Surfing the chaos wave – 8 insights for the future of B2B media

Markets are changing ever faster: technology cycles are speeding up, customers are becoming ever more demanding, competition can come from any region of the globe and completely unexpected directions, and advertising and marketing spend is evolving away from traditional media.

This wave of chaos can seem overwhelming to B2B media organisations, but maybe rather than being swamped by the deluge, there are ways to successfully surf it and discover new sources of value.

At the IIN Conference on 22 October, media business leaders from the likes of WGSN, Bloomberg, Incisive, Centaur, Euromonitor, Sigaria, CRU and other progressive ambitious B2B publishers, shared their experiences and provided guidance on not only surviving but thriving amid the technology deluge.

These are the eight main themes I took away from the day…

1. Faster cycles, more international, demanding customers and cross pollination of trends

The global audience is at a tipping point, according to Kate Worlock of Outsell. The much discussed Millennial generation – tech-savvy, capricious, super-social, cross-border and cynical – are now forming the mainstream B2B audience. They discover content differently and place greater weight on advice from friends and their wider community than advertising, so media businesses need to rethink how they distribute their content and attract attention. Live or online events can form the core of a community of interest.

Millennials are equally demanding as employees – they want to know why they should work for a company, and how it will enable them to build new networks.

Market trends are moving in ever shorter cycles, explained the founder of WGSN and startup Stylus Media, Marc Worth. Trends are increasingly cross-pollinating from one industry to another. Companies must be ready to react more rapidly: in the fashion market vertically integrated Zara can turn a new trend into a product in the shops within four weeks.

Meanwhile the pressure in business is hotting up – managers have to take bigger, riskier and quicker decisions, with an international dimension, paving the way for a boom in data-driven, workflow products. Scale is becoming ever more important, so even a super-niche needs to expand internationally.

2. How to get readers engaged and contributing?

When Carla Busazi (now Global Chief Content Officer for WGSN) was tasked with launching Huffington Post in the UK, she only had seven staff. So the focus had to be on encouraging independent bloggers. By making the platform easy to use, welcoming the pioneers and promoting their content Huff Post built loyalty and advocacy and thereby attracted more bloggers.

Through focussing on articles that evoked strong emotions; positive or negative, they maximised the number of social shares. Whilst some topics, such as politics, were less susceptible to the emotive treatment, many could be written to be more shareable, and that expanded the audience. Carla believes even B2B content can perhaps be written to provoke an emotion: shock, surprise, envy or admiration.

Stopping anonymous comments early kept trolling under control, and answering every piece of feedback with a personal reply defused many detractors, as it put a human face to the brand. Social media feeds need a dedicated resource and have to be consistently interesting in their own right.

Whilst Huff Post is a mainstream consumer media brand, the principles still apply to specialist B2B market, according to Carla. B2B readers are still people – and they are investing significantly in the content you are publishing. WGSN Insider now allows non-subscribers a sneak peek into premium content – and is efficiently generating leads for the sales team every week.

3. Everywhere all the time: Thinking multichannel & global & round the clock

In Europe Bloomberg is less well-known as a business media brand than the FT, but its reach is similar. And its core of trading terminals in financial centres reach a super affluent and influential audience.

Adam Freeman, formerly of the Guardian and now MD of Bloomberg Media in EMEA, believes that business media have to surround the audience with content from 6am till 10pm, crafting different content on different platforms to answer the questions of the moment. Having a global business with local correspondents allows stories to sweep across regions in a different form as each community wakes up, works and catches up at the end of the working day.

Bloomberg have identified a clutch of hot editorial topics, from Russia to sustainable business, and ensure that their output covers these in depth. Each story is simultaneously published on all their channels, with video clips from TV being added to web articles. Social is as important in B2B as in consumer media, providing 30% of Bloomberg’s traffic.

With clients rapidly shifting their spend to digital, even ahead of TV, Bloomberg have had to completely restructure their sales teams to sell across all their products and channels: a challenging move but absolutely necessary. In a fast-changing market, Adam has hired “disruptive talent”, ie people who have worked in industries that have already been disrupted, so they are ready to challenge the status quo.

4. Analyse behaviour to refine content and segment communities

Digital content permits far greater insight into which topics are trending and what articles are engaging readers, but many publishers don’t mine the data in as much depth as they should, argued Jeremy Phillips of EditorEye.

The first step is to identify the key topics that readers want, and tag all content with these topics. Then publishers can audit how well their output matches the hot topics, and how well they stack up against their competitors.

Then they can analyse which topics are most engaging for readers, and whether the editorial team is producing enough content in the hottest areas. Reading behaviour can also be used to segment audiences into distinct sub-communities and identify potential experts.

5. Borrow marketing ideas from SaaS

With the gradual shift in B2B media towards premium subscription products, charging £1,000 pa or even £10,000 pa, marketing strategy needs to change significantly. Helen Coetzee of MPG believes that the discipline publishers must borrow from is SaaS – a subscription or licence business based on software. And her top tip is to hire marketers who have sold SaaS software in your own industry.

What’s crucial is to integrate marketing for lead generation and a sophisticated sales pipeline: nurturing leads and converting, and then monitoring customer engagement closely to identify renewal risks and upsell opportunities. A wide range of marketing channels must be used together: email, PPC, social, content, live, and it pays to set up a simple dashboard to monitor KPIs.

