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Just a week after BAX Global launched its first custom publishing product last spring, BAX Quarterly: Supply Chain Issues & Highlights Worldwide, PR and Marketing Manager Marie Connell got a ring from a company sales rep based in Boston.

"He told me that he got a lead from a current customer who is expanding in Brazil, but didn't know BAX had operations in Brazil until he read it in BAX Quarterly," Connell said. "Generating additional business is the whole point of custom publishing."

BAX Quarterly, with an eight-page folio and a circulation of 20,000, is distributed to customers who have signed up online to ship their products using BAX Global, a $2.4 billion supply chain/transportation company that was bought in mid-November by Deutsche Bahn. The circ list also includes customers added by BAX's sales staff.

Rather than produce the magazine in-house, BAX hired Penton Custom Media to create a custom publication in which marketing information and news are combined with "soft-sell" content, Connell said.

BAX's move into custom publishing has had no impact on the company's traditional marketing spending. Connell said BAX will continue to buy ad pages in trade publications, such as Journal of Commerce and Purchasing Magazine, and will keep custom publishing a separate line item.

Tom Kemp, managing director of media merchant bank Veronis Suhler Stevenson and former CEO of Penton Media, said b-to-b publishers ignore custom publishing at their peril. "Smart b-to-b publishers respond to the needs of what customers want as opposed to what b-to-b publishers want to sell," he said. "So if that's what advertisers want, b-to-b publishers need to be responsive to that."

Kemp added that as more ad dollars are devoted to custom publishing, b-to-b publishers will have to strike a delicate balance between serving the interests of clients and protecting their own core properties. After all, custom publishing is not your garden-variety editorial.

Custom publishing, at least on paper, is a win-win for marketers and the publishers that are jumping into the arena to serve them. Such products help marketers and associations foster their relationships with customers and prospects—no small thing when marketers are constantly trying to break through the media clutter. And for publishers, struggling against a general decline in ad pages, custom publishing can create new and much-needed revenue streams.

"You need to touch someone several times before they understand your message, and that's exactly what custom publishing is designed for," said R.D. Whitney, exec VP-new business development at Vicon Publishing, which recently produced a custom magazine on behalf of the Midwestern Association of Forensic Scientists. "You need to dig deeper for the clients in a way that they can't get from a broader [trade] book."

Although it's been getting a lot of attention lately, custom publishing dates to at least 1895, when Deere & Co. started The Furrow, a journal for farmers that is still published today.

According to a study conducted on behalf of the Custom Publishing Council by "Publications Management," an industry newsletter, custom publishing spending hit an all-time high of $35.5 billion this year, more than double the amount spent five years ago.

The study, sent to a random sample of about 200 companies, including Aetna Inc. and Bell South, found that the average amount companies spend on custom publishing grew to nearly $1 million this year, an 18% jump from 2004. Since 2001, the average custom publishing spend per company has grown 50%, or at an annual rate of 13%.

Although fewer titles were produced in 2004, down 7% from a year earlier to 107,996, the total number of custom publishing products distributed increased to 34.1 billion units, up 7% from a year earlier and almost triple the volume of five years ago.

Custom publishing, unlike much of b-to-b media, has a strong ROI component, yet another appeal for marketers that increasingly need to justify their marketing spending.

Mark Dowden, senior VP at Dowden Health Media, said custom publishing is "now on everybody's radar screen." Dowden Health, which has had a separate custom publishing unit since 1995, creates custom media on behalf of hospitals and major drug companies such as Merck & Co. and Pfizer Inc.

"The challenge is how to focus on organic programs and not just one-shot deals," Dowden said. "You want to build expectations for the readers."

Jane Ottenberg, president of the Magazine Group, echoed Dowden's comments. "A one-shot deal sends the wrong message to the end user," she said. "If you're going to get into it, it has to be for the long haul." The Magazine Group has grown 20% in the last two years, producing custom media for 70 organizations nationwide. These products include WebMD the Magazine, Biz Tech and Real Estate Portfolio. "Marketers are beginning to see very quickly that reaching out to stakeholders [with custom media] resonates in an important way."

While there is little debate as to whether custom publishing products should be distributed on a regular schedule, b-to-b marketers differ over the role they should play. Whereas BAX Global's Connell sees them as a lead generation tool, David Prosperi, director of public relations at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, said he views them as brand-builders.

In June 2004, the exchange launched CME Magazine, a quarterly magazine with a 32-to-36-page folio and a circulation of 10,000. The magazine, which was produced by Penton Custom Media and covers trends in global exchange, is distributed to customers, vendors and suppliers of the derivatives industry. So far, the feedback has been positive for the magazine and its Web companion, Prosperi said.

"It's had a lot of value and helps our other work in terms of brand management and product marketing," Prosperi said, adding that while the advertising currently is all in-house, he's being approached "all the time" by other advertisers that want to get into the book. Asked why he didn't create the product in-house, he said, "We're in the business of risk management, not publishing magazines." 

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