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An under-explored role: Bringing industries together

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Not that long ago, it used to be enough for a b-to-b newspaper or magazine merely to deliver timely, well-researched and well-written news and information every week or month via the mail. That was the modus operandi of Plastics News when Crain Communications launched it as a weekly newspaper into a crowded market in March 1989-and that model served us well for many years. But the Internet, e-mail and other economic and business pressures have changed all that.

Now, print publishers are "content deliverers," while readers also are "viewers" if not "communities." And with the pervasive influence of such factors as consolidation, outsourcing and globalization redefining entire industries, the publications that serve them would be well advised to reassess the roles they play and how they interact with their audiences.

B-to-b publications too frequently limit themselves simply to acting as a sort of court reporter of industry events, documenting what happened when. Performing that function well is undeniably important. But such publications may well be missing an opportunity to broaden their impact and their brand.

Allow me to use my own publication's experience as an example. Strictly a weekly, 60,000-circulation print newspaper for its first seven years, Plastics News in the spring of 1996 added a daily-news-driven Web site, www.PlasticsNews.com, which overnight transformed us into a global news service. In 1999 we organized our first executive-level conference; and in 2000 we bought a series of regional trade shows with accompanying conferences, subsequently rebranded as Plastics Encounters.

Moreover, we've increasingly sought to identify areas of opportunity that benefit both our publication and the vast manufacturing industry it serves. The aim is to educate and assist plastics officials as they attempt to negotiate the swifter, more treacherous waters of an increasingly international business. We also have worked to facilitate contact between disparate groups that we believe would do better to communicate and interact than ignore one another.

In our case, we recognized a few years ago that plastics manufacturers for the most part had little understanding of the roles played by industrial designers in the product development process. These "creative types" were a different breed, and appeared to be a couple steps removed in the supply chain from being directly relevant to molders of plastic parts and their toolmakers or materials suppliers.

But changing industry dynamics, including head-spinning time-to-market demands, instead mean that designers often play a critical role in recommending materials (e.g., plastic vs. metal vs. wood) and production processes at the formative stages of a new product's development. Understandably, such individuals are far less likely to recommend plastic if they are not fully aware of what the material can do in certain applications, or how it can save tooling costs or offer design freedom that translates into cool aesthetic attributes that boost product sales.

So Plastics News launched an annual plastics design award, stepped up its coverage of design issues and began organizing Design Day conferences at our own Plastics Encounters' trade shows. We made a concerted outreach effort to the design community to build relationships with its leading trade association, and we plan soon to add a design section to our Web site.

The industry has noticed, and both sides have expressed gratitude for our efforts to bring together the plastics and design communities. We've reaped some additional revenue from a handful of enlightened materials companies that, while otherwise largely avoiding U.S. plastics advertising during the recession, wish to keep their brands in front of materials-specifying designers.

By the same token, our involvement in organizing events has given Plastics News a vital tool in facilitating this interaction. While putting together conferences can be profitable, it also can be very work-intensive. Yet the payback more than compensates. Our annual Executive Forum, now one of the industry's most prestigious events, provides an opportunity to build and nurture contacts with plastics leaders (be they with readers, advertisers or sponsors) around the globe.

Such relationships can be difficult to measure on the bottom line. But in business, in the end, it's all about people and relationships. Strong personal ties lead to better access, better stories, better events, better brand recognition-and, eventually, better bottom-line results.

Robert Grace is editor, associate publisher and conference director of Plastics News. He can be reached at rgrace@crain.com.

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