growing user base, there wouldn’t be client satisfaction. And satisfied clients seem to be easy to find for the company. What those clients report is:
- More business (by example a client stated they are averaging 200 more orders a day)
- More website traffic and requests for quote (RFQs)
- An increased ability to reach companies that they had struggled to reach
- Penetrating new markets
- Finding new customers to offset business lost to overseas production
- Getting ranked on the top of search engine result pages
- Growing sales with existing clients
These are all positive indicators of technology that is effective at helping companies identify and acquire new business, and that is working quite well.
For a company to remain in continuous operation for 120+ years is a feat in itself – few can lay claim to that achievement. For one to continue prospering and serving clients using digital technologies that didn’t exist until the last two decades is an even greater height to climb.
What Thomas seems to do well is anticipate needs, a trait that has enabled them to analyze markets, pivot as needed to generate new offers, and consistently execute that strategy throughout their long history. Probably no greater example would be in their transition out of book publishing into an internet company. Perhaps the mission that company founder Harvey Mark Thomas set out to accomplish when he founded the company initially also helps explain their ability to persevere:
“To provide business with the critical industrial product information and services needed to succeed in the marketplace.”
Simple. Timeless. Enduring. As is the enterprise which he founded.
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