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The Biggest Risk to Your Business? Becoming a "Hidden Intermediary" (Thinks Out Loud 267)

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The Biggest Risk to Your Business? Becoming a “Hidden Intermediary” (Thinks Out Loud Episode 267) — Headlines and Show Notes

In business, there are suppliers and intermediaries. And both face serious competition over the next few years. Google, Facebook, Amazon and others continue to create competitive pressures even in industries where they're not a primary player. But the biggest risk your company faces is if these powerful competitors turn your business into a "hidden intermediary." What is a hidden intermediary? Why is becoming a hidden intermediary so dangerous for your business? And what can you do to stop it from happening to you?

The latest episode of Thinks Out Loud explains what it means to be a hidden intermediary, why it's such a threat, and how you can differentiate your brand and business to triumph against this powerful threat.

Want to learn more? Here are the show notes for you:

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    The Biggest Risk to Your Business? Becoming a "Hidden Intermediary" (Thinks Out Loud Episode 267) — Transcript

    Well, hello again everyone and welcome back to Thinks Out Loud, your source for all the digital marketing expertise your business needs. My name is Tim Peter. This is episode 267 of the big show, and thanks so much for tuning in. I really appreciate it. It means so much to me. So I think we’ve got a really cool show.

    Introduction — The Risk Google Poses to Intermediaries

    There was a post on Seeking Alpha. And Seeking Alpha talks about whether or not people should invest in stocks or not. And I want to be really clear. This is not intended as financial advice. I’m not a financial advisor. I don’t make stock picks. So please, please, please don’t make, don’t make investment decisions based on what I’m about to tell you here.

    But this blogger on Seeking Alpha basically said people should sell their shares in Expedia. And he listed a few reasons why that was so. First, he talked about the fact that that functionally they have no moat. There’s nothing that prevents others from entering Expedia’s business.

    And he gave a bunch of examples of people who have [entered Expedia’s business], among them Airbnb and you know, companies like Marriott focusing more heavily on getting people to book directly with them to make reservations directly with them. And he, he said that this is a real problem for them. And of course he said another huge problem for them is the fact that Google is increasingly getting heavily into the space of letting people find and choose and book hotel rooms, which by the way, that’s where Expedia makes most of their money.

    You might think of them as a travel agency where you book your flights or you book car rental or things like that, but about 70% of the revenue comes from actual hotel reservations. So they don’t have a big moat. They’re facing huge competition from Google, and this makes them an unattractive stock to this blogger.

    Why Digital Drive Integration and Disintegration of Value Chains

    Now, I’ve talked for many, many episodes of the show about the fact that Google is a real threat to lots of companies, and clearly Expedia is one of those, and it’s not just Google, right? Facebook can enter these types of businesses and Amazon can enter these types of businesses, and I will link in the show notes to, you know, past episodes where you can hear me talk about that. I don’t want to beat that to death.

    What I do want to do is take a step back and talk about why Expedia is in this circumstance that maybe they’re in big trouble. And maybe they’re not. Maybe this blogger is wrong. But I think he’s getting at something that is fundamentally true.

    Which is that one of the things digital does is it exposes what I like to call "hidden intermediaries." You know, we all know what intermediaries are: They’re people who facilitate an exchange between a supplier and a purchaser of some kind. But on the internet there are all sorts of hidden intermediaries, and I’m going to explain what that is in a moment.
    Expedia clearly is a traditional intermediary. They connect the sellers of travel — so hotels and car rental companies and airlines — with people who actually want to consume those products, people who need a hotel reservation, people who want to rent a car, people who want to book a flight. So they’re a clear intermediary.

    And one of the traditional things that digital has done is created this, this reality of disintermediation, a place where because digital allows for the rapid integration of value chains, it also allows for the rapid disintegration of value chains. You know, we often talk about, we as business people often talk about, you know, integration being this really cool thing, but we don’t always talk about the disintegration part where things can be taken apart really easily.

    What is a Hidden Intermediary?

    You know, Google has entered travel in a fairly meaningful way, in a reasonably short timeframe. You know, they’ve gone from someone who directs traffic to people like Expedia or or TripAdvisor as a for instance, to being a place where you can find a hotel or you can find a flight, or you can read a review right there without ever leaving the search results.

    And obviously that’s a big challenge for companies like Expedia. But, but there’s this idea of the hidden intermediary. And to me a hidden intermediary is somebody who offers something that either is so generic or lacks differentiation so much that they can be disrupted in pretty substantial ways.

    Examples of Hidden Intermediaries

    So to give you an example, if you think about real estate agents, I used to think that real estate agents were intermediaries. You know, they got between the seller of the home and somebody who wanted to buy the home. But they provide a very real value in that most people don’t know how to sell a home and most people don’t know how to buy a home. And yes, you can have for sale by owners. Those all exist. I get it. But that’s not how most real estate is transacted.

    And there’s all kinds of reasons why real estate agents continue to have some market dominance. You know, they control the access to the multiple listing systems. There may be legal, you know, hurdles, legal barriers in some states or some jurisdictions that make it harder for people to sell homes directly or require more specialized knowledge. But at least the real estate agent fulfills a useful function. They know how to market a property. They know how to reach buyers so they can bring some real value to it in addition to controlling access to the MLS or controlling access, you know, to some of the legal stuff.

    But the hidden intermediaries have been the real estate brands. You know, if you think about the brands, if you think about the agency you go with, most people don’t care about that as much as they used to do.

    They don’t care that you’re a Re/Max real estate agent. They care that you got good reviews on Yelp or you got, you know, good recommendations from friends of yours who’ve used them. And that’s why you’re seeing companies like Redfin or Zillow enter the market and be very effective very quickly.

    They’ve exposed these hidden intermediaries, the brands between the agent and either the buyer or the seller. Now maybe someday technology will knock out the agent too. We’re seeing examples of that, you know, companies that are buying real estate and just marketing it directly, buying it directly from the seller and selling it directly to the buyer with no agent in the middle.

    Why Being a Hidden Intermediary is Dangerous to Your Business

    So that’s certainly a possibility of another disintermediation that will occur. But the hidden intermediary was the brand. And we’re seeing many of those brands really struggle to attract new agents because of this. So for many companies, you need to think about whether you’re a supplier, whether you’re an intermediary, or whether you’re a hidden intermediary. And being a hidden intermediary being one of the most dangerous ones.

    Suppliers vs. Intermediaries

    If you’re an intermediary, you already know you have problems, right? I don’t think I’m telling you something you don’t know, that Google can come along or Facebook can come along or you know somebody else, Amazon can come along and knock you out of the picture. If you’re a supplier though, you need to ask whether or not you offer something truly exclusive, something that your customers can get nowhere else.

    What Hidden Intermediaries Look Like

    You know, if you’re a hotel, if you’re a restaurant, if you manufacture a product, you’re probably a true supplier. There are other examples, but I mean, you know, just using those as for instances. But if you’re a hotel or you’re a restaurant or you’re a manufacturer and customers have a lot of other options, if you’re fairly generic, you may be more of a hidden intermediary than you think you are. Because your customers may be able to get what you offer from someone else.

    How to Respond

    So what do you do about this? Well, if you’re a supplier first, it’s good to be a supplier. You need intermediaries and intermediaries need you. And if you think about marketplaces like Etsy or eBay or Zillow, they seem to have some value add because they work for the person who’s creating that listing. They offer them ways to make that product and service available to more people more easily. But that could change over time.

    Who’s Disrupting Hidden Intermediaries?

    Facebook’s Marketplace offering shows one way that eBay or Etsy could be in trouble in the longer term. Alibaba’s Taobao platform could also represent another long-term threat. But the reality is any supplier could be disintermediated because they’re just too generic.

    Why You Must Differentiate

    So the first thing you want to do is you want to differentiate. You want to think about "what separates me from my competition?" and actually I’m going to use a buddy of mine’s terms. My friend Mike Moran always likes to talk about the fact that differentiation isn’t just what makes you different; it’s a difference that’s so valuable to your customers that they’re willing to pay extra for it. You know, to put it bluntly, your customers would have to be stupid not to buy from you. So you want to think about how do you look at what separates you in such a way that people would absolutely pay a premium for it.

    Why You Must Diversify

    You also want to diversify your offering. You know, the channels where people can find your product or service. If you’re a supplier, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t assume that because you get good amounts of business from — pick the intermediary of your preference — that that’s the only way customers can find you. You know, if you’re getting a lot of business from Google, look and see, can you get more business from Facebook? Can you get more business from Yelp? Can you get more business from TripAdvisor? Can you get more business from, I don’t know, Think about all of the different ways customers can find you and, to use an old, you know, platitude "don’t put all your eggs in one basket," but instead use multiple baskets to spread the risk.

    Think about the value-adds that you can offer that make your product or service more valuable to your customer. What makes it special?

    Hidden Intermediary Case Study: Independent Book Stores

    And I think there’s a fascinating real-world case study that we have seen in recent years with bookstores. Now, bookstores aren’t suppliers. They’re an intermediary, right? They were for a long, long time a place to simply buy books. And when Amazon came around, they were the original example of companies that got disintermediated. See Borders bookstores, for example.

    What bookstores have done a tremendous job of, especially independent bookstores, is making themselves a destination unto themselves. They’re not a place to buy books. I mean, you can get books there. But they offer curation and communities and cafes and all sorts of other things too. They’ve become a service offering, not just a seller of merchandise. And that service, that experience is something beyond just what you’re going to get anywhere else. And that’s something that an Amazon or a Google or a Facebook cannot easily replicate.

    How "Customer Experience is Queen" Can Help You Avoid Becoming a Hidden Intermediary

    This is what I mean when I’ve talked in past shows about how "customer experience is queen," because it can be a thing that sets you apart and is very hard to duplicate. You need to think about how can you become a destination unto yourself?

    If you think about the companies that compete well with Google or compete well with Facebook or compete well with Amazon, they’re places where people go because I know that that’s what they do when they do it really well.

    So they’ve differentiated in a very specific way. Think about, think about if you’re doing a job search or LinkedIn if you want to connect with your professional network. They’re really just intermediaries, but they’re so specialized that it makes it simple for people to choose them.

    Becoming a Hidden Intermediary Conclusion

    So is Expedia in big trouble? Eh, maybe… I don’t really know. I’m not going to make a prediction about that one way or the other. I’m going to say that, if they cannot differentiate — if they just become another place where you can book a hotel room or find a rental car or book a flight — without adding something beyond that, then, yeah, they’re probably in real big trouble.

    The thing you want to avoid is being like them. What you want to do regardless of whether you’re a supplier or an intermediary or especially a hidden intermediary, is you need to differentiate. You need to become a destination. And you need to diversify the channels through which customers can find you. Because that’s how you’re going to compete in the long run. Today, you may feel like you’re a supplier, but I guarantee you there’s somebody out there who’s trying to turn you into an intermediary and more important the person they’re trying to hide that from is you.

    Becoming a Hidden Intermediary Show Details and Credits

    Now looking at the clock on the wall, we are out of time for this week, but I want to remind you that you can find the show notes for today’s episode as well as an archive of all our past episodes by going to Again, that’s just look for episode 267. While you’re there, you can click on the subscribe link in any of the episodes you find there to have Thinks Out Loud delivered to your favorite podcatcher every single week.

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    Thinks Out Loud Sponsor Message

    I’d also like to thank our sponsor. Thinks Out Loud is brought to you by SoloSegment. SoloSegment focuses on AI-driven content discovery and site search analytics to unlock revenue for your business. You can learn more about how to improve your content, increase your customer satisfaction, and make your search smarter by going to

    Outro and Wrap-up

    With that. I want to say thanks to you so much for tuning in. I really appreciate it. I hope you have a great rest of the week, a wonderful weekend ahead, and I’ll look forward to speaking with you here on Thinks Out Loud next time.

    Until then, please be well be safe and as ever take care everybody.

Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

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