Online document distribution systems have changed the way we view our brochures, white papers, transcripts, research studies, training materials, press releases and presentations. These services started with similar purposes, but have evolved in time to quite different offerings. Where do they diverge?

Almost 6 years ago, the founders of Slideshare and Scribd (pronounced skribbed) launched their online document distribution services. Both services provide an “upload once, deliver anywhere” approach allowing a company or person to expose original written content through search, social sharing and through the embedding of uploaded documents into web pages.

Even last year’s documents may have continued relevance. There’s no need to create paper in the first place only to throw it away later. The same goes for presentations. Lots of time goes into creating them, little time in showing them, lots of disk space preserving them.

In the end though, it is all about the content and this is where the players in this space diverge. While Slideshare has remained focused on allowing businesses to share presentations (Powerpoints), Scribd has morphed into something quite a bit different from its initial charter. Their original focus was in aiding students and universities in the publishing of academic papers. Shortly thereafter the company attracted over 150 professional book publishers who have placed their ebooks, academic papers and novels into the Scribd environment, converting paper into “iPaper,” Scribd’s own proprietary sharable and embeddable format.

From Publisher to Social Network

Scribd is now as much a social network as it is a publishing platform where readers rate and discuss the documents they consume and publishers learn new ways to engage their readers. And as noted on CMSWire in 2009, Scribd began signing major publishers to sell their titles on Scribd in e-book form. This puts them in direct competition with Amazon and Google, formidable competitors in the e-books space.

Even more daring is the competition for social readers who spend more of their social networking time on Facebook. Scribd does allow for sharing to Facebook and Twitter. However, this may not translate into users dwelling on Scribd. Today, the average Facebook user spends almost 8 hours per month using that service. Perhaps only the most dedicated readers will see Scribd as their primary social networking site.

Marketing Presentations

Slideshare has stayed true to its original form focusing on presentations (Powerpoints) and boasts 16 million registered users and 55 million unique visitors per month. Just like Scribd, they follow a freemium model offering paid editions providing private uploads, analytics, video uploads, leads capture and branding. Slideshare doesn’t try to be a social network although it does support sharing to Facebook and Twitter. You’re more likely to see a Slideshare hosted presentation on someone else’s site before searching Slideshare.

They are about making your presentations marketable versus making them discoverable. Perhaps there’s more there than meets the eye though. Slideshare founder and CEO Rashmi Sinha received her PhD in cognitive neuroscience from Brown University and later worked as a researcher at the Information School at UC Berkeley focusing on how to optimize search engines.

The Upstarts

Other worthy competitors in the document distribution space include Docstoc and Edocr. And while they too provide a place for publishers, companies and individuals to share their works, they aren’t playing “follow the leader.”

Edocr for example has taken a strong turn towards lead generation and CRM integration. Perhaps it had to make this move given that most of the large publishers had already committed to Scribd and Slideshare. Edocr is much more concerned with liberating business documents from corporate servers in order to find and convert readers into sales leads. According to CEO Manoj Ranweera, Edocr has started 2012 with a push to integrate with more varied document repositories. Edocr recently announced integration with Zendesk and looks to add more help desk and sales force automation applications.

Docstoc is all about selling forms and template content and has been since it’s founding. Tax guides, legal documents and business plans are all there. A free Docstoc account allows a user to browse and read over 20 million professional business documents. Free account users can upload and distribute their own documents. It also allows for the download and print of user-contributed content, perhaps for a fee if required by the provider.

A premium Docstoc account provides access to over 10,000 premium documents designed for small businesses. Premium users can also view instructional videos and legal documents. Social buttons appear on each document for posting to Facebook and Twitter. However, Docstoc isn’t about helping readers get to know each other or helping publishers know their readers. Docstoc wants you to post and consume, no matter how long you’re on their site.

All four companies have made it easier to distribute documents and presentations via the internet. However, it is hard to group these four companies together to judge the health of the document distribution “industry” and pick a favorite, as they each focus on different reasons for document distribution. Given the lack of overlap, it’s not a stretch to suspect there will be cooperation between these “competitors” in the near future.

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