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Smaller publishers find ways to reach customers online

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In 2004, Dick Ryan merged the b-to-b publishing company he was running, Mercor Media, with construction industry consultancy ZweigWhite to create ZweigWhite Information Services. The merged company, whose titles include CE News and Structural Engineer, is much less reliant on advertising than some of its competitors. Still, any b-to-b media company, regardless of its makeup, needs a strong presence online. Media Business caught up with Ryan, CEO of ZweigWhite, to get his take on the challenges smaller b-to-b publishers face in growing their digital properties.

MB: What are your biggest challenges online?

Ryan: Our online bookstore is a significant strategic component of our business. So keeping the online store fresh and functional is our biggest challenge. For example, we are in the midst of redesigning the bookstore once again, so one challenge is to make sure we don't lose any sales because of that. On the other hand, improved functionality improves the likelihood that the customer will buy something and then keep shopping, and will be more apt to buy something else or register for one of our seminars. So our biggest challenges are directly focused on our customers.

MB: As a smaller publisher, in what ways is it easier/harder to go to market with digital products?

Ryan: It's certainly not harder. We only have a handful of people looking at our new online products; so if we like it, we do it. And if something doesn't work as well as we anticipate, we fold it up with very little cost except our time. I also happen to be a reader-centric publisher and, while I have great empathy with our advertisers' needs, I really think that the smartest advertisers are best served by relying on products that are well-conceived by editors and conceived with the reader's interest first.

MB: What are some of the more unusual demands that your customers are asking regarding online marketing?

Ryan: One of the most unusual demands I've recently seen is the idea that publishers should provide open and ready access to their e-mail address databases for old advertising clients that have recently chosen not to support the magazine brand from which the databases are derived. Business is business, but I think advertisers who have a brand story to tell—and most of them should—are making a big mistake by relying only on e-mail as a way to get their story to market.

MB: How has the digital transition changed your relationship with customers?

Ryan: It has only gotten better. Instead of faxing orders, or sending in an order card or calling us, our customers can go online and have a great buying experience just like they do at home with Amazon. And our sales are going up. And we have repeat business, so it's all good. That's on the direct sales side. For advertisers its become a stickier challenge because our own advertising salespeople need to balance the importance of selling our brand, which means advertising in our magazines, while at the same time being delivery-agnostic, meaning they need to have the same appreciation for readers who like content on paper or like content on their screens.

MB: How are your investments shaking out print versus online?

Ryan: Well, we did just redesign our two magazines, so that's a cost that was driven by a need to keep the brands fresh and approachable. We are actually flat against last year so far, so I'm not sure if the redesign has helped protect the brands, or if print advertising is going to be really challenged this year. Most of our new-product development is focused on the online aspect of the specific product or service. We did 25 webinars in 2005, 50 in 2006 and will do more than 75 this year. So that's a significant investment. We won't be starting any new magazines, but on the other hand we are starting a printed newsletter this year. So I guess it depends on the product and the targeted customer.

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