Tech media evolution a bellwether

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International Data Group, United Business Media's tech properties in the U.S. and Ziff Davis Enterprise—it would be a stretch to call any of these companies “tech publishers” anymore. That's far too limiting.

Over the past several years, these tech media companies have expanded their capabilities by:

  • Building online advertising businesses.
  • Creating advertising networks.
  • Starting research practices.
  • Wading into lead generation.
  • Launching marketing services divisions.
  • Inventing social media consultancies.

IDG generated 43% of its revenue from print in fiscal year 2008 and 39% in fiscal year 2009. The company said that percentage has dropped even more in its current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

At UBM's TechWeb, which publishes InformationWeek, print now generates about 10% of total revenue. Five years ago, it accounted for 72%. The story is essentially the same at Ziff Davis Enterprise, keeper of the eWeek brand, which also derives about 10% of its revenue from print.

“You'd better be changing or evolving,” said Scott Vaughan, VP-marketing services at TechWeb. “If not, you're so dead.”

Like tech media companies, traditional b-to-b media companies have been battered by the changes in technology combined with the continued downturn in print ad pages. The experience of the tech media companies may indicate that the changes—as represented by the iPad and smartphones—won't stop any time soon for companies serving marketers in the manufacturing, agriculture and other more traditional industries.

“We are seeing that many of the digital practices that tech publishers pioneered are going mainstream now,” said Charles McCurdy, chairman-CEO of Canon Communications, which serves the manufacturing sector, “and I'd have to expect that slower-adopting markets will see a similar evolutionary digital path.”

Even though the tech media companies have been in the lead, they have suffered plenty of financial distress along the way. IDG calculated that technology and tele- communications industry print advertising pages peaked in 1999 at 135,000 pages. That figure was just 20,000 last year.

The many ways that IDG has sought to adjust to this loss of revenue have been both inventive and instructive. They include the launch of the IDG TechNetwork, which aggregates hundreds of blogs for tech advertisers. It also helped create the Amplify online ad unit, which allows users to share the ad via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

IDG's Strategic Marketing Services group, established last year, helps technology vendors market their products in the same way a marketing communications agency does. Among its offerings is a consulting service that helps marketers monitor and respond to social media commentary about their brands and products.

Matthew Yorke, president of SMS, said media companies are perfectly positioned for the “real-time Web,” in which content is created constantly, because that is a key skill set for them. “Content is the jet fuel of all of this,” he said.

UBM's TechWeb, EE Times Group and Everything Channel units have also adapted to changes roiling their segments of the tech market.

TechWeb has created custom online content, such as the Internet Evolution site it developed for IBM Corp. that explores the future of Web technology. Additionally, Tech- Web has rebuilt its business so that events are central. Its events, such as Interop and Black Hat, are paid-content businesses.

“We're on the front seat of the roller coaster,” said Tony Uphoff, CEO of TechWeb. “I feel the changes have only accelerated in the past couple of years.”

EE Times CEO Paul Miller agrees that live events are a good way for media companies to bring buyers and sellers together outside of cyberspace. “We focus on what Google isn't good at,” he said.

The EE Times Group, for instance, acquired the DesignCon exhibition in April. Everything Channel has also made acquisitions with UBM's backing. It recently acquired SharedVue, a syndication software business designed to help vendors syndicate content across thousands of websites in an effort to sell more product.

“They want to sell their widgets to my audience,” said Bob Faletra, CEO of Everything Channel. “I ask, "How can I help them do that?' ”

Ziff Davis Enterprise has focused a lot of effort on lead generation. Among other things, it is also experimenting with eWeek Labs, a social media site that features reviews of enterprise-level products from users.

Steve Weitzner, CEO of Ziff Davis Enterprise, explained his approach: “Advertisers used to pay us to get a message in front of our audience. That was pretty much it. Now, the one word I use a lot is "engage.' It's about all the different ways you can engage the audience and the various ways you can develop leads with content.”

Weitzner said he's unsure how traditional media companies will ultimately use the lessons learned the hard way by tech media companies. “It could happen more slowly, or it may not happen to the degree it's happened here,” he said.

Hanley Wