Custom media cuts through the clutter

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Corporate spending on custom media has grown steadily over the past seven years, according to the Custom Publishing Council, a professional organization of traditional publishers and stand-alone custom publishing companies. CPC pegged 2006 custom publishing revenue at $55.6 billion, an increase of 17.5% over 2005.

Lori Rosen, executive director of CPC, said that custom publishing is as competitive as ever, but "because the industry is growing, there's more business for everyone." Marketers and publishers "have gotten more sophisticated overall," she added. "Custom media has not become a commodity."

In b-to-b media, the rising revenues may be a reflection of a move away from the commoditization of custom media that had long been the norm. To combat low-price, often low-quality competition, b-to-b publishers are taking on more leadership in developing credible custom content, integrating multiple distribution platforms to create more seamless programs, and tweaking organizational structures to give more support to custom media.

Dean Horowitz, publisher of Reed Business Information's Building Design+Construction, said his strategy is to stop going after projects that do not have an inherent relationship to his brand's values.

"Our strategy is to create custom programs associated with BD+C's branding message of education, networking and transformational ideas," he said. "As long as we do that, we can get a premium and hold to it."

Prior to drawing that line in the sand, Horowitz found that price was becoming the only differentiator.

"You may be able to get $100,000 in revenue for a certain custom project in the first year, but if everyone is bidding on it in the second year, you only get $60,000," he said. Because at least $100,000 was budgeted for the project in year two, "there's a big problem. So we had to come up with a strategy with which we could keep growing revenue year over year."

An example of this strategy, Horowitz said, is custom white papers related to environmentally sustainable building—a subject BD+C has been covering for years as a transformational idea.

Bob Osborn, senior VP at Dowden Health Media, a subsidiary of Lebhar-Friedman, said that maintaining a brand's integrity is absolutely essential in the health care market, where media buyers rely heavily on syndicated readership research scores.

"Anyone who's managing a business needs to grow the business, but they're also a caretaker for that brand," Osborn said. "The days of pandering to a client are gone. If you violate the reader's trust, even if it's a custom project, the image of the whole publication is going to suffer. Publishers, clients and agencies are more aware of that today than ever."

Leveraging unique assets

The way to break away from commoditization is customization, but this is an organizational challenge as well as a content issue for b-to-b media companies. Many are responding to the growth in custom publishing by making organizational changes to focus attention on the business, to improve the quality of the content, and to expand the range of their offerings beyond print.

Jeffrey Friedman leads Nielsen Business Media's centralized custom media division, which was created this year. "Custom media has obviously been a growing trend for years, and it's a business we have been going after through the various brands," he said.

One of the key resources Nielsen Business Media's custom unit can provide is a more seamless connection to Nielsen Co.'s powerful assemblage of research units, which include AC Nielsen, BuzzMetrics, Nielsen Entertainment, Nielsen Media Research, Nielsen//NetRatings and Scarborough Research, among others.

"Content is the epicenter of custom media," Friedman said. "This shift has occurred because there's so much clutter in the marketplace that the only way to be unique is to provide insights and data that will help various audiences do better business."

Friedman provided an example: "We worked with other Nielsen units to provide a research-based picture of what was going on in the beverage category in the convenience store channel," he said. The sponsor, which Friedman declined to identify, was not the No. 1 brand in the space, so its goal was to provide insights into the seasonality of the category in order to uncover opportunities that would benefit both the retailer and the sponsor.

"We started by communicating the research to a small target audience with a live event," Friedman said. "The second step was to broaden that reach with a webinar. A month and a half after that, we created an executive brief in print newsletter form that went into the magazine and became sales collateral for the client's sales force." Finally, a PDF with the research was posted on the Convenience Store News Web site, "so that we had the message out there for a six-month period," Friedman said.

The custom media strategy is quite different at IDG's Computerworld. While Nielsen Business Media is distinguishing itself by partnering with the respected research other Nielsen companies provide, Computerworld is building on its expertise in online marketing.

Bill Laberis joined Computerworld last November in the newly created position of VP-custom content strategy. A former Computerworld editor in chief who went on to form his own custom publishing company, Laberis said his role is "thinking up and developing highly customized projects for customers. Far and away, our emphasis is online."

Like most b-to-b media, Computerworld's fastest-growing business segment is online. But the shift to online "is even more extreme in custom," Laberis said, "and a great deal of what we do now on the custom side is to generate leads."

The goal of these programs is quantified in the number of leads, but advertisers are also very specific about the demographics of those leads, including company size, job title and job function. "If we don't get the leads we say we're going to get, we're on the line," Laberis said.

Boosting corporate sales

At Hanley Wood Marketing, Michael Hurley, who joined the company as VP-custom publishing in January 2006, has expanded his responsibilities as VP-sales for Hanley Wood's newly created corporate sales team. "I'm still working with the marketing group to build up custom publishing through these corporate sales efforts," he said.

"The job of corporate sales at Hanley Wood is to identify and pursue opportunities with key customers that are working with one or two of our four divisions but should be involved with three or four," Hurley said. The four divisions are: business media, marketing services, research and exhibitions.

"Custom media becomes one of the tactics we use to leverage all the resources we have as a company in order to sell multimedia and integrated packages to customers," Hurley said. "Our goal is to deepen the reliance the marketer has on Hanley Wood Corp. and all the assets and resources we have to reach the markets they want to reach."

At SourceMedia, changes in the custom publishing division have been evolutionary rather than structural. "We have certainly expanded our offerings and capabilities over the years and the online aspect has become more important," said Virginia Wiese, SourceMedia's director of custom publishing and creative services.

Wiese said it has become more important than ever to help customers focus on the desired end result. "We encourage them to think about their goals, whether it's thought leadership, lead generation or research," she said. "Then we show them how they can use different delivery channels to get the word out to folks who like to receive information in different ways."

In addition to traditional custom publishing and online options such as Web seminars, SourceMedia has developed a successful custom media offering in trade show dailies.

"We've been doing the conference dailies for five or six years," Wiese said. "We do these for some clients who have their own conferences or user group meetings, and we also work with some associations. We have a few different models we follow."

The newest enhancement to the custom show daily program is digital editions.

"More often than not, these are more robust and interactive than just a PDF or newsletter," Wiese said. "Where and when appropriate, we can do a video and incorporate that into the digital edition."

Web 2.0: The future?

User-generated content and social media are two of the hottest subjects in the online media world, but b-to-b publishers that are considering such interactive tools are split when it comes to using them for custom media.

Computerworld's Laberis has pitched some ideas to clients on how they might incorporate user content or commentary into custom projects, but advertisers have not yet been receptive, he said. Users might not be, either, he pointed out. "There's a culture around community content that's squeaky clean, and advertising messages would stand out like an elephant in the room," he said.

Rex Hammock, president of custom publishing company Hammock Publishing, predicts that b-to-b publishers will soon figure out how to integrate social media into their custom offerings.

"A b-to-b media audience is a community that shares a common interest. That's social media," he said. "Any one of these new social media tools has the potential to be part of a custom media strategy. We're selling and proposing programs with conversational media elements right now."

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