Where's the value in a brand?

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Earlier this year, I attended the 2011 JEGI Media & Tech Conference, organized by investment bank Jordan, Edmiston Group. At the event, Randall Rothenberg, newly installed chief digital officer at Time Inc., helped underscore some of the issues that top my priorities for this year.

Rothenberg's presentation reminded me that the b-to-b media industry has never done an especially good job of providing marketers with a compelling argument for why they should:

1) Focus on the top media brands in a sector.

2) Use a variety of media types.

3) Pay a premium for the privilege of doing both of the above.

We all do business in markets where there are numerous and similar—maybe even perceived as equivalent—competitors. In such environments, product differentiation is based more on pricing than on the value created in helping marketers achieve their goals. Largely, the demand for measurability and accountability (which goes back to John Wanamaker's famous quote that “half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half”) has been ignored.

This situation undermines media brands in the most pernicious way. At a time when marketing budgets are under pressure because of economic and business conditions, the combination of a poorly understood value proposition and a lack of measurability leads marketers to experiment with unproven media options and emphasize short-term, lead-generating programs at the expense of brand building. Unfortunately, this approach amplifies the problem, as smaller marketing expenditures reduce the monies flowing to media companies, which cut back to try to offset the erosion—and the spiral tightens. In this context, online media—where the opportunity clearly exists for finely targeted messaging and adaptive marketing campaigns— never achieve their potential and essentially become direct- response vehicles.

Can we get out of this bind? Debating whether this situation is our fault is probably less important than figuring out how to move forward. I am conflicted about how to respond.

On one hand, I fear that the halcyon days of advertising and promotion are over. Marketers, having now reduced campaigns to commoditized lead-generation programs, may never rediscover what branding is all about. While I hope this isn't the case, there are certainly signs in the industry that it could be. Advertising-based businesses, if not totally out of favor, have certainly seen reduced valuations in the M&A marketplace. (Reed Elsevier's fire sale of the venerable old Cahners titles underscores this point.) Many of us in the b-to-b world feel the successful firms in the future will be well targeted enterprises emphasizing strong event portfolios, compelling paid content or both.

On the other hand is a response that may be more wishful: Marketers will realize that tactical lead generation, while attractive in the short term, does not operate in a vacuum. Its effectiveness can't be sustained on its own without the support of branding. I find it hard to envision a healthy audience “ecosystem” where there isn't constant crossover among media, where activity in one area—be it print, live events or online—doesn't complement and reinvigorate the others.

On a related point, I believe different consumers prefer different media to provide them with information. Despite the ubiquity of television, other media such as radio, print, direct mail and outdoor continue to reach significant audiences. Even as online penetration, via mobile as well as the desktop, continues to grow, there will be those who prefer other means of consuming content.

In 2011, b-to-b media still have the same mission as before: connecting buyers and sellers. I believe there is still immense value to a media brand, especially in the b-to-b world. That brand helps bring together a community; it connotes knowledge, authority, access and respect. Admittedly, in today's world many of these terms take on new meaning as expertise extends beyond staff writers and contributors to encompass users and vendors in equal measure. Nonetheless, the strength of the brand endures.

But what a b-to-b media brand hasn't represented historically is a cogent value proposition tied closely to metrics and measurement. That is where I believe the industry needs to go, and we certainly aren't there yet. Ultimately, I agree with Rothenberg and his assessment that the challenge is one of creativity. Achieving this reinvention of b-to-b media is what I'm thinking about this year.

Neal Vitale is president-CEO of 1105 Media. He can be reached at [email protected]

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