Custom media comes of age

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Don't tell Joe Pulizzi print is dead. Not when it comes to custom publishing. 

Pulizzi, group director of Penton Custom Media and chairman of American Business Media's custom media committee, has seen Penton's custom media projects grow in number 20% to 25% this year.

"I'm talking to a good number of people about doing quarterly [magazines] because their customers are being inundated with e-media, and there's still a hunger to get information in print products with valuable editorial," said Pulizzi, whose clients include the American Red Cross, BAX Global, Chicago Mercantile Exchange and National Association of Manufacturers.

"I know my clients can come up to me and say, `My customers are spending 45 minutes with my magazine. That's 45 minutes they're thinking about me and not my competition,' " Pulizzi said. "They like custom media because they can use it in sales promotion, white papers and all kinds of things. It's not at all static."

As companies look for the most effective ways to distribute their marketing dollars, the appeal of custom publishing is growing. Long gone are the days when marketers paid for a custom publishing product because it was a "nice" thing to do for their most loyal customers. In the current climate, senior marketing executives are embracing custom publishing as a way to cut through the media clutter, generate ad dollars and make their brands stand out.

"Every CMO at every Fortune 1,000 company is either thinking about or is already doing some sort of custom media project," said Jane Ottenberg, president of the Magazine Group, whose clients include the American Council of Engineering Companies, CDW and the Consumer Electronics Association. "They're looking for custom media to augment [overall marketing spending] and become a part of the strategy as much as everything else."

The original narrowcasters

Business publishers, the original narrowcasters in what is increasingly becoming a narrowcasting media universe, are in a strong position to take advantage of the growth in custom media. A lot depends, of course, on how much they invest in the platform. But as traditional sources of revenue shrink, publishers will have look to alternatives, such as custom media, to fill in the gaps.

"The definition [of custom publishing] has expanded to include `branded editorial,' " Pulizzi said. "It's got to be a core part of marketers' programs."

Pulizzi said most custom publications debut as quarterlies, otherwise it's not worth the expense. Once clients see the product launched, he regularly huddles with them about creating new ways to integrate custom efforts into their overall marketing mix.

"All the time we're talking, `What else can we do? Should we do a digital version? A webcast? A Web portal?' " Pulizzi said.

Diane Pohly, president of Pohly Co., a custom media firm, said business publishers have to shift gears in order to drive more custom publishing projects. "They have to be able to work with advertisers as marketers, and not just publishers," said Pohly, whose clients include the Association of National Advertisers and Continental Airlines. "There's an expertise that marketers have that business publishers don't necessarily have, and they have to understand that they are in the service business and not in the product business. ? It's not how to market a publication but marketing in the broadest sense."

Eric Schneider, president-CEO of Redwood Custom Communications, one of the largest dedicated custom publishers in North America, said custom publishing possesses the kind of attributes that should not be underestimated in a time of media upheaval.

"Custom publishing, unlike any other medium, is based on gaining permission from the customer; and, absent any permission, a product is just an interruption, which people don't want to deal with anymore," said Schneider, whose clients include LendingTree, Royal Bank of Canada and Sears Canada.

"The focus right now without question is on ROI, which for custom media can be pretty diverse, whether it's brand building, attitudinal shifts about the brand or lead generation," Schneider said. "But there's an increasing desire to market within the context of permission, whether it's b-to-b or b-to-c."

Avoiding competition

One danger in developing custom published products is that they can eat into more traditional, ad-driven products. But this shouldn't be the case as long as publishers and their clients are clear from the get-go on marketing objectives.

"You can't just look at traditional marketing buys," Penton's Pulizzi said. "You have to look at how much the client is spending with you and try to grow the business regardless of what medium they're asking for. ? You have to help them grow their business but at the same time grow your own business."

Schneider said that as more b-to-b advertisers embrace custom publishing, it may present a quandary for business publishers. With custom media, marketers are "able to control the media stream," he said. "It's a product targeted to their best customers. So the question becomes: To what extent does marketing a custom published product displace the need to run additional ad dollars in a magazine?"

Spending on custom publishing rose 29.1% to $28.40 billion in 2005, driven by double-digit growth in spending on magazines, newsletters and tabloids, according to Veronis Suhler Stevenson. By comparison, spending on pure-play Web and mobile services grew 11.1% in 2005 to $27.92 billion, and b-to-b magazine spending grew 4% to $10.70 billion.

The VSS report said spending on custom publishing has expanded dramatically because of the medium's ability to connect a company with its target audience on a regular basis. It grew at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 17% from 2000 to 2005, according to VSS. Driven by new publications in several formats, particularly online, spending on custom publishing is expected to increase 22.1% to $34.69 billion this year and grow at a CAGR of 15.4% from 2005 to 2010.

The latest numbers from the Custom Publishing Council paint an even more robust picture. According to the CPC?whose members include CMP Integrated Marketing Solutions, Hammock Publishing, Hanley Wood Marketing and Prism Media Group?the overall amount of spending on custom publishing is expected to reach $45.80 billion this year, about double that of 2000, when CDC first started tracking it. The average circulation per issue this year is 43,068, up 18.7% from last year.

"There's a learning curve to custom publishing," Pohly said. "But there are a number of b-to-b publishers who are approaching it well."

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