6. Manage the mix: print, web, apps, social. Leverage heritage, capture data and invest in technology

John Barnes of Incisive Media chaired a panel of digital product heads from Centaur, Immediate and Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten. And while much of the talk was predictable enough: about the importance of making digital products responsive, focussing on the interface, and moving towards data and intelligence products, there was a surprising consensus on the importance of heritage brands and print as part of the mix.

Established brands like The Lawyer and Marketing Week have a ready-made set of advocates receptive to new developments like “The Lawyer Market Intelligence”. Centaur has been actively investing in Marketing Week’s print incarnation, and Incisive recognises that for very senior executives, the printed magazine is still the best advertisement for the brand.

Tony Macklin emphasised that social content is as important to B2B publishers as consumer media. The mass-market digital poster children like Buzzfeed spotted early that social content has to have interaction to promote sharing. Immediate’s parenting titles have been testing quizzes successfully; this could be simply adapted to B2B markets as a benchmarking tool. Social feeds from media brands have to develop their own personality, and not just splurge out a list of article links.

Responsive design is a necessary evil, but the advertising prize may not justify the cost. Mobile web plays a role in building audience through socially shareable content, while apps provide a more packaged and personalised experience for existing customers, with the benefit of deeper analytics.

Most admired digital publishers comprised mainstream consumer media Vox and Vice, but also Bloomberg, FT and Economist.

In a related session, David Foster, CEO of BVR, emphasised that publishers must now consider on-going technology investment as part of “business as usual” not just a once a decade chore. Rather than try to find a single solution, or develop in-house, his recommendation is to identify third party specialist best-in-class solutions and work hard on APIs and integration. The best ROI is on sales and CRM technology, closely followed by marketing automation, while CMS systems are more problematic.

7. Speed up the cycles, stay close to customer, work hard to get and keep top talent

The panel of media CEOs – from Wilmington, Sigaria, Euromonitor and CRU – soon sounded a little like Alice when confronted with the Red Queen’s view that you have to run very fast to stand still and even faster to actually get anywhere.

The story was very much of accelerating cycles of change, with a requirement to stay very close to customers and review products continually. Alex Martinez of Sigaria now reviews his entire range at least every year. Nick Morgan of CRU feels the pressure to differentiate his premium research service in the mining industry from the “free” research put out by investment banks. And Trevor Fenwick, co-founder of Euromonitor rather lugubriously sees his core role as looking for the cliff edges coming up that could undermine his entire business model.

Another challenge is managing diverse customer groups, with some still favouring print or more traditional formats, while others demand mobile digital content. Publishers must deeply understand how customers are making decisions, and how their content, data and analysis can best be presented to support these decisions. The goal for most is driving customers up a ladder of increasingly premium subscriptions, with both quality content and easily used technology prompting an upgrade.

Accelerating expectations mean that technical platforms might need to be upgraded every two or three years, not once a decade.

And talent is a continual headache – with the focus on hiring internationally minded, tech-savvy employees who are ready to embrace change. Small niche publishers face a particular challenge; Nick Morgan of CRU has evolved a strategy of building close, personal relationships with a small group of universities and encouraging internships and offering international placements to identify graduates who are a close cultural match with the company.

8. It’s hard work but this will build long term value

So all this sounds like extremely hard work: enticing the right talent to join your organisation, engaging with demanding customers, analysing content in detail, relentlessly upgrading and optimising technology, hiring sales teams who can sell tailored programmes across multiple formats, generating bespoke editorial packages for video, mobile, social, web, apps and even good old print, expanding internationally and forever watching over your shoulder for the next upstart insurgent in your market.

But there is some cheering news from the valuation team at PWC. B2B media is a sought after asset among the global VC and PE community, who believe that strategic pricing, international expansion and premium subscription services provide a strong upside. Valuations can go up to 20x EBITDA for high quality B2B media businesses (but as low as 5x for less appealing prospects).

So what drives the top valuations?

  • Must have information – even if this is taking public data – and repackaging it smartly for multiple high value audiences – eg Meteogroup
  • Becoming part of customers workflow – eg Autodata
  • Unique content, proprietary data or analysis
  • Clear digital strategy – especially in mobile and video
  • Customer insights indicating further NPD opportunities
  • Quality KPIs indicating strong growth trends

How to learn to surf

All this is clearly challenging and there is little chance of a let-up in the pace of change. But it does look at though there are opportunities for B2B publishers to build long term value if they sharpen up their surfing skills. Here’s a checklist to get you started:

  • Get your readers/customers engaged and contributing content and feedback
  • Analyse the hot topics, what gets read and how you stack up against the competition
  • Keep thinking multi-channel, multi-territory and round the clock. There is a place for all media, including print in many markets, and stories need to be tailored to work on different platforms at different times of day
  • Work out how you can upgrade subscribers to premium content packages – and borrow marketing tips from SaaS
  • Accept that investment in technology is a continuous process – but be ready to plug in specialist software to address key needs
  • Make sure you have a clear strategy for video and mobile
  • Focus on attracting flexible, tech savvy, globally minded talent who embrace change and are prepared to be disruptive – and make sure you keep them
  • Scan the horizon for the potential cliff-edge – stay agile!

If you have experiences of adapting your B2B media business to fast-changing technology and evolving markets that you’d like to share, or you’d like to discuss your own challenges and get some new ideas from other publishers, please get in touch.

About the author

Carolyn Morgan has over twenty years experience launching, growing, buying and selling specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events.  Carolyn now advises publishers large and small on their digital strategy and writes and speaks on the topic of digital publishing strategy for media sector publishers and events.