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4/1/2011
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ZoomInfo Plug-In Siphons Contacts From Outlook

Community Edition pulls information from the address book and from the signature lines and headers of emails to keep business contacts current.

ZoomInfo Community Edition makes trading contact information and sales leads on the Internet much more efficient. Maybe too efficient?

Partly in response to the success of JigSaw, the community-built database of business contacts and sales leads that was acquired last year by Salesforce.com, ZoomInfo has added a community component to its own business information service. The big difference is that ZoomInfo has automated the process of feeding contacts to the service, using an Outlook plug-in that Community Edition members install that pulls contact information from the Outlook address book and from the signature lines and headers of the email you exchange with your contacts.

Zoom Information, is a spinoff of CardScan, the business card scanner company that offers an online directory of companies and contacts based largely on crawling business websites and indexing press releases and news clippings. Some people also create their own profiles on ZoomInfo or "claim" an auto-generated one so they can correct or update it. They can also opt out if they don't want to be listed.

Part of what ZoomInfo is trying to combat through automation is the rate at which all business contact information goes stale.

Vice president of marketing Kathy Greenler Sexton said studies have shown that 70% of the information you might collect in a stack of business cards is obsolete within a year because people changed titles, locations, phone numbers, employers, or their employers change names, go out of business, or are acquired. "In a year, 70 percent of the information will have changed in some way," she said in an interview.

The turnover rate is particularly swift among small to midsize businesses, and it's likely to accelerate across the board as the economy picks up steam, she said.

One way the ZoomInfo Outlook plug-in can help correct for that is by watching for active and inactive email addresses, Sexton said. "If you're getting emails from me from a zoominfo.com address, that's a beacon to [the system] that I'm still employed at ZoomInfo. The day that I stop is probably the day I'm not working for ZoomInfo anymore."

There was no great outcry from privacy advocates when ZoomInfo announced the availability of the product last month, but when the trial program for what was originally called the FreshContacts program was announced at the end of 2009, Peter Clayton recognized it as potentially controversial. Clayton hosts the Internet radio show TotalPicture Radio and as part of his preparation for an interview with ZoomInfo president Sam Zales, he polled a circle of contacts on LinkedIn to see what they thought of the plug-in idea.

"Most of them didn't think much of it," Clayton recalled in an interview. He thinks there might be a bigger uproar if more people understood what ZoomInfo is doing.

"You can look at a service like JigSaw, which is doing a lot of the same stuff ZoomInfo is trying to do here, but in that case it's tit for tat," Clayton said. With JigSaw, users post contacts more manually and selectively, and they get access to contacts they want to retrieve in proportion to what they have contributed. Though ZoomInfo offers the same basic give information to get information tradeoff, but by automating it they take away any sense of control. "They're dropping a bomb on your computer and saying, we're going to crawl your entire Outlook database and upload this to our servers -- thank you very much."

ZoomInfo's contention is that business information is not private and should not be treated the same as personal information. The information the company gathers through its web crawling and through the community of plug-in users is focused on name, title, business email, and business phone number, not anything about your family or personal relationships.

Zales said his policy is "stay on the front edge of being as up front as we can possibly be" about how the information is gathered and used, while providing a clear opt-out mechanism. As evidence of the degree to which the Community Edition value proposition is accepted, he points to the 27,000 people who have installed the plug-in, generating 1 million new contacts for his database.

The data gathering also has some limits. If you include a legalistic disclaimer in the footer of your emails about the privacy of your communications, as many lawyers do, then the plug-in will leave your contact data alone. Also, if a contact is marked private in your Outlook Address book, the plug-in will treat it as off limits (otherwise, the software will pull information including phone numbers you may have added manually, even for those contacts who don't have a phone number in their email signature).

Sharon Kay, director of business development at Technical Language Service, says the results she has experienced from using ZoomInfo Community Edition have been all positive. When she started at the translation service 8 months ago, she said, "it was important for me to have resources at my fingertips that were really powerful."

Finding sales leads in her industry is very tough, and ZoomInfo has made a huge difference, she said. Kay actually uses both ZoomInfo and JigSaw, which the company accesses as part of its Salesforce.com subscription, and if she can't find a contact in one, it's usually in the other. And what ZoomInfo was asking her to give in return for the free service never struck her as any big deal.

"If all they're doing is accessing is my contacts in Outlook? Big deal! You know aren't they out there already? There's so much out there on the Internet, it's almost silly," Kay said. Her firm's information technology department reviewed the tool to confirm that it wasn't gathering any more information than the company said, according to Kay.

Yet other people who also make their living from leads and connections say it's a tradeoff they would never make.

Debby Afraimi, a New York-based recruiting consultant, said the last time she tried ZoomInfo about two years ago about 90% of the information seemed to be out of date. "So I understand why they urgently need to figure out a better way to generate relevant data, but I find what they're doing creepy and invasive. I can't imagine anyone with any savvy doing this, giving away their contact list this way. It's putting spyware on your machine, that's what this is," she said.

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