Buyer's Guides for the Marketing of Photonics and Laser Technology Products
As we are operating the RP Photonics Buyer's Guide, I am not neutral when writing on that topic. However, I do my best – as always – to present interesting and useful thoughts on the topic, and it is up to the readers to critically read that and form their own opinions. By the way, I would be glad to receive any comments, including criticism, especially if it helps to further improve articles like this one.
You may also be interested in my more general article on photonics marketing.
What Function Can a Buyer's Guide Fulfill?
Obviously, the essential purpose of a buyer's guide (in short: BG) is to quickly and reliably find out which suppliers should be considered when you plan to purchase certain items.
It would be quite silly to assume that the general Internet search engines like Google would fulfill that purpose just as well:
- If you search for a certain product (e.g. femtosecond lasers), the search results will contain many pages which are not at all related to devices which you can buy. For example, you find scientific articles, articles in trade journals, forum discussions etc., and you have to filter out all that stuff yourself.
- Even more importantly, you would be unlikely to find all relevant suppliers that way. You would run the risk of missing some which you don't want to miss.
- A good BG makes it easier for you to get some ideas which of the possibly many supplier websites are worth investigating more closely. For example, you may find product descriptions which tell you whether their offerings could be suitable or not.
For those reasons, BGs are certainly as valuable today as they were in the past – at least if they are of good quality.
It still happens quite often (thousands of times per month!) that someone starts out with Google or some other Internet search engine, then stumbles on a BG listing in the search results (most likely the RP Photonics Buyer's Guide, since that website has the best search engine ranking) and continues the search for suppliers there.
Print or Online?
In the old times, they were presented in the form of thick books; you can still obtain printed BGs, but obviously, in our times one mostly uses online BGs – for several reasons:
- You quickly get any one of those without first ordering (and usually paying) a print publication and waiting until it arrives.
- The information is (or at least should be) always up to date.
- The online resource is always available where your computer is – i.e., often just in front of you, rather in some bookshelf to remember. You can use an online tool even when being abroad.
- You can easily find the suppliers for certain products, e.g. by selecting those from a list or with a search tool.
- Usually, you can just follow links to get to the websites of suppliers. With a printed BG, you would have to type in the website addresses.
I think these are strong reasons to believe that it doesn't matter much whether you get an additional entry in a printed version of a buyer's guide.
The Economical Model of Buyer's Guides
As a user or advertiser, you should be aware of the economical model behind the BGs. The principles are easy to understand:
- A buyer's guide can be successful only if it can present a large set of suppliers – otherwise it would be useless.
- As a consequence of this, the operators need to take on board any supplier, even if they are not paying for that.
- On the other hand, one cannot charge the users, since otherwise they would simply go somewhere else.
- So the only way to generate revenues is to offer improved listings to those suppliers who are willing to pay for that.
- Well, one can also try to collect data which one can monetize – that is the economic model of most social media. That approach, however, is increasingly limited by data privacy regulations (see below). I am not sure to which extent online buyer's guides ignore such regulations, except of course that we don't do it.
Of course, advertisers demand clear advantages. On the other hand, one cannot go so far that the value for the users is undermined. For example, if one would not offer links to the websites of non-paying suppliers, that would hurt the users, and they would probably go away.
It can be problematic if the visibility of free entries is made so poor that the users find it difficult to get an unbiased choice of suppliers. Some operators take greater risks in that direction than others.
Are Enhanced Entries Worth the Money?
As explained above, you obtain substantially improved visibility in any buyer's guide if you are prepared to pay for it. Depending on the used resource and the level of improvement, also on the number of products to be displayed, the cost per year will typically be somewhere between 2000 USD and 10,000 USD. Given that you can also have free entries, that may sound like a lot of money. On the other hand, you get a much improved visibility for a whole year, while you could also easily spend 10,000 USD for a single full-page print ad in a trade journal (not including the cost for artwork), and 100,000 USD for a print campaign instead of a one-shot attempt. In comparison to any substantial print ad campaign or having a large booth at a major trade show, the cost for some enhanced BG entries are peanuts.
