Putting digital in its place

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It's been a quandary for b-to-b executives for many years: Does e-media require a separate, dedicated team to maximize its opportunities or should e-media responsibilities and revenue belong to each brand as part of an integrated approach?

Recently, two major b-to-b media companies raised the question when they changed the way digital media is handled in their respective organizations, with each taking a different approach.

In August, Reed Business Information began forming a centralized division for e-media called Reed Business Interactive. In September, Hanley Wood disbanded its separate e-Media division and began redistributing online activities back to the magazine groups.

What do online executives outside these two companies think of the divergent strategies?

"I've concluded that there is no right way or wrong way," said Prescott Shibles, VP-online development, new media at Prism Business Media. "In my interaction with my peers, everyone has a different answer on how to organize this."

"We developed [in early 2003] a hybrid approach where the franchise units have P&L authority and accountability for online as well as other revenue," Shibles said. "The centralized online team works collaboratively with the publishers to develop best practices and identify opportunities that can be scaled across the organization in multiple markets."

"I haven't yet found the ultimate `org' chart," said Colin Crawford, senior VP-online at IDG. "Generally, we favor the power of the brands," he said, explaining that IDG brands handle their own print, event and online activities. However, "it's ebbing and flowing a little bit," he added, because of an internal group he formed called "Delta Force." While people in the group have "day jobs" in various brand units, they are starting to "push forward pan-IDG initiatives," he said.

The formation of Reed Business Interactive Network was all about scale, said Jeff DeBalko, chief Internet officer at Reed Business Information and head of the newly formed division.

"I would simply say that in 2006, the Web in general?and online media specifically?is all about creating scale," he said. "You can't possibly scale a vertical media business like RBI by doing things 50 different ways. You need to optimize, standardize and automate to maximize your opportunities and to drive both top-line and bottom-line growth."

The measurability of the Web will enable the central interactive division to find out what works and extend those best practices to other units, DeBalko said.

"We can identify best practices by measuring them?even something as seemingly mundane as the best way to configure a page," he said. "I would guess that 90% of what we do is the same across all or most of our brands," such as producing e-newsletters, using general search engines to drive traffic and running display advertising.

At Hanley Wood, the disbanding of the e-Media division "is the latest chapter in the evolution of e-media within the company," said Peter Goldstone, president of Hanley Wood Business Media, the newly named unit that combines the former magazine and e-media divisions. "When the channel was emerging six years ago, we ran it as a separate division because there was a distinction in the skill sets we needed in e-media. More recently, we've become more brand-centric and less channel-centric, and this seems to be the way readers and users want to be served," he said. "Meanwhile, marketers demand an integrated solution."

There is scale to this decentralized model, according to Goldstone. "Instead of having four salespeople in the nation talking about e-media, we now have 50; and, instead of five or six dedicated online editors, all of them will be involved to some degree." M

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