Differentiate by making a difference

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I recently crossed the one-year mark as CEO of Penton Media—and what a year it has been. While I have experienced a lot of change in the business information industry throughout my 25-year tenure—first at Pearson then at Thomson Financial—the climate in 2009 has been one the b-to-b media industry at large has not weathered before. The economic fallout of the last 12 months has rattled our industry's very core. Sometimes, though, it takes being shaken-up to get refocused, to see opportunity, to get brave, and to take necessary steps to transform.

But has the past year rattled us enough to face up to the reality of how much has changed, not just in the economy but in our markets, our audiences, our customers and our competition? I believe it is going to take far more than getting more content online, incorporating the latest online products and features, increasing page views or bolstering circ numbers to adequately address those changes.

Let me suggest that being relevant, being competitive in the future, is not going to depend on adding more features or more content to our Web sites. Rather, survival will be about paring down and stripping back the clutter to the foundational premise of our business: delivering true value that our customers feel is worth paying for. Paying may be in hard dollars or through other mechanisms, such as providing demographic information, but the premise is that to take our business to the next level, we need to find ways of knowing we have an engaged audience.

The idea of being customer centric is far from revolutionary. Most of us make our living on being vertically positioned, providing highly individualized content and targeted marketing and advertising opportunities.

But I would question whether we are really getting the insight we need. Are we forming an accurate view of our audience, one that directs us to build products and solutions that make a meaningful difference to their lives? This isn't just about paid audiences; our marketing customers are looking for a level of sophistication in their targeting that requires a much deeper level of audience data.

So here is my challenge for you. Are you feeling comfortable because you have Omniture up and running and are doing a quarterly reader survey? That is not enough— especially in b-to-b, where the vertical markets we all serve have more and more sources to consult for answers. Our industry needs to differentiate more, and that means understanding the needs of the user that then empowers us to provide a solution that makes a difference in their lives.

This is what we are focused on doing now at Penton, and it is what was done at Thomson. First, get a clear, accurate picture of the real addressable market for a given business—not the entire universe of potential customers but those whose needs can be realistically served given the capabilities and products you have on hand. At Penton, we took the first step to reorganize into market groups so we can understand every aspect of what we do with a customer—digital, print and event. Second, understand the customer's objectives and workflow by understanding how your products and information are being used. At Penton, we are trying to find out at what point in the work process a user comes to us, and what they did three minutes before and three minutes after. This step takes in-depth research, so roll up your sleeves. Third, discover the biggest pain points for the user: Which aspects of his or her job are so problematic that he or she would pay to make it better? Finally, with this knowledge, develop products and services that provide what users most value. While this sounds basic and obvious, it does not happen very often. We constantly over-engineer and miss the hot button.

Now more than ever, we need to understand how to keep moving up the value chain, and that has to be done through our customers' and our audiences' eyes or we will misstep. You need to know in intimate detail not only what your clients do, but how they do it, why they do it and how they can do it better. Only then can you accurately and confidently respond to their pain points, help their productivity and become an indispensable part of their workflow.

The more we replace the glittering generalities about who we serve and how we serve with specific knowledge, the better able we will be to produce content, products and solutions that truly matter. At Penton, this is the journey we have embarked on.

Sharon Rowlands is CEO of Penton Media. She can be reached at [email protected].

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