Nevertheless, you should critically ask whether it is worth the money and time. The answer to that crucial question depends very much on what buyer's guide you are looking at. A positive answer can only result if the following three conditions are fulfilled:
- First of all, the resource needs to be sufficiently popular.
- Second, the obtained benefits of your enhanced listing need to be substantial. It is only the usual yellow-pages effect (bold letters, logo display, appearing at the top of the list), I would be skeptical.
- Third, you are charged a fair price for the obtained value.
This article should give you plenty of useful thoughts for checking that yourself.
Concerning the second point – how much better is it really with paid entries? – I can show you some statistics from our site:
You can see that a company can acquire several thousand visits from photonics professionals within a year, which implies a very moderate cost per lead, even when interpreting the whole cost of the ad package as cost for lead generation, thus entirely ignoring the valuable branding effect.
Can You Trust Buyer's Guides?
As a user (potential buyer), I think you can trust all the major BGs – at least in the sense that you can find nearly all relevant suppliers there. They have large databases and generally no reason to exclude any suppliers – only that they have to limit the number of displayed products of non-paying suppliers to maintain an incentive for paying.
As an advertiser, you should be very vigilant. In particular, the value of the obtained advertising – and thus the cost which can be justified – depends substantially on the ability of a resource to generate leads, and to some extent to support your branding. And that, of course, depends on their popularity, which, however, is not so easy to assess. I would like to make you aware of some critical issues:
- The operators try to prove a great popularity by publishing impressive web traffic data. First of all, however, there is usually no way of checking whether those data are correct; they might be totally inflated. Only, you can (and should!) at least check the plausibility with some tests for the search engine ranking – basically just do some number of web searches (e.g. “buy femtosecond laser”). You will presumably confirm that the domains on which the major BG are operated have some modest ranking, while the ranking of the BGs themselves is in most cases very poor (except for our one!). It is then hardly possible that they have much traffic, unless they are intensely linked from more popular parts of the same website, which they usually are not (again except for our one).
- Second, a closer look often reveals that the given data does not tell you much. For example, it is often not revealed to what exactly the traffic numbers apply – possibly to a whole website, largely containing things which have no significant relation to the BG. In most cases (not in our case!), it is not revealed how much traffic the BG itself has, and how much overall traffic it directs to suppliers. But that is precisely what would be relevant for you!
- Third, you can fortunately check important things yourself:
Check Your Server Statistics!
At least after having started with paid entries, you should check yourself what is most relevant for you: the incoming traffic on your web server. You should at least study statistics on how many visits you obtain from different web domains. If possible, compare that with what they claim and draw your own conclusions. If you cannot check such things yourself, ask your IT department to do it for you.
To give you a flavor, I show you some statistics of an example case in the table below. It shows that one of our advertising customers started getting substantial traffic when beginning with paid entries in the RP Photonics Buyer's Guide. Receiving over 100 high-quality website visits per month creates a great value – easily justifying the cost. The same customer gets much less traffic from other resources – even from those where he pays much more.
Criteria for the Usefulness for Finding Suppliers
In the long run, a buyer's guide can be successful only if it works well for the users, who need to find suitable suppliers for certain products. Therefore, advertisers also need to consider that. In the following, I give you some criteria to assess that usefulness:
- First of all, the resource should contain all relevant suppliers. This criterion is fulfilled for all the major BGs (only not for some smaller competitors). On the other hand, if you search for a certain product, you do not want to obtain a lot of search results related to companies which do not actually sell such products. For example, if you search for femtosecond lasers, and the first search result is a company only making mirrors for such lasers, you are not well served. Obviously, it is annoying if you are sent to various supplier websites only to find out that they do not offer such things! Therefore, the best resources in that respect are not those delivering the largest number of results, but those who deliver only what is relevant! For example, the product listings should be checked by a competent person; note that some suppliers try to register anything which is only remotely related to their offerings!
