Before the Internet and in the days of controlled print circulation, being a B2B publisher was pretty much a license to print money.
The formula was simple – build an audience through lists of target companies and job titles (ideally, finding out names of decision makers holding those job titles at target companies), write some partially interesting content to put in a magazine, and sell the space around that content to B2B advertisers who had a limited way of reaching that audience – and of course, had to pay a premium to do so.
The business model was so simple and the rewards so significant, that B2B media companies didn’t need huge amounts of skill or expertise. Any journalist with decent skills could fill enough space on the page – even if they had never worked in a particular sector relating to the publication’s audience. The content didn’t even have to be particularly high-quality.
Sales was easy too – with just a rate card and some gumption on the phone, along with a sink-or-swim approach to management (i.e. make your target or lose your job), selling ad space was usually either a case of making enough calls and applying the right amount of pressure, or persuading advertisers to part with their cash through steak dinners and drinks with the editors (that is, if the Church and State divide wasn’t as rigorously enforced as in B2C media).
That world is now in sharp decline – and has been so for many years. B2B publishers aren’t the hot companies to watch in the media and entertainment industry.
Today B2B advertisers have far more choice in reaching decision makers, and the B2B audience has far more choice in terms of collecting information. Advertisers have switched spending to cut out the publishers by producing content directly, prospecting more efficiently, and using an auction-based model to buy advertising automatically at (in theory) the cheapest and most cost-effective price.
As a result, the cash cow of B2B print media and its controlled circulation is no longer producing the goods as previously was the case.
But too often, the approach has been a desperate attempt to throw weight off the ship and patch up the holes. Costs are cut wherever possible. Salespeople are told to hit the phone at a greater intensity. A smorgasbord of media packages appear out of the ether in an attempt to get advertisers to part with their cash – events, roundtables, lead generation packages, feature issues, and microsites. All of which come with rate cards and media packs, but no real digital strategy or focus on the user experience of either advertisers or buyers.
The problem with this is that there hasn’t been a change in formula – rather, it’s just trying to do the same thing more efficiently. The broken business model hasn’t been replaced. But the same problems for clients and readers still exist – advertisers need to reach buyers, and buyers need information to do their jobs.
Creating good content and acquiring an audience is hard and expensive work. Those previously spending on print ads are still spending – they have just changed where their money goes.
Buyers are still reading and researching to try and make purchasing decisions – now even more so.
And publishers still have assets of great value. They know how to create content, and already have audiences that advertisers still spend money to reach. When they try, they can create an excellent customer experience for decision makers that are trying to figure out where to invest.
So how should they adapt? In short, they need to focus more intensely on meeting the needs of their customers using the assets they already have. As such, they need to reimagine how they commercialise those that paid for advertising, and those that read their content.
And at a more strategic level, B2B publishers need to change the conversations they are having with investors and shareholders. The narrative needs to change away from stemming decline to one that has more in common with rapidly growing businesses.