Breaking and remaking business media

This article was first published in In Publishing magazine

The digital revolution came early and abruptly for business to business publishers, excising lucrative recruitment advertising and undermining the traditional print controlled circulation model.  Mobile, tech savvy, cost focussed, disloyal business executives were quick to seek free sources of content and take advantage of new free or low-cost digital tools to gain relevant market insights or make new connections.

So business to business media organisations, once the gatekeepers of business-critical news and information, have had to re-examine their business sharpish, or risk extinction.  Those that have already emerged successfully from this traumatic period have reinvented themselves as subscription driven business intelligence sources, orchestrators of specialist international professional communities, or smart providers of commercial marketing solutions.

Which means there is plenty to learn from these pioneers for publishers a little further behind in the digital evolutionary curve.

The Business Media Insights conference on 22 October in London, organised by the Information Industry Network, was a rare chance to spend a day focussed on how B2B media are meeting the digital challenge.  With speakers ranging from media behemoths like Pearson, RBI and Informa, to indies like Wilmington, Total Telecom and The Drum, by way of mid-sized publishers like Centaur, Incisive and Euromoney, a variety of perspectives were covered.  Delegates also heard a different view from privately held European publishers like VNR and Behr’s.

Concurrent multi-platform, multi-model publishing

A strong theme from the keynotes was the importance of operating on several platforms and within different business models concurrently.   Peter Rigby, the architect of Informa’s dizzying international growth over the last couple of decades, explained how he had developed print, events and digital in parallel via the organisation’s archipelago of small, autonomous business units.  He had encouraged risk-taking and placing small bets on multiple new launches by rewarding business champions when they generated profits, while protecting them from the budgetary impact of upfront losses.

Tim Weller, co-founder of Incisive Media, runs free to air business media funded by private programmatic advertising and high value marketing solutions, alongside a subscription-driven insight business providing data and analysis to large enterprises, in most of their financial and professional marketplaces. And Simon Middelboe of Centaur has just invested in the re-launch of Marketing Week as a free print weekly, while simultaneously developing the Festival of Marketing as a paid live event and exploring premium digital services under the Marketing Week brand.

More than one speaker observed that a substantial minority of many audiences still prefer print for core information, and it is often the economics of publishing that dictates the closure of print products well before the audience rejects them. Helmut Graf, CEO of VNR Business Media in Germany, is still largely a print publisher, with less than 10% of his audience switching to digital.  But this is highly market-dependant; Simon Alterman shared recent research by Outsell among business audiences that showed that in sectors like education and health, 25-35% of audiences still preferred print – while in News or Financial sectors, fewer than 17% did.

Provide extra value if switching from print to digital

For those publishers contemplating a wholesale print to digital switch, some practical tips were on offer from Ian Hart of Agra, part of Informa, based on the experience of Public Ledger, where the business wanted to close the print magazine and move to digital only content.  They invested in more qualitative research among their audience to really understand how their content was used, with editors conducting some of the interviews.

Out of this they developed a weekly briefing email, which was print-friendly for those subscribers who wanted something to print out and read each week. The new digital service included additional value to compensate subscribers for losing the print magazine, with smart taxonomy, extra data, improved tools and extensive use of info-graphics.

The switch from print to digital was communicated repeatedly to subscribers, and they were offered demos of the new digital product to encourage high usage levels. The editorial team had to make a parallel digital transition, but were well supported by thorough training, new tools for creating graphics, and enhanced analytics to measure how well subscribers engaged with content.

Letting professional audiences take control

With digital content comes a growing interaction with audiences, and in professional markets, there is much value to be derived from expert practitioners.  Adrian Barrick of Haymarket believes that B2B publishers must move “from broadcast to peer to peer engagement” by eliciting comments, shares and contributions from their audience.  In his previous role at UBM developing an online community for design engineers worked well, creating engaging and often outright entertaining content and driving attendance at live events.

He adopted similar techniques for the recent US launch of Campaign, recruiting 30 influencers to contribute content, and focussing the editorial team on building comments and shares.  Publishers have to accept they are surrendering some control to the audience, and that building an online community can take several years.

