The RBI news combined with the well-publicized debt challenges facing other prominent b-to-b publishers made many in the industry re-examine the longstanding b-to-b publishing promise of “effectively connecting buyers with sellers.” Had the market changed so much that it was no longer feasible for a b-to-b publisher to build and monetize a relationship with a niche audience? Or had the traditional publishing model failed to keep up with the audience and adapt to the many content and delivery changes occurring in the marketplace?
My business partner, Jim Langhenry, and I asked ourselves these questions and others when we were contemplating purchasing three RBI brands—Consulting-Specifying Engineer, Control Engineering and Plant Engineering—scheduled to be shuttered.
After significant research and a number of discussions with target audience members, customers and trusted partners, we decided that the original b-to-b publishing promise promoted by pioneers such as Norman Cahners was as relevant as ever. So last year we purchased the brands.
We felt strongly that our first step must be focusing on our audiences' content needs. We knew we must adapt our business model around the audiences' needs if we were to thrive. We began by revisiting and testing our target audience's content needs and delivery assumptions. Our editors—internally referred to as content managers—interviewed a large number of target audience members. The interviews covered the following topics:
- Specific daily information needs for the purposes of conducting or enhancing job performance.
- Current sources and value of sources used to obtain information.
- Use of the information once obtained.
- Information delivery methods and time accessed during the day.
- Circumstances for when dynamic content interaction was desired and with which content types and/or resources.
- Content engagement trends and plans for taking advantage of trends such as social networking and mobile.
During our weekly content planning and management meetings, we shared, reviewed and debated the feedback from these discussions with our audience. Perceptions of audience content needs and desires were constantly challenged, as were ideas of where we should be spending our limited time and resources.
In order for a position to be given serious consideration, relevant, consistent target audience feedback was required to support the position.
We benefited from thinking about our audience first. In today's quickly changing and fragmented content-delivery environment, a b-to-b publisher must have a thorough understanding of the target audience's content needs in order to remain relevant. Where a simple reader survey was adequate in the past, it's no longer enough to give publishers a complete picture of how audience behavior is changing.
The benefits of the research have been significant and diverse; some, such as a better understanding of audience needs, were expected. There have, however, been numerous unexpected benefits, such as the development of new sources and relationships within our target communities. And, as a result of the feedback, CFE Media's company strategy, product investment decisions and priorities have all been updated to better align with audience content needs and opportunities.
We also quickly discovered that our customers were keenly interested in the intelligence we were gathering and analyzing. During the downturn, many marketing departments experienced dramatic cutbacks in intelligence-gathering resources and were hungry for more precise guidance on exactly how, why and what content was being consumed by their customers. Our position is somewhat similar to our customers' position, in that we have limited resources, must build solid relationships with a target audience, and deliver messages and content using the most effective means possible. The best way our customers can achieve this goal is to have a solid handle on their customers' content needs and the best corresponding delivery options.
The risks associated with starting a b-to-b publishing group in today's market are daunting, and the corresponding value provided to a subscriber audience and customers is often questioned. We believe our first step in terms of directly connecting with our target audiences has paid off and has helped lay the groundwork for fulfilling the b-to-b publishing promise developed many years ago.
Steve Rourke is CEO-COO of CFE Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.