B2B Media Strategies – 12 principles for digital transformation

How can you transform a traditional B2B print publisher into a digital-first professional information provider? I chaired the B2B Media Strategies event in London on 9 December, where the speakers – from Penton, Bonnier, Centaur and IDG had very impressive stories to tell, shifting the balance of revenues significantly from print to digital.


So what have these companies learnt about digital transformation – and how can other B2B publishers apply these lessons? Here’s my take on 12 principles for reinventing your B2B media business.

Penton now describes itself as a “professional information services company”, not a media business. In 2012, print contributed over 50% of Penton’s revenues, now that is <29%, while margins have grown from 25% to 37% and profits are up from $70m to $137m.

Bonnier’s B2B division has shifted from 66% print in 2013 to 44% print (and 41% digital) in 2016, largely driven by launching niche paid products across Europe powered by the marketing reach of a free business daily.

Centaur have doubled paid subs revenues on key data and intelligence products in the last three years. Simon Middelboe puts this down to actionable content, good user interfaces, bold pricing and great sales teams.

And Michael Friedenberg, CEO showed how IDG have established a global marketing services business growing at 21% pa, and built digital to 76% of total revenues.

1. Get (really) close to B2B customers and learn from B2C

Technology is changing the behaviour of B2B customers – they need fast, relevant information to make better decisions, grow revenue, save costs and reduce risk. The competition for audience time is brutal, and their expectations of design and UX are shaped by consumer media. B2B media need to invest in researchers and analysts to truly understand what information their customers need at each stage of their decision process – and at different times of the day.

2. Pick the right markets

Markets with customers who are passionate, such as aviation, are more likely to build engagement and value, according to Kieselstein, CEO of Penton. By rationalising the number of markets Penton grew revenues overall. Simon Middelboe of Centaur concentrated on markets with customers making significant decisions that could justify subscription rates over £1000.

3. Think audience not product: be channel-flexible

Understand how your customers want to consumer your information – mobile, live events, online tools, even print, and adapt your business to suit the needs of the audience, not your established product range.

4. Learn how to create data and visual assets, not just words/ articles

Articles are the unit of journalism, but people now prefer to consume information visually, through video, infographics, animations and online tools, so B2B media businesses need to learn new creative and production skills.

5. Change the culture and the skill set

Kieselstein of Penton and Friedenberg of IDG both admitted that cultural change is the hardest, most painful part of digital transformation. Half of Penton’s current top team are new in the last two years, and they actively sought out people with NPD knowhow. IDG has had to help its senior managers move from a “fear of change” to being afraid of not changing enough. Colin Morrison believes that media businesses need to hire more tech people, more researchers and more analysts. Kieselstein advised picking pilot markets to prove that a new digital approach works – their success will then convince others to follow suit.

6. Outsource what isn’t core

Rather than develop new technology in-house, Penton has rented existing tech platforms. And Morrison also advises outsourcing to build flexibility in non-core activities.

7. Build global awareness – and partner to build virtual scale

All media businesses need to be aware of potential global competitors, even if they don’t have the resources to expand internationally. IDG have used partnerships to build “virtual scale” in countries where they don’t have physical presence.

8. Can’t charge for news – build data and tools

Simon Middelboe has long given up trying to charge for news – and maybe not even analysis. But online tools that use an existing data-set to help customers find new revenues, save cost or simply save time on a boring research task can command a premium rate.

9. Be bold on price and hire great sales teams

Centaur’s premium products – like Celebrity Intelligence or Fashion/Beauty Monitor – have doubled or even tripled their prices in the last 3 years. Some of this has been justified by additional features and a better user interface, but a large part is just being bolder and more confident on price, and having an excellent sales team.

10. Reinvent print to provide an experience and a talking point

Simon Kantar explained how People Management has used well-researched, big, controversial stories and strong, consumer-style covers to build engagement among its readers and ultimately grow revenues. Rather than disinvest in print products and wonder why they continue to decline, he advocates reinventing print magazines to be more experiential and create a talking point that drives awareness beyond current readers.

11. Shift from brand ads to data and lead generation

Over half of IDGs revenue is not brand advertising, but driven by data, events and lead generation programmes. Fine data, based on content browsing history, not just volunteered information, can help advertisers target more effectively. Penton has a 70% retention rate on marketing services.

12. Develop content marketing services

Ad blockers arguably are the logical outcome of over-greedy publishers packing sites with ads. But with up to 40% of people using blocking software, publishers have to find new ways to develop commercial revenues. John Barnes, MD at Incisive, felt the answer is to be more targeted and relevant and develop more “native” styles of advertising. Publishers need to sell their ability to deliver an audience wherever they may be, not just sell our own platforms.

Mike Hepburn believes that B2B media could learn from brands (and some B2C media) and develop stand alone content marketing divisions, using editorial skills to create a range of assets for commercial clients. IDG is already adept at creating video, visual, social content for its customers to use across paid, owned and earned media, and have created over 10,000 visual assets for their customers.


While the digital transformation of B2B media can appear an intimidating task, these organisations show that the rewards are substantial. There’s no substitute though for in-depth customer insight, the willingness to experiment and learn, and to push through significant cultural change.

If you have experiences of digital transformation in your business please share what you have learnt.

Or if you’d like to talk through some of the ideas in this article and how they could apply to your media business, just 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.