American Business Media's Executive Forum, which took place last month in Chicago, was Clark Pettit's first marquee event as the association's president-CEO. He was named to the job July 8.
It was clear from the event that both ABM and its membership are searching for solutions to the challenges facing them. For Pettit the main challenge is maintaining membership.
ABM's dues from members and associate members totaled $2.41 million in fiscal 2010, ended June 30, a drop of 39% from fiscal year 2009, according to the association's annual report. ABM reacted to the decline by cutting its budget, slashing more than $1 million from its marketing efforts.
Pettit has spent the first months of his tenure traveling the country, listening to ABM members and trying to prioritize their concerns. He used the Executive Forum to continue generating feedback. In this case, he took an electronic poll of the audience of about 110 attendees on 14 different questions.
The results were displayed immediately onstage and showed that more than 85% of attendees were very or extremely interested in having ABM identify ways to help them monetize various platforms.
A number of the speakers at the Executive Forum offered advice on how to approach launching new digital products and how to embrace change. Rich Gordon, professor and director of digital innovation at Northwestern University's Medill School, identified social media and mobile as key changes that b-to-b media must address, saying they may be as disruptive as the rise of search. He said CNN.com currently generates 18% of its page views from social media and just 9% from Google searches.
Gordon said this change is occurring quickly and that social media and social networking accounted for 15% of the average user's time on the Internet last year. He said that figure is up to 23% this year.
To keep pace, media companies must be forward-looking and open to new ideas. “Your staff needs to keep trying new platforms, technologies and tools to understand their value to users,” Gordon said. “You can't just look at the mainstream. You have to look at what the extreme users and early adopters are doing.” With this approach, he said a business can anticipate how the bulk of users will use digital products in the future.
Perhaps the most sobering presentation of the forum was by Doug Webster, senior director of worldwide service provider marketing at Cisco Systems. He described how the company introduced a new router by using social media and by producing its own events. Cisco largely bypassed traditional trade shows and trade publication advertising, with the exception of running online ads on vertical sites and renting e-mail lists from trade publishers.
Webster also lauded experimentation. “Test, test, test,” he said, noting the example of a video game Cisco developed to aid the router's launch that didn't take off with users until the company instituted a $10,000 contest around the game.
Another speaker, Gord Hotchkiss, president-CEO of Enquiro, a unit of Mediative, said the Internet and other digital platforms offer the perfect scenario for experimenting with potential money-making initiatives.
Noting Google's 20% rule encouraging employees to spend one-fifth of their time experimenting with new ideas, Hotchkiss advised media company executives to try new digital ideas but quickly abandon those that fail. “Success is 99% failure,” he said, quoting Sochiro Honda, founder of Honda Motor Co.