ZoomInfo Charts New World of Ads Based on “Business Demographics”

12/6/07Follow @wroush

In the world of Web advertising, targeted audiences are gold. If you publish a website that attracts the type of people who drink green tea, then click-through rates for green-tea ads are probably going to be higher than average, and companies like Snapple and AriZona Beverages will happily pay you a higher rate. Likewise, if you know that a lot of CIOs or office managers read your site, you can probably use that information to attract ads from the likes of Dell or Staples.

But how can you really know who’s visiting, in a way that you can prove to advertisers? A Waltham, MA, company called ZoomInfo says it has come up with a way. The company’s core asset is a collection of 40 million profiles of people in the business world, culled automatically from information scattered around the Web. (In fact, you might be surprised how much information ZoomInfo has on you—but more on that later.) When those people arrive at sites that use ZoomInfo’s advertising service, the company’s software can identify them, link up their names with their ZoomInfo profiles, and serve ads customized for people in their specific job categories.

“Say you’re a B2B advertiser, and you want to reach out to directors of IT,” explains Bryan Burdick, ZoomInfo’s chief operating officer. “We have 100,000 people with the title ‘Director of Information Technology’ in our database, and we’ve been able to, in essence, tag them. So if you are one of those directors of IT and you happen to be visiting any of the sites in our network, we can target an ad based on your business demographics”—or what Burdick calls your “bizographics,” for short.

In a way, ZoomInfo’s service is similar to the consumer-oriented “behavorial targeting” services offered by Tacoda and Revenue Science. But there are two big differences. ZoomInfo’s service is aimed at people in business roles. And thanks to its profile database, ZoomInfo can target Web surfers based on a highly informed guess about their job title and responsibilities—not just based on which websites they’ve visited recently or what subjects they search for, the way Tacoda and Revenue Science do.

So far, ZoomInfo’s ad-targeting service is a small beta program, but Burdick says he expects the program to expand quickly in 2008. It’s the third and most experimental revenue stream for the company, which was founded eight years ago by CEO Jonathan Stern as an outgrowth of his previous venture, CardScan.

I’ve used CardScan’s system extensively, and I’m thankful for the way it takes over the mind-numbing work of transferring information from all the business cards I collect into my electronic address book. The way Burdick tells it, Stern realized in the late 1990s that the same kind of information people print on their business cards was also turning up on the Web—just not organized in the same way (and remember, that was in the days before everyone had a profile on LinkedIn or other social-networking sites). “He figured, ‘I bet this kind of content exists on the Web—so let’s build a business information search engine,’” says Burdick.

“So, like every other search engine, we have spiders and crawlers that go out and find and index interesting information,” Burdick continues. “But we’re different in that we focus exclusively on business information—and we’ve developed a semantic search technology that allows us to extract and identify the key pieces of content from Web pages and match them up with other pieces of content we’ve found about the same entities elsewhere on the Web. That is what has allowed us to develop these profiles of 40 million people and 3.6 million companies.”

If you’re a C-level executive and you are at all active on the Web—for example, if your business has a website or if you speak at conferences—then chances are ZoomInfo has a profile on you. Don’t worry, it’s not like an FBI dossier—it’s just a collection of stuff ZoomInfo has found elsewhere.

Sometimes, says Burdick, people are startled to find out how much information ZoomInfo has collected, from resumes to biographical sketches to addresses and phone numbers. But their discomfort often turns into curiosity. “Maybe four or five times a month,” Burdick recounts, “we get a person who calls us up and says, ‘What the hell are you doing—how dare you publish this information about me! I want my profile taken down!’ And the way those conversations typically go is, we start by saying, ‘We will absolutely take your profile down. But before we do that, let us tell you how we created it.’ And we’ll show them the specific Web references we found, and explain that just because we take our profile down doesn’t mean the references will go away. And 99 times out of 100, the next thing they will say is, ‘Could you just leave it up a little longer?’—because they want to find out where that information was published.”

Up to now, ZoomInfo’s main business—and the company will be profitable this year, clearing $15 million in revenues, Burdick says—has come from the recruiting and “sales intelligence” markets. While ZoomInfo’s basic search service is free, it offers a $99-per-month version to hiring managers and headhunters that includes additional tools such as the ability to search on multiple parameters at once. For salespeople, ZoomInfo offers “PowerSell,” which allows people searching for sales leads to sift through both its personal and corporate profiles and integrate the information into customer-relationship management programs such as SalesForce.

At the heart of both of these services, as well as the new “bizographic” ad targeting service, are the semantic tagging and matching algorithms that turn the data found by ZoomInfo’s Web crawlers into something useful. “Extracting information off the Web is easy,” Burdick says. “Making sense of it and recombining it is the really tough part. That’s our secret sauce, our rocket science.”

While Burdick admits that ZoomInfo “hasn’t yet hit the hockey-stick part of the growth curve” in terms of revenues, he says the company will bank a few million this year, and that it just passed the 100-employee mark, with a hiring spree still underway. “We’re growing like crazy,” says Burdick. “All three of our businesses—the recruiting, the sales intelligence, and the bizographics—are gaining lots of traction, and we’re building out business units, which means of course that we need marketing and sales folks and developers.”

As we discussed yesterday, a lot of tech companies in the area are competing for qualified employees. But at least ZoomInfo knows where to look for them.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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