Although recent ABM Spring Meetings have stressed how important it is for b-to-b media companies to adapt to an increasingly digital world, at this year's gathering there was a much greater sense of urgency.
"We are in the midst of a hurricane that is changing our landscape. And this year's annual meeting is all about that—the hurricane of transformation," said Gordon T. Hughes II, president-CEO of ABM, during his opening remarks.
The three-day event drew 350 business media executives, publishers, editors, media bankers and vendors. Regardless of the topic under discussion, many speakers said the status quo would not suffice in such a volatile business environment and that publishers have to start reaching beyond their traditional boundaries.
Balancing online, print
The meeting hammered home that the biggest challenge for business publishers right now is pumping up their online presence while simultaneously managing their print products for profitability. Despite all the emphasis on the Internet, print generally still accounts for about 70% of business publishers' overall revenue.
For media companies positioning themselves for the future, that percentage is bound to shrink, as marketers continue to shift ad dollars to the Web. But considering the rapid pace of change, b-to-b media executives have to be careful not to be too easily seduced by the next best thing online, said Phil Juliano, VP-global brand management and corporate communications at Novell Inc., who was one of the speakers at the meeting.
Juliano said Novell is becoming very aggressive in online video advertising, but he discouraged publishers from "hooking your wagon to just one tool. Something that seems hot today may not be hot tomorrow. You have to hedge your bets because you never know what's around the next curve."
New ideas wanted
Greg Salah, VP-marketing at construction giant USG Corp., said clients are becoming more reliant on publishers to help them break through the clutter. "We are interested in you bringing us new ideas because we don't have all the answers."
Rick Segal, CEO of ad agency HSR Business to Business, said b-to-b publishers have underplayed two specific assets. "First, in a world that is becoming increasingly virtual and [where] every blogger is a publisher, there's an increasing demand for something to be genuine," he said. "You have this authenticity on the editorial side of your operation, and it's more important than ever."
Second, Segal urged b-to-b publishers to see circulation as more than names on lists. "You are some of the original aggregators of social networks, and you have a tremendous opportunity to bring those assets into play for the benefit of the marketer," he said.
Carr Davis, co-CEO of Cygnus Business Media and a former e-media syndication executive, said it is long overdue "for our industry to redecorate." He said b-to-b media companies must become even more customercentric if they are to stay viable.
Listen to bloggers
"Companies need to listen to what people are saying about them in blogs and wikis, and create products that line up with what people need," Davis said, adding that the coming generation of media consumers "is going to change the face of everything we do."
For instance, Davis predicted that more b-to-b media companies would form collaborative wikis with their users. "It's an opportunity for users to come together and create new audiences, and with new audiences the advertisers will be there," Davis said.
Aaron Kahlow, a digital media consultant and managing partner of BusinessOnLine, chided some b-to-b media executives for trying to build their electronic publishing strategies around the desires of their advertisers rather than the needs of their audiences. "You've got to think about the user first or you will fail," he said. "There's no magic formula for what to do to succeed on the Web."
Kahlow challenged business publishers to re-evaluate their online marketing efforts. "They have been thinking about it and trying to find the fast-track way to the answers, but they haven't been holistically focused on creating a long-term business model," he said. "It's just now, when the balance has truly started shifting and revenue is definitely falling that [publishers are] forced to try to figure it out."
Marie Griffin contributed to this report.