Reference Press Moves Data On-Line, Challenging Bigger Financial Publishers

Article excerpt

A PUBLISHER of corporate information has set up shop on the Internet's World Wide Web, where it gives away some of what it sells elsewhere.

Like the Frango Mint handouts at Marshall Field's department stores, the information giveaway by The Reference Press Inc. aims to draw traffic. The Austin-based publisher, which is part-owned by Time Warner Inc., hopes visitors to its Web site will see sponsors' advertisements and subscribe to additional services.

Such creative but risky strategies have allowed commerce to colonize the Web, transforming it from a sleepy gathering place for academics to a bustling virtual mall with 23,000 businesses. And that number grows by 30 percent a month, says Jeanne Dietsch, vice president of ActivMedia Inc., an on-line marketing consulting firm in Peterborough, N.H.

Fueling the explosion are surveys of Internet browsers. The latest by the Georgia Institute of Technology found that potential cybershoppers outnumber committed freebie-seekers by 4 to 1 on the Web.

Reference Press wanted to reach that market. In July, it unveiled a Web site that allows users of the free information to buy on-the-spot access to proprietary products. Ms. Dietsch regards that as "fairly cutting edge" and "something the front-runners are doing."

That's not surprising. Reference Press was started by Gary Hoover, the entrepreneur who founded Bookstop, which in just eight years grew to be the nation's No. 4 book chain. He sold it to Barnes & Noble in 1989.

While managing Bookstop, Hoover saw a need for reference books about companies. Targeted at readers like job hunters, investors, and salesmen, the books had to be lively and affordable. Those criteria ruled out the well-known volumes published by Moody's Investor Service and Standard & Poor's for libraries and corporate users.

"It's a monster," admits S&P's spokesman John Diat of his company's Register of Corporations, a listing of 55,000 businesses that fetches $625. Moody's Industrial Manual alone costs $1,150.

Business profiles on-line

After starting Reference Press in 1991, Hoover created a self-named series of snappy business directories and profiles priced well under $100. In 1993, these guides debuted in commercial cyberspace beginning with America Online. "They're very popular," says AOL spokeswoman Kathy Johnson.

But availability on every commercial on-line service didn't satisfy Patrick Spain, the college buddy Hoover brought on board as CEO in 1992. Mr. Spain wanted to reach the millions of Web surfers who bypass the commercial services. "We believe that both {marketplaces} are not only viable, but vibrant," Spain says. …