Before the dot-com bust, Mark Walsh, then CEO of Verticalnet, infamously compared trade publications to "dinosaurs."
"The demise of print media has been perhaps overstated or at least accelerated too much in time," said Robert Garrett, president of media investment bank AdMedia Partners. "[Magazines] will be around."
So far, these dinosaurs marked for extinction still roam the earth. Some individual b-to-b magazines have died off-ironically, many of those covering the Internet-but many remain robust. Just have a look at the top 100 list (p. 42). Magazines such as CMP Media's InformationWeek and Reed Business Information's Daily Variety remain reliable revenue generators.
B-to-b marketers still spend money in trade publications. B-to-b print ad revenues increased 3.83% in 2004 over 2003, according to the Business Information Network report compiled by IMS: The Auditor for American Business Media. Dawn DiMartino, director-integrated marketing communications at AT&T Corp., said her company's focus group research of C-suite and information technology executives indicates that trade publications still have a place. "It's a `must scan,' " she said. "That doesn't mean it's not valuable; it means that it's valuable in a different way."
But how long print publications will stay a valuable marketing option amid all the changes in communications is an open question. And it's one that almost every publisher and b-to-b media executive has pondered.
"I've gone on record saying, particularly for IT, that it's all over," said Alan Meckler, CEO of Jupitermedia Corp. "There's no need for the printed publication anymore. What I basically see is them wringing every last ounce of revenue they can get before they go under."
Others say that magazines remain the hub of the media universe for b-to-b industries. "It's still the motherlode," said J. Roger Friedman, president of Lebhar-Friedman, which publishes Nation's Restaurant News .
But in a world where the Internet, conferences and other marketing options seemingly have the momentum to push trade publications to the margins, the venerable print medium is suffering something of an identity crisis. The crisis can be boiled down to this: Should print magazines emphasize their strengths or should they try to become more interactive, emulating the Internet? Or to put it in a more Zen form: Should magazines become more, or less, magazinelike?
Trade publications once occupied the undisputed top of the b-to-b marketing heap. But over the past 25 years, other media have increasingly taken a share of the b-to-b marketing dollar. First, trade shows grabbed a portion. Then direct mail. And now the Internet has created myriad marketing opportunities: banners, e-mail newsletters and Webcasts, to name a few.
Internet revenues surged in 2004, and few expect that growth to stop. In 2004, Internet advertising revenues increased 32% to $9.6 billion, from $7.3 billion in 2003, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau.
For trade publications those figures represent a dark cloud, where the only silver lining is that b-to-b media companies are beginning to generate genuine revenues from online advertising. Print ad revenue for b-to-b trade publications totaled $6.6 billion last year, according to BIN. In a year of robust advertising growth, b-to-b magazines posted an anemic 1.7% revenue gain, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Only local radio and national spot radio grew less.
On the bright side, the mergers and acquisitions market for b-to-b media companies heated up in 2004. In a hotly contested auction, Investcorp acquired what is now called SourceMedia from Thomson Corp. for $350 million. Another b-to-b media company, Hanley Wood, is on the block, and some expect the deal could double the SourceMedia price (see story, p.18). Both SourceMedia and Hanley Wood have built companies that offer integrated marketing opportunities online and in events, but they also have trade publications as centerpieces.
Smaller media companies also remain bullish on trade publications. Edgell Communications, for instance, recently acquired Apparel from VNU Business Media. Gerry Ryerson, president of Edgell, is bullish, perhaps not about trade publications themselves but about their ability to integrate with other media. "My print business has not grown over the last several years," he said, "but online and events have grown astronomically."
Marketers believe in integration, too. AT&T's DiMartino said that tracking of the company's 2004 ad campaign showed that TV, print and other media work better together than they do individually. Recall for those who had seen TV spots only was 30%. For those who had seen print only, it was 22%. Those who had seen the entire campaign had recall of 44%.
Working with a diminished budget, AT&T still runs ads in IT trade publications, but it has reduced the number of titles from 12 to three: CIO, Network World and Computerworld , all of them International Data Group publications. "We wanted a partner; it was about building relationships to achieve other marketing objectives like [custom] content development and having a bigger presence in fewer publications," DiMartino said.
More than an ad page
When they do use trade publications, b-to-b marketers are looking for publishers to provide more than a page of advertising. "You have to be a hell of a salesman to have someone commit to a 12-time, four-color spread in a trade magazine," said Dick Ryan, president-CEO of Zweig White Information Services. "We're trying to anticipate demands from the advertising and marketing community, who have voted against run-of-the-mill, ROP pages. They still want to use us to reach an audience, and they still want to do it through a magazine. But you can't hold your nose about working with a marketer on content anymore."
In working with advertisers and in trying to market the value of their own publications, many b-to-b media companies are emphasizing the things that print can do better than other media.
"The best print venues are leveraging what magazines inherently can do that online can't do," said Tom Stein, CEO of ad agency Stein Rogan + Partners. "I think they're better at going deeper and for analysis and thought pieces."
Stein also said he didn't think most trade publications were taking advantage of this opportunity as well as they should. He said trade publications need to invest more in editorial to win back readers-and advertisers. "If they don't have their editorial house in order, they're going to become dinosaurs," he said.
Some in the trade press blame agencies and marketers for the gutting of editorial staffs. "I think advertisers and marketers have shot themselves in the foot by making overly aggressive price demands from publishers," said Zweig White's Ryan.
Stein said strong publications need to fight harder to maintain their price structure. "Maybe they need to draw a line in the sand," he said.
Revamping to showcase print
Many trade publishers are revamping their publications to take advantage of what print does well. At Lebhar-Friedman, Nation's Restaurant News , a weekly publication originally created as a newsgathering magazine, has shifted breaking news responsibilities to the Web and moved to more analytical stories in print.
Robert Crosland, managing director at media investment bank AdMedia Partners, said the Internet's ability to quickly deliver news most endangers print dailies and weeklies that were created to do the same thing. "Today is better than tomorrow, this week is better than next, now is better than later," he said.
Monthlies, Crosland said, are more likely to adapt in a world where the Internet is an increasingly important source of information.
Paul Miller, VP-group publisher of CMP Media's electronics group, disagreed. He said his research shows that readers of the weekly EE Times rank magazines as the No. 1 source for "news and analysis," even if the Internet is the top source for "breaking news."
Newsweeklies, Miller said, can still deliver the mix of news and analysis that his readers demand. At the same time, he doesn't argue that magazines can stand for the status quo. He said they must engage their readers week in and week out. He said that EE Times is doing that with a slight shift in the focus of its coverage.
"People like to read about the people behind the products," he said. "We call it the saga of design. It's the story behind the story."
Vance Publishing Corp. has altered the size of its publications both to take advantage of what print can offer and to meet the needs of the particular industry a publication serves. The larger formats provide more room for content, and photography in particular. Additionally, they provide more space for advertisers to show off their wares.
"We're in two markets that are very fashion-conscious," said Peggy Walker, who will take over as president-COO of Vance on April 1. "One is beauty, the other is cabinetry. The ads showcase nicely in the larger format."
As of now, print is still here, but in many industries the writing may be on the wall. Some observers believe that the tech industries will see their magazines wither away first, while businesses in which the Internet is not a part of every workday will see print publications last longer.
Bruce Morris, exec VP at Source Media, said his company is "media agnostic." The company offers print, online, events and subscription information products. It offers all of these products because an audience exists for them. "When the readers don't want print anymore," he said, "that's when we'll stop offering it."