First off, a definition: a vertical Web design company works exclusively in one industry, be it travel, hospitals, or cookie cutting. A horizontal Web design company works with a wide range of companies in different industries or sectors.
Recently, a few prospects had been weighing our services against the services of a vertical vendor and asked me to explain why they shouldn’t go with a Web design and Internet marketing company that focuses specifically–in these cases–plastic surgeons or law firms.
It’s a great question. I think there are times when it makes sense to go with a vendor who specializes in your industry. An accountant whose clients are all service providers, or a business coach who works exclusively with small business owner would be the type of vertical vendors who I’d be interested in doing business with.
Similarly, if you’re an innkeeper, you might want to work with a laundry service that has a lot of inns as customers, and if you’re a restaurant owner, you might want to choose a vendor with a proven track record of increasing online takeout orders.
I think these examples help you with behind-the-scenes issues. No one’s going to compare you to your competition and make a buying decision on what laundry service you use. (They may not return if they find blood stains on the underside of their pillow, but that’s a different story.)
However, when it comes to design or marketing you need to differentiate yourself.
If you want a new logo for your business, going to someone who has designed logos for most of your competition is just plain boneheaded unless you’re a third-world counterfeiter. Not only that, your logo designer will probably feel that you want something similar, since that’s why you called her in the first place.
People looking for services, be they plastic surgery or law firms, will often visit several sites before making a decision. If your site looks like everyone else’s, it won’t stand out. However, if yours has a different approach, different colors, a visibly different style, you will be remembered.
For Internet marketing, the case is even more clear cut. If a vertical Internet marketer has already created a search engine optimization plan for your competition, how will you rank higher they they do, given the same advice and information? When everyone in your industry zigs, you need to zag.
However, a vertical marketer can’t zag. Their competitive advantage is that they know your industry. That they have institutional knowledge. That they know or have even created the conventional wisdom. However, that’s a competitive advantage for them, but not for you.
If they’ve created Web sites and Internet marketing campaigns for a large enough percentage of your industry, that part of the market is over-saturated. You need to discover your own niche within your industry and compete against the homogenized majority. That’s the benefit of working with a horizontal vendor.
They won’t know your industry as well as you do, or even as much as the vertical vendor. However, they bring proven ideas from other industries that will be new ideas in your industry. They are the cross-pollinators.
Am I biased? Well, duh! The reason we don’t go after one market is that I find it to be intellectually unstimulating. Just thinking about focusing on one industry or business type makes my synapses fire slower. I love taking an idea I discovered while working on a jewelry Web site and reworking it for a biotech provider…and vice versa.
If you’re an entrepreneur, if you’re a risk-taker, if you want long term sustainability for your business, the last thing you want to do is position yourself as a me-too company.