Media, agencies battle to be king of content

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Matt Johnston is VP-marketing and com-munity for uTest, a software testing market-place service. When assembling his marketing staff for this startup, Johnston said he didn't necessarily look for the usual suspects: advertising agency veterans or public relations specialists. Instead he looked for potential employees with experience in conducting primary and secondary research, and writing clearly about it.

“We have a five-person team,” Johnston said. “And I would say that 30% to 40% of their time is spent on content generation, or research or editing.”


“Content is king,” Johnston said.

Wait a second: Isn't that what trade publishers used to say?

The ecosystem where b-to-b marketers, trade publishers and ad agencies interact is changing. Increasingly, b-to-b marketers are acting like publishers. The Internet has forced marketers to populate their Web sites with white papers, webcasts and other content that will attract the attention of search engines. Similarly, lead generation usually requires the offering of some valuable information. And the rise of social media has caused marketers to create content they can share on LinkedIn or elsewhere to start conversations with potential customers.

At the same time, b-to-b media companies, driven in part by shrinking ad dollars, are expanding their marketing services offerings. This shift to providing marketing programs instead of ad pages has brought trade publishers into more direct competition with ad agencies.

The change all goes back to the importance of creating content for the digital world. “It's simply a matter of, if you don't have something valuable and relevant to talk about, you're going to be ignored,” said Joe Pulizzi, CEO of Junta42, a company that connects marketers with custom-content providers.

The trend of b-to-b marketers becoming content creators is one that has been gathering steam for years. In 2000, Oracle Corp. introduced what it called the E-Business Network, an online news network featuring video and designed to get the company's message directly to its customers rather than paying for media. In a BtoB article at the time, Jeff Dearth, partner at media investment bank DeSilva &

Phillips, described the move as a “shot across the bow” aimed at the trade press.

At the time, Mark Jarvis, Oracle's marketing chief, said, “The idea here is that, rather than pushing wares to customers, successful companies are going to create a marketing pull by informing, educating and entertaining their audiences.”

Today, Oracle's emphasis is no longer on the E-Business Network, which in its early days promised a program featuring actress Estelle Harris (who played George Costanza's mother on “Seinfeld”) that would look at b-to-b's lighter side. Instead, Oracle emphasizes its broad Web site, which has a more practical focus and features an array of content—from case studies to white papers to user groups—to help customers and prospects do their jobs. Numerous other b-to-b marketers use their Web sites in the same way, and that “shot across the bow” is still reverberating.

“We had a sales meeting last week, and one of the publishers did a presentation,” said Bruce Morris, exec VP at Source Media, publisher of American Banker. “He showed Web sites from marketers and different Web sites from publishers. It was hard to tell the difference between the publishers and the marketers. It all goes back to providing some type of value to the visitors to the site.”

While b-to-b marketers are becoming more like publishers, business media companies are looking like ad agencies. In a recent report, Chuck Richard, VP-lead analyst at analyst firm Outsell, offered several examples of trade publishers wading into marketing services.

Richard pointed to Vance Publishing Corp.'s launching of Vance Marketing Solutions. The unit is headed by Tom Denison, whose digital agency experience includes a stint at Richard also said that IDG rebranded its corporate sales and marketing unit as IDG Strategic Marketing Services in part because more than 33% of the unit's revenue stems from nonmedia sources.

Thomas Publishing has long offered marketing services to its industrial user base through its ThomasNet unit. These services include building Web sites, creating online catalogs and posting CAD drawings of products online.

Some ad agencies are entering the fray by introducing custom content businesses of their own. In 2008, for instance, Stein Rogan+Partners formed Kilter, which specializes in creating custom content for marketers. Mike Azzara, a former editor with TechWeb and other United Business Media properties, is Kilter's editorial director.

So are agencies or publishers better positioned to take advantage as b-to-b marketers spend more on their Web sites, white papers and other content? Some observers believe that publishers have an advantage due to their experience in creating journalistic content that is focused on informing, rather than selling.

Outsell's Richard also said that media companies have a key advantage over agencies in the form of the audience database that marketers are creating all this content for in the first place. “Publishers already have an audience and should be living every minute of every day understanding the needs of these concentrated pools of prospects,” he wrote. “Agencies don't have this permanent, life-and-death relationship with the end users.”

Tom Stein, president-CEO of Stein Rogan, said agencies do offer at least one advantage. “I think our advantage is deep insight into the clients' needs in the marketplace,” he said. “With our model as an agency, we have a much smaller number of clients, so we're all about hyperservice for a smaller group of clients.”

There is another group that combines the functions of publishers and agencies and may, in fact, be the best positioned of all to take advantage of marketers acting as content creators. That group consists of custom publishers, such as Imagination Publishing in Chicago or TMG in Washington, D.C., which now create custom Web content as well as custom publications for corporations.

“In the late '90s, custom publishing was a nice thing, a little vanity thing maybe,” Pulizzi said. “Now you're seeing it become central, where the story is that marketers really need to understand that publishing is marketing.”

James Meyers, president-CEO of Imagination Publishing, offered his business' strong performance in the downturn as evidence that custom content producers are a rising alternative for marketers. “Even in a tough economy like the last 18 months, our business continues to be pretty good, with this year being a little better than last year,” he said.

Charles McCurdy, CEO of Canon Communications, said that another group benefits from the trend of marketers acting as publishers: the end user. “The customers are the ones who suddenly have access to more useful information, and that creates transparency for a buyer that has never been available before.” M

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