- Ideally, the search results do not only contain companies and their contact data, but also product descriptions which help you to determine whether it is worthwhile to check their website. Obviously, if you get 30 or more companies listed, it will be very tedious to visit all their websites to find out what is suitable for you. The problem is just that generally there are not many product descriptions due to the work involved, also for the supplier.
- Users have to accept that non-paying suppliers will not appear as prominently as the others. However, they are not well served when the non-paying ones are put down too much; after all, they may then miss some useful results. Also, users don't want to be confronted with numerous ads before getting what they actually searched for.
- The convenience of handling is another important aspect. If you need many clicks to find your results, and each time you will wait until the sluggish web server cranks out the next page, you will probably not stay for long. A clear page layout, e.g. not cluttered with excessive numbers of advertising banners is also highly desired.
- There can be additional helpful features, e.g. checklists and technical and scientific information supporting the reasoning before making purchase decisions.
Besides, people are more likely to use a resource if it is close to another resource which they regularly use anyway. The classical example is our photonics encyclopedia; numerous experts use that regularly, and it is just natural that they consult supplier listings which are just one click away from there.
Search Engine Optimization?
Some publishers try to make you believe that by having paid entries in their resource you will also do something for the search engine ranking of your website. I think that such claims lack any credibility. First of all: How on earth can a resource which itself has a very poor search engine ranking help others in any way? That killer alone applies to nearly all BGs.
In principle, it can have some SEO value to have links to your website on another website covering the same topical area. However, the search engines are nowadays rather good at limiting that effect to those cases where links can really be regarded as evidence for high usefulness and popularity of the linked websites. The times when you could simply purchase some links to improve your website ranking are long over.
My clear conclusion: Forget about any “SEO value” of buyer's guide listings, even if they explicitly sell you “SEO keywords”. It is not credible in any way that anything of that could work. Of course, BGs can produce other kinds of value.
More and more people get aware of the important issue of data privacy. For example, most of us hate it to receive related ads after visiting certain websites – even on different channels. Such phenomena reveal that data is collected at huge scales (often without your knowledge, let alone your consent) and monetized in dubious ways.
It is difficult to assess in detail how much of that happens on particular websites. However, you can look out for certain things:
- Most big websites (but not ours) realize some kinds of user tracking, which go beyond storing preferences with so-called cookies – they try in some ways to identify users and to draw advantages from that in ways which are difficult or impossible to reveal. There are certain tools (e.g. browser plug-ins like Ghostery) for checking that conveniently.
- The use of browser cookies is perfectly legitimate, as long as it is only for storing things like your preferences, but often they primarily serve the purpose of tracking you.
- Instead of direct links to supplier websites, they often use click-through links to their own pages, where they then redirect visitors to the final target pages. This is totally legitimate as far as they only register how many referrals are occurring on certain pages to certain supplier pages. However, the question is whether they collect more information involving the identity of the users. Do you want them to know which suppliers you are interested in? For what purpose?
- In some cases, they provide forms where users are encouraged to create inquiries, which are then sent to the suppliers. Obviously, the BG operator will then also get those data – but will they store them, and how will they use them?
- Every website should have some privacy statement, but those statements are often so vague that they do not tell you much.
Recently, the European privacy regulations (GDPR) have become substantially stricter. I expect that particularly some large US companies, who cannot afford to lock out European users, could encounter substantial difficulties – forcing them to give up a lot of their practices or to face substantial legal trouble. Note that many of the usual practices clearly cannot be reconciled with current regulations. It is not sufficient just to have some lawyers working out proper privacy statements; the data practices themselves need to be profoundly changed, and this will be a huge challenge for some.
By the way, our buyer's guide (and of course the whole website) is made with uttermost respect for privacy. For example, we never try to identify any users of our website (unless e.g. they enter information for obtaining quotations), or to acquire information which is thought to be for the suppliers. We only collect statistical information as required to prove the value for advertisers.
The Major Photonics Buyer's Guides
The major operators of BGs in the area of photonics and laser technology are (in alphabetical order):
- Laser Focus World (from Pennwell)
- optics.org (from SPIE)
- Photonics Media (from Laurin Publishing)
- RP Photonics (that's us)
The first three ones have been established decades ago, while RP Photonics has started its BG only in 2012. That start, however, was immensely boosted by the already extremely popular RP Photonics Encyclopedia. Many of the 1029 encyclopedia articles are directly related to certain products, and they contain direct and well visible links to the corresponding BG pages.
As an example, I show you how that works for an expensive type of laser product in a highly competitive market:
- We have an encyclopedia article on femtosecond lasers which received 877 page views in July 2019 (holiday time!). You cannot verify that number, but you can make a Google search for femtosecond lasers, finding the excellent ranking of our article, which makes the high traffic plausible. (Also check whether you find any other BGs with such searches!)
- Our corresponding page with suppliers for femtosecond lasers got 207 page views in the same month, and it caused 84 referrals to supplier web pages. 49 of those referrals went to companies having paid entries, although these are only 7 out of 92 suppliers for ultrafast lasers.
Now you will wonder what results the other BGs might achieve there. Think about what chances they have to reach the same level – without having an encyclopedia article on that topic and without having a significant search engine ranking. Of course, you can also apply all the criteria for usefulness mentioned above; usefulness influences popularity. Presumably, you will reach at similar conclusions as we do (and already did before establishing another BG). And the same reasoning will apply to many hundreds of other photonics and laser products, where only RP Photonics has an encyclopedia article.
How Relevant Are Loads of Journal Articles?
A possible objection is that the big publishers do have thousands of articles on their websites – typically, articles which appeared within the last 10 years or so in their trade journals. They indeed have substantially more content in terms of the number of articles or the amount of text. However:
- Do you think that people would go to such a website, just hoping that they will find interesting information through a chronological list of articles? I think they would much prefer to use an encyclopedia, where things are treated systematically so that it is likely that they can find the needed information.
- Such articles get some readers, primarily because they are sent there by search engines. But now ask yourself how relevant that is for a buyer's guide on the same domain, which has little or no relation to those articles?
You see that the situation is entirely different for a website like ours with a big, famous encyclopedia:
- An encyclopedia is a well-organized set of articles, systematically covering a large topical area. You can enter such a resource with a reasonable probability of getting your questions answered.
- An encyclopedia like ours has a consistent style and quality level (guaranteed by a single well-known author).
- If every product-related encyclopedia article reveals that the list of corresponding suppliers is just one click away, and some advertisers are visible even on the encyclopedia page, it will of course direct a lot of traffic to the buyer's guide.
How Much Work Is It to Get Started?
It is usually no big deal to enter the basic data of your company – things like the company name, all the contact information and a short company description. It may be some more work to register all your products, possibly after studying what categorization scheme a particular resource applies. Of course, you should carefully word any product descriptions. Keep in mind that it is essential to publish product descriptions and images because users will be more likely to come over from the company database to your own website if a product description shows them that you indeed offer interesting things. Noted that it is tedious for users to search through many websites.
Fortunately, you can often just copy product descriptions and images from your own website – you should definitely already have them there, and maybe only requires small adaptations (e.g. some shortened versions of the texts).
Furthermore, you need to analyze what kind of enhanced displays you get and what is their cost. That can unfortunately be somewhat tedious, particularly when the publishers don't offer clear explanations, e.g. what exactly the terms used in their advertising packages mean.
At least, you don't have to do all that work for many such resources, if you have previously determined which of them have a significant value for the users and the advertisers.
By the way, good service can help a lot. For example, we offer to collect your product descriptions and images from your website, if you want to save time that way.