The conventional wisdom in b-to-b media holds that companies focused on covering a single vertical possess an advantage because their deep market knowledge positions them well for the fast-paced world of digital media and marketing services.
The flip side of this idea is that traditional, horizontal b-to-b media companies that thrived until the past few years are at a disadvantage because they can't move fast enough and are spread across too many markets. Nielsen Co.'s and Reed Elsevier's divestments of their controlled-circulation publications and the filings for bankruptcy protection last year of Cygnus Business Media and Penton Media are offered as proof that the conventional wisdom knows what it's talking about.
But Penton, for one, is not sitting still. In an effort to update its digital strategy, the company last month began to relaunch its websites, starting with sites in its agricultural group. The company's ambitious plans call for relaunching dozens of sites in other markets in the coming months.
Four regional agricultural sites have already been relaunched: Delta Farm Press, Southeast Farm Press, Southwest Farm Press and Western Farm Press. They were to be followed by the sites for Beef, Corn and Soybean Digest, Farm Industry News, Hay and Forage Grower, and National Hog Farmer.
“These redesigns are far from being merely cosmetic; they have been designed to serve readers, who will be able to quickly access relevant content and solve business problems,” Penton CEO Sharon Rowlands said in a statement.
In an interview, Rowlands said, “When I got here at Penton [in November 2008], we had multiple digital platforms. You name the CMS, we have it.”
The aim of the multimillion-dollar effort is to update Penton's sites in its various markets by making the back end modular and easier to use. The ultimate goal is to allow each individual website to quickly adjust to its vertical market's changing needs. In 2009, Penton generated about 15% of its total revenue from digital. This year, it anticipates that digital revenue will account for about 20%.
To help its internal IT department remake the websites, Penton hired HUGE, a New York-based digital agency. HUGE's experience in developing user interfaces was important to Rowlands. “Most of their work has been consumer, and I specifically chose them because they were consumer,” she said.
Additionally, Rowlands wanted the massive project to help Penton brands to think more as “Web-first” publishers. “You're going to see more content written and developed for the Web, rather than magazine content posted to the Web,” she said.
To meet Penton's goals for the website overhauls, one of the first considerations was selecting the right CMS system, said Aaron Shapiro, a partner at HUGE. In the end, Penton chose a Drupal-based system. In addition to selecting Solr, an open-source search engine, HUGE and Penton developed a number of custom applications.
The open-source platform enabled HUGE and Penton to develop a “very modular, scalable system,” Shapiro said. Those characteristics are important because Penton serves many industries and needed a system capable of allowing editors and publishers to adjust the back end to serve their specific vertical markets.
”We put a lot of effort into finding the right taxonomy for the right vertical,” Rowlands said.