Last year, the mood at the American Business Media Annual Conference was one of shock, as the industry reeled from the impact of the recession and an across-the-board 30% plunge in print advertising pages.
This year, the mood at the conference, held last month in Charleston, S.C., was one of resolve, as most of the b-to-b media executives—on stage or in attendance—said they were urgently investing in new ways of generating revenue beyond print ads.
During the conference's CEO Roundtable session, Steve Weitzner, chairman-CEO of Ziff Davis Enterprise, pointed out that print generated 50% of his company's revenue four years ago. Now, it accounts for less than 10%.
“You better get used to it. It's change, and change and change,” Weitzner said.
The other CEOs participating in the roundtable discussion agreed that change was a constant. “The fundamental challenge is to stay ahead of what's next,” said Jeff Killeen, CEO of GlobalSpec, a search engine and content producer for engineers.
Rob Feinstein, VP-general manager of Business.com, said his company planned to “move aggressively” to develop a mobile platform within the next six months.
Killeen, too, is pushing his company into new businesses. In GlobalSpec's case, e-events are a priority. The company experimented with three online events last year and expects to have 40 in 2011.
At Ziff Davis Enterprise, Weitzner said, the move into marketing services has led to changes in staffing, including the hiring of personnel with advertising agency and database backgrounds. “You either change the people,” he said, “or you're going to change the people.”
The conference's “Next Generation” panel, featuring the sons of three prominent business media executives now helping shape the new direction of their family-owned businesses, reached a similar conclusion: Change is unavoidable.
Panelist Greg Watt, president-CEO of Watt Publishing and son of the retired Jim Watt, noted how the fluidity of the media business these days demands almost constant adaptability. “We tell [new hires] your job is going to change in less than 12 months,” he said. “That's difficult for some people to understand and get a feel for.”
The constancy of change also requires flexibility by management. “I don't think we can stick with anything right now,” Watt said. “We have to continually move with market forces, and we'll adjust accordingly. What's working today I expect will be different in 12 months.”
Chris Crain, VP-group publisher at Crain Communications Inc. and son of company Chairman Keith Crain, was also on the panel. (Crain Communications publishes Media Business.) Crain said Crain Communications garnered 78% of its revenue from spending that could be classified as brand marketing. “That creates an interesting challenge for us,” he said.
The company is responding to this challenge and others facing the industry with four basic initiatives, expanding offerings in digital, events, market research and lead generation. “We are preparing for a future with [print] playing a lesser role,” Crain said.
The third panelist was Randall Friedman, VP-group publisher at Lebhar-Friedman and son of J. Roger Friedman, president of the company.
Friedman noted how the speed of the Internet has changed the management style at Lebhar-Friedman. “Tell me about a decision after you make it,” Friedman said he tells the company's managers. “That's a big change for us.”
While committed to investing in digital, Friedman also lamented that b-to-b media companies have too often neglected to make the case for brand advertising to marketers. “We're like Woody Allen,” he said. “We direct our own movies, we star in the movie and then the story is about our own insecurities and problems.”
Few in the room or on stage would dispute that print still has value for advertisers. Nonetheless, almost every b-to-b media executive at the conference discussed investing in something other than print.
“It's technology,” said conference attendee Stephen Davis, senior VP-sales at SRDS, when asked about his company's biggest investment this year.
“Our biggest investment is in the site and efforts around a redesign. Part and parcel with that is continued investment in analytics on our user base and taking that insight back to our advertisers. Along with the redesign of the site, we're also building more work-flow tools to better engage with our audiences. There's no doubt that's where our dollars are going.”
Another conference attendee, Peter Goldstone, president of Hanley Wood, said his company is investing in its data business. “We think we have an unbeatable opportunity to own data around the housing and construction industry. We're investing in our platform and in people.” M