Build trusted experts on social media

Social media is a very visible manifestation of audience engagement for live events, and Shannon Doubleday of Euromoney shared some practical advice on maximising the business impact.  She advised focussing initially on building loyalty and relationships, rather than obsessing about seeing immediate revenues.  Euromoney listen to customers on twitter well before the event, identify hot topics and then create relevant content designed for sharing built around those key issues.  They enlist influencers and draw them into a conversation before, during and after the live event.   Then they set clear goals such as number of shares, time spent on site or profile of followers and measure them after each event.

Paul Quigley, founder of start-up Newswhip, echoed these principles.  First they listened to their target audience of journalists to identify their interests and developed exclusive content that would capture their attention – in this case statistics on which media and stories were shared most on social media.  They built up experts who won trust through a regular publishing schedule on twitter, backed up by a blog and e-newsletter.

Launch new premium digital products

Identifying new, high value digital products is a crucial skill for the modern business to business publisher.  EMAP has successfully developed HSJ Intelligence, a premium subscription data product for suppliers to the healthcare sector, built using the knowledge of the editorial team of traditional title Health Service Journal.

And sister company WGSN built a premium data product, InStock, on publicly available retail sales information, but presented in a useful and visually appealing interface.  Tom Hall of Pearson shared how they have created APIs for many of their education products and encourage independent developers to build applications, which Pearson can then co-fund.

But smaller publishers face obstacles in applying similar thinking to their markets, given their limited resources, concern about risks and lack of in-house digital skills.  A roundtable discussion on this challenge chaired by Sally Foote of FEB Digital threw up some useful advice.  Careful analysis of who finds what content valuable can identify a slice of the audience who are prepared to pay more for in-depth data.  An internal product champion, and an external competitive motivation can provide the rationale to persuade a board to invest, while low cost outsourced suppliers can help create and test a basic product.

Develop new sources of commercial revenue

With the decline in traditional recruitment advertising and the commodification of digital display, B2B media businesses must develop new commercial revenue sources.  The growing client interest in content marketing, coupled with their relative lack of editorial skills, can prove a lucrative opportunity for publishers.

Mike Hepburn of Jaywing explained how Guardian Professional developed online networks in key market sectors, and how commercial sponsorship propositions evolved firstly into annual contracts to create appropriate content, and then eventually into wider content marketing projects, with ticket values up to £300,000. This appears to be new money from client marketing or PR budgets rather than simply cannibalising existing advertising.  However, it proved a challenge for the editorial team who had to learn how to write to a client brief while at the same time making content appealing for readers.

Independent publisher The Drum has also created a separate content agency, The Drum Works, which develops articles, slide-shares, e-books, info-graphics and video for their commercial clients. The next challenge for the evolving content marketing sector is likely to be effective distribution of content, which could potentially be a value-added service for publishers to offer to clients.

Support editorial teams as their role widens

But all this diversification of platforms and proliferation of new types of content can create challenges for erstwhile B2B editors, who are now expected to become superhuman content experts, equally adept at producing conferences, chairing online debates, curating video content, orchestrating digital communities or analysing datasets.  There’s also a blurring of boundaries between marketing and commercial teams, with editors expected to oversee marketing copy and help create content for commercial clients.

Our panel from UBM, RBI and independent B2B Marketing concurred that the new role is a stretch for many editorial teams, but that the focus must be on hiring smart journalists with a flexible approach. And Ian Hart’s advice from Public Register is worth recalling: providing editorial teams with time-saving tools and systems, thorough training and comprehensive analytics to help them measure what is valuable to audiences.

Breaking and re-making business media

So my conclusion is that B2B media isn’t irretrievably broken; it just needs to be re-assembled in a new and more complex form.  Publishers have to be more closely attuned to their audience’s needs, and be prepared both to offer a wider range of information products and services to different segments within their audience, and to experiment with different business models, from new approaches to commercial clients to different types of subscription relationships.

This inevitably creates challenges for editorial, marketing and commercial teams, who will have to manage more channels and acquire a broader set of skills.  And publishers will need to shift to a mind-set of making lots of small bets on new products and services and learning quickly from a range of analytical tools.

More about the Business Media Insights Conference here:

About the author

Carolyn Morgan has launched, acquired, grown and sold specialist media businesses in print, digital and live events. Carolyn was a co-founder of the Specialist Media Show, and curated the conference programme from 2010 to 2013, when it was sold to SIIA. She regularly speaks and writes about digital publishing strategy, and advises individual publishers on the most effective way to grow their digital revenues.