Big online ambitions

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In December Vance Publishing restructured to give the digital side of its business a boost. It hired an e-product manager and a Web editor to focus exclusively on building the company's presence online. For b-to-b media companies, that's a sign of the times.

"The whole idea before was people had mixed responsibilities in both print and online," said Steve Lee, senior VP-new products at Vance, which publishes Drovers, Furniture Style and Modern Salon, among other trade titles. "[Now] there's a lot more emphasis on developing products to meet the needs of an evolving Web audience."

In the last three months, Vance launched, a site aimed at executives who swap agricultural commodities, and redesigned, a directory that tracks agricultural commodities. The company plans similar upgrades for its other Web sites and intends to bring in additional employees who will work solely on its online products.

"It's a careful balancing act," Lee said, referring to investing in online products while maintaining traditional print properties. Developing online products "has to be driven by a deep understanding of the audience and whether there is a real need," he said.

William C. Vance, chairman of Vance Publishing, said, "After careful study last year, we determined that organizational changes were necessary to meet this objective as the markets we serve rapidly embrace digital media.

"The right resources and structures are now in place so that we can better meet the challenges that publishers like ourselves face."

It's a similar drill at MediaTec Publishing, which publishes Certification, Chief Learning Officer and Talent Management. In the next few months the company plans to revamp the Web sites of all its publications and enhance their search capabilities, said Norm Kamikow, president and editor in chief of MediaTec.

The company already offers industry databases and source books that are only available electronically and will soon add podcasts and streaming video to its mix of online products. It recently rolled out a proprietary content management system that allows editors to post articles online without having to go through the IT department.

"[Marketers'] budgets are switching online rapidly, and you need to take advantage of that," Kamikow said. "You need to accommodate how your advertisers want to communicate online, but you must also be fixed on what the reader wants online. If you can do that there's a better chance advertisers will follow."

The ongoing changes at Vance and MediaTec illustrate how smaller b-to-b publishers are altering their businesses to respond to the growing migration of readers and ad dollars to online venues. Of course, all media companies are trying to figure out how to play in an increasingly digital era. But the challenges are bigger for smaller publishers because they have fewer resources. (Smaller publishers—those with less than $50 million in annual revenue—comprise about 55% of the b-to-b media industry.)

Richard Mead, managing director of media investment bank Jordan, Edmiston Group, said that in the current climate it is not so much size that matters as attitude.

"Size is not the issue," he said. "It's the mental attitude toward the process and a willingness to embrace the Web and take advantage of it. You can find leaders and laggards in all sizes. But whatever the size of the company, there should be a great incentive to get online quickly."

Once small publishers are committed to a new electronic product, they should, at least on paper, have an easier time going to market than larger publishers.

"Half the stuff we do would have been buried in bureaucracy in larger companies," said Peter Hoyt, president of Hoyt Publishing Co., which publishes Home Decor Buyer, P-O-P Design and P-O-P Times.

Hoyt is also executive director of the In-Store Marketing Institute, which opened in 2002 and now has 3,000 members from the retail, manufacturing and advertising sectors. Membership in the for-profit In-Store Marketing Institute includes access to a robust Web site that incorporates a library of about 20,000 retail images.

The site is "an answer to the limitations of print," Hoyt said, "and has been a real catalyst for the [In-Store Marketing Institute's] business."

While smaller publishers seek new revenue streams online, they have to be careful not to get too far ahead of their audience electronically.

"Our market is so narrow it's not like [online services] require a huge number of people," said Robin Ashton, president of Gill Ashton Publishing, which publishes Foodservice Equipment. "The biggest expense is time."

Ashton's ad staff is devoting more of its time to online ad sales, which increased 40% last year. "A number of our advertisers are becoming more aware of opportunities online and how to use the Web," Ashton said. He said his company is currently investing almost $10,000 a year in its online operations, with most of that directed toward enhancing food-service product comparisons and building databases.

As customers clamor for more online marketing vehicles, smaller b-to-b publishers must continually educate their clients—and their own compa&Because we're small, we try to come up with the right idea that has a definite market fit; and if we don't get that, we'll ditch it," said Gary Redmond, managing partner and director of publishing operations at Construction Business Media, which publishes Architectural Products and Illuminate. Redmond plans to introduce a third b-to-b title, Architectural SSL, in May.

"There is no silver bullet online," Redmond said. "What's in vogue today is yesterday's news tomorrow. So to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to build out the `Next Big Thing' is misguided strategically. … It's more about making a momentary evaluation of what your clients need right now."

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