In an era of shrinking revenue from traditional print products, media companies are selling their publishing skills to advertisers seeking new ways to reach customers.
For a medium that attracts little attention, custom publishing is a big business. Last year, it produced $29.9 billion in revenue, up 87.4% from 1999, according to the Custom Publishing Council-and that doesn't include custom media such as Webinars, face-to-face events and tailored research.
Custom is a very versatile form. It can be used to build brand, generate leads or foster customer loyalty. And many b-to-b media companies are only beginning to see the financial potential in creating custom content. As evidence, note that American Business Media recently created a custom media committee, where a key job is to enlighten the association's members on how to get their fair share of the custom media dollar.
"It clearly is a trend within the b-to-b space that custom publishing is growing," said Gerry Ryerson, president of Edgell Communications. "I think it's right in line with everything that's happening. Companies want unique marketing opportunities as opposed to buying more pages in a magazine. Most of the big advertisers still run their program but, when they look to expand, they're looking for a unique idea that addresses their audience. And they want to see a real return."
And if b-to-b marketers choose custom publishing, particularly a recurring magazine, as a new way to reach their audience, that can be good news for b-to-b media companies. "Custom publishing is one of the great cash flow businesses," said Robert Crosland, managing director of media investment bank AdMedia Partners.
A main attraction of custom media is that it enables a marketer to tell a complete story in, essentially, its own words. And the approach wouldn't be so poplar if marketers didn't believe it worked.
Lou Anne Brossman, director-federal marketing at Juniper Networks, has recently become a convert. "I think it's the best-kept secret out there," she said.
In February, Juniper placed in 101communications' Federal Computer Week an eight-page insert featuring some custom content created by the magazine. She used the insert as an alternative to direct mail and e-mail marketing.
Impressed by the traffic the insert created to the Juniper Web site, Brossman deployed another custom insert over the summer. She plans to expand the program to other publications, including PostNewsweek Tech Media's Washington Technology. "Next year you'll see us doing this quarterly," she said.
Custom publishing zealot
CDW is a company that could be described as a custom publishing zealot. The company's government unit, CDW-G, publishes three custom magazines-FedTech, StateTech and EdTech-in print and online. The publications feature case studies and advertisements from companies that sell products through CDW.
Ziff Davis Media handles the publishing of the magazines. Charles Lee, VP-integrated media for Ziff Davis, explained how he perceived CDW's marketing goals for its custom publications: "It's to deepen customer relationships, and it's used as a customer retention, customer loyalty type program. Ultimately, additional product sales is the end goal."
In part driven by its CDW relationship, Ziff Davis' custom publishing unit has grown "more than 40% year-over-year for the past two years," Lee said.
For at least one competitor, that kind of growth is not worth it. David Greene, president of PostNewsweek Tech Media, which publishes Government Computer News, said he was asked to bid on CDW work but declined the opportunity. "First, the list of customers is actually owned by CDW-G," Greene said. "And the second piece is that they actually sell advertising in that book to their vendors, so we view that as a competitive product."
Others in the industry agree that choosing custom publication partners is not something to be taken lightly. AdMedia Partners' Crosland said, "Doing a good job has a lot more to do with the client than with who the publishing company is. If your client wants to tell you how to do this and it's wrong, how do you think it's going to come out?"
Tom Kemp, managing director of media merchant bank Veronis Suhler Stevenson, said b-to-b media companies must be vigilant about their brands. "One of the pitfalls is you use your own brand, so make sure that the editorial standards of the content that's going into the custom publication aren't doing anything to diminish the value of the brand and is just seen by your readers as pure advertising fluff."
Custom beyond print
Just as b-to-b marketers have looked beyond print for their ad budgets, they have done so with the custom content dollars, investing in customized online products. Many b-to-b media companies have found that Web seminars are an easily customizable product.
At Edgell Communications, Vertical Systems Reseller staged its first custom Webinar earlier this year. The Webinar, which explored RFID (radio frequency identification), featured three panelists, including the CTO of ScanSource, the company sponsoring the online event. The Webinar produced 400 registrations and 180 attendees, according to Vertical Systems Reseller Publisher Michael Kolmar.
At Penton Media, Joseph Pulizzi, director of custom media, said one of the company's custom media successes has been roadshows it produced for both Microsoft Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. through Windows & .Net, now known as Windows IT Pro. These custom shows travel around the country discussing tech topics, such as security or wireless mobility, attracting about 200 attendees at each stop.
Pulizzi said custom media-which is often synonymous with targeted media-is in vogue because of the improvements made to customer and circulation databases over the years. "How much more sophisticated marketers are getting with their usage of databases has created this opportunity to create targeted communications and custom media publishing that keys on delivering valuable content to the user," he said.
The association benefit
In custom media, Penton doesn't just do roadshows, and it doesn't just work with advertisers. The company has also found that financially beneficial relationships are possible with industry associations, which are often heavy users of custom print publications.
In 2002, Penton began publishing the National Association of Manufacturers' magazine, Leadership in Manufacturing, which sells advertising in its pages. "We launched in a very difficult market," said Doug Kurkul, VP-member communications and marketing services for NAM.
Things have improved in the interim. The publication now has a circulation of about 52,000, according to Kurkul. He estimates the next issue of the quarterly publication will have a 56-page folio with about 28 ad pages. "We're breaking even with it," he said.
Leadership in Manufacturing represents an escalation of Penton's relationship with NAM. Previously, Penton published an annual handbook for the organization on manufacturing facility site selection.
Rex Hammock, president of Hammock Publishing, said that looking for organizations that already believe in custom publishing can speed the sales cycle and produce more revenue. "Publishers should always look for clients who already have the commitment to doing a magazine and are looking for someone to do it, rather than thinking up publications [themselves] and then trying to find a client," he said.
Hammock Publishing has apparently found a good partner with the National Federation of Independent Businesses. Not only does Hammock publish the association's "My Business" custom publication, which has a circulation of about 600,000, it also publishes more than 50 newsletters for the group. A handy rule of thumb for making money from custom publications is for publishers to keep their eyes open for opportunities, even outside the realm of traditional b-to-b relationships. For example, Vance Publishing Corp. is now publishing a magazine aimed at consumers for a b-to-b client.
Farouk Systems makes hair care products sold through salons and advertised in Vance's magazine, Modern Salon. To reach the consumers who ultimately buy the products, Vance now publishes a high-end custom publication, Chi, aimed at consumers and distributed through salons.
Vance has made a commitment to custom publishing, announcing in August the hiring of Peggy Walker to head its newly formed custom division.
Other companies are cutting deals that are at least in part driven by custom publications. In Mercor Media's recent merger with consulting firm ZweigWhite, Dick Ryan, president-CEO of the merged company (Zweig White Information Services) said that ZweigWhite's more than 400 consulting clients might benefit from Mercor's publishing expertise.
"That will be one of the strategic drivers of this," Ryan said. M