Custom media moves closer to the core


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A study released in April by the 87-member Custom Publishing Council (CPC) illustrated how custom media can help cut through the media clutter b-to-b buyers constantly face. The phone survey, conducted by Roper Public Affairs and Media, took the pulse of 1,000 U.S. adults.

According to the study, 68% of respondents said companies that provide information about their products in custom publications help them make better purchase decisions; 63% said they have bought something they saw mentioned or advertised in a custom publication. Almost 78% said that when it comes to custom publications, they don't mind that sponsors are clearly selling their products and services, as long as the publications are filled with interesting information.

Amid dizzying changes in b-to-b marketing, the planets continue to align for custom media. Several long-term trends seem to favor the tactic, such as the gradual, yet steady decline in spending on traditional forms of media and the rapid proliferation of marketing services that focus on creating conversation as a conduit to sales. Perhaps more important, the explosion in online social channels plays right into custom media.

“For b-to-b folks, it's about the sense of community: I'm at a conference, attending a webinar, traveling to an event; but the bottom line is I need to connect with other people who are trying to solve the same problem as I am,” said Diana Pohly, president of custom publishing company Pohly Co., whose clients include the Association of National Advertisers and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. “Custom media is a platform to leverage community.”

Spurred by social media, the market for custom products is undergoing rapid change. “We're seeing a lot of custom evolving to an area that we're calling "unstructured content services,'” said Charles Lee, senior VP-strategic programs and custom solutions for IDG Strategic Marketing Services.

IDG corporate sales was rebranded as Strategic Marketing Services in September, and Lee was promoted to his current position from VP-business development and IDG corporate sales. He said the growth of customized media was instrumental in the rebranding of the sales unit.

“Custom publishing has been around fixed products—case studies, PDFs, a white paper—but we see it moving toward more fluid content and getting information on more of a timely basis,” Lee said. “Customers need real-time publishing, so it's getting to be less about content around fixed formats and more content that's based on conversation and community.”

Through September, revenue for the IDG unit's integrated and custom programs grew more than 30% from the same period last year, Lee said. The growth in custom media at IDG comes amid ongoing declines in traditional trade publishing, with b-to-b print revenue expected to drop roughly 30% this year industrywide, according to American Business Media.

Yet custom media has not been immune from the recession. In 2008, spending on b-to-b custom media dropped 29% to $1.8 billion, according to the “Communications Industry Forecast” released in August by private equity firm Veronis Suhler Stevenson. B-to-b custom spending is expected to decline roughly 30% this year, according to VSS.

As marketers continue to shift their budgets toward venues with the best possible ROI, custom media is being positioned as a way to build brand loyalty. “Everybody has fewer customers right now, and marketers need to maximize their relationships,” Pohly said. With a custom publication, “you're finding a way to talk to your customers through the selling and relationship cycles and adding value that they can't get in other places.”

In 2008, the number of unique custom titles published fell 14% to 123,157, from 143,000 in 2007, according to the CPC. While that's a substantial drop, the results remain 28% higher than when the CPC started tracking the metric in 1999. The average circulation per issue for custom publications rose to 37,000 from 30,000 during the same period.

“Instead of saying, "We can kill this [custom] magazine,' marketers are reducing the frequency,” said Mike Winkleman, president of custom publisher Leverage Media and chairman of the CPC. “There's a reason why custom media has held its own while consumer publishing has not: It's cheaper, more targeted and more controlled.”

Marketers are also integrating their custom media products with social networks. “People are still feeling their way with social media but know they need to do it,” Winkleman said.

Sherwin-Williams Co., a manufacturer of coatings for plastics, metal and wood, recently launched a Facebook page and started a Twitter account for STIR, a custom program content publication, including a print publication, targeting interior designers and architects. “It's hard not to [join social networks] when you look at the statistics, and that's where most of your audience is,” said Dobby Gibson, creative director for Hanley Wood Marketing, which produces the publication. “I can't imagine a custom product that's pure print.”

But Jane Ottenberg, president of custom publisher TMG (formerly the Magazine Group), which produces 440 magazines and online products annually, stressed that because of the journalistic approach at the heart of custom media, print remains a vital component of customized publications. “Print still reaches out to certain segments, but you also need a visual presence online.”

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