B-to-B comes to terms with consumer control

ABM MEETING: Pubs grapple with issues over new-media models

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[scottsdale, ariz.] The heat was on business publishers in more ways than one as American Business Media's Spring Meeting kicked into high gear last week and temperatures hit 95 degrees outside.

The central issue for ABM members is the immense challenge they face-in terms of both business model and corporate culture-in transitioning their brands for the digital age. "We are truly at a crossroads," said Michael Marchesano, the incoming chairman of the ABM and president-CEO of VNU Business Media.

Mr. Marchesano said that with customers increasingly in the driver's seat, business publishers now have to craft "their own road maps" to continue to serve the needs of their clients. What's more, younger consumers-and tomorrow's B-to-B media customers-"feel entitled to get things for free because they can."

So how do B-to-B publishers confront these economic and demographic changes? "As an industry we can resist these changes and let our editors play the role of parent knows best by dictating content," Mr. Marchesano said. "Or, we can empower them to think differently and to be part of the process of creating communities."

For example, he pointed to the founders of WorldChanging.com, an environmental-sustainability site, who have asked people to submit still photos of environmental degradation, which are posted in real-time.

"So what does this have to do with B-to-B companies?" Mr. Marchesano said. "In our case, having live feeds has relevance for our Photo District News. In the future, we can see our photojournalism coverage may well be delivered on a live Web site from feeds from photographers all over the planet. ... Citizen journalism is a real and solid movement.

"Products will be customized, delivery systems will be personalized and this shift requires redefining customer-centric business models," he said. "We're no longer the large department store with something for everyone. We're morphing into individualized boutiques."

no substitute for knowledge

Harold "Terry" McGraw III, chairman, president-CEO of McGraw-Hill Cos., also discussed how larger changes in society are affecting business publishers. "There is an opportunity for ABM members to enable communities to access the information they need," he said. "There is still no substitute for market knowledge."

Both Messrs. Marchesano and McGraw echoed two major points contained in ABM's just-approved two-year strategic plan: First, end users are "seizing control" and determining how and when they receive information; second, the editor is becoming a brand manager, distributing products and services across multiple platforms.

The impact of social media on B-to-B publishing was also the topic of an interview featuring Dan Gillmor, author of "We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People," and David Klein, VP-publishing and editorial director of Crain Communications' Ad Age Group.

Mr. Gillmor, who said there definitely are editorial staffers eager to blog, was asked if that might be a mistake, given the generally raw, confrontational tone of the form. There are many kinds of blogs, Mr. Gillmor said, and a reporter's blog could be as simple as a collection of relevant links. "B-to-B is perfectly suited for conversational journalism," he said.

Ellis Booker is the editor of Crain's BtoB and Matthew Schwartz is a reporter for BtoB
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