As a marketing professional I find myself frequently researching and investigating various different companies. In some cases my research is designed to gather background on a prospect or client before an on-site visit. In other cases, I am attempting to understand the structure or business trends within a vertical industry. In general, I am looking for some basic information on each company that I research such as:
- What is the company known for?
- What are the company’s subsidiaries, especially those known by a different brand name?
- Who are its competitors?
- What are some of the recent mergers and acquisitions?
- Which of the company’s products are most popular?
- Which geographic regions does the majority of the company’s revenue derive from?
Most people would think the natural place to look for the information above is the corporate web site under the section entitled “About” or “Company.” This is the first place I look. However, nine times out of ten I quickly enter and exit these “About” pages with nothing but disappointment and frustration. Companies do not want to tell you what they actually do on the “About” pages. Instead, they provide promotional content focused on what they want you to think that they do. Technology vendors and financial institutions are amongst the worst offenders. The “Company Overview” sections of these sites are rarely anything but a compilation of technobabble and goobletygook.
Press Room and Investor Relations
After abandoning the “About” page, my next step is usually to try the Press Room or Investor Relations section of the corporate web site. For publicly traded companies both usually have a wealth of information. The Press Room often contains a press kit which is intentionally “dumbed down” for reporters. As such it is one of the rare places on a corporate web site that actually explains in plain English what the company does. The Investor Relations section can be helpful as well. Regulatory agencies such as the US Securities and Exchange Commission require companies to document their business models in plain English for the everyday shareholder. I find that the “Business” section which is the introductory content in a 10-K annual filling document is often the most helpful. Within the first few pages of a 10-K the company will list its major products, subsidiaries, competitors, mergers and acquisitions in a concise and coherent fashion. The SEC allows significant discretion on the content of the “Business” section in a 10-K. Consequently, some filings are much more valuable than others.
The Press Room and Investor Relations web pages will often lead me to the information I am seeking, but the process is much more cumbersome than it could be. There must be a better way. Various research firms such as Hoover’s have capitalized on the inability of corporate marketing organizations to clearly articulate their identity by offering fee-based access to corporate profiles. Sales organizations often use subscription services such as Hoover’s to build prospect lists, but it can be useful for understanding corporate structure and history as well.
Wikipedia – The Best Source for Corporate Profiles
Wouldn’t it be nice if all the basic information about a company’s profile and history were organized into a single web page that is available for free? Fortunately, there is a resource available – Wikipedia! Every major company in the Fortune 500 and an increasing number of small and midsized enterprises are profiled on Wikipedia today. There are some significant advantages to researching companies on Wikipedia, beyond the information being free and being consolidated.
- Easy-to-find – The Wikipedia entry for most companies is consistently among the first page of search results from Google. There is no need to dig through investor filings or wade through press literature.
- Objective – The Wikipedia content is developed by multiple authors and monitored by the community for accuracy. There is no corporate positioning to mislead readers. More importantly, there are no omissions of relevant news items such as food contamination, product recalls, class-action lawsuits, security breaches, product failures, executive indictments or accounting fraud.
- Clarity – Wikipedia’s is written in a style for the everyday reader. The purpose of any entry is to accurately capture the facts about a company. There is no positioning or marketing spin put on the information.
In the coming years, I think collectively managed resources such as Wikipedia are going to become the preferred source for researching corporate profiles. In fact, I think corporate marketing departments are at risk of having the “About” section of their sites become completely irrelevant. The threat posed by such a transition would be that the dominant online profile for a company would be the Wikipedia entry authored by the general public rather than the official positioning statement on the official corporate site. As Wikipedia’s influence grows, I think we will witness corporate marketing departments changing their strategy. Content on the “About” pages will be transformed to be more straightforward descriptions of the company’s products, history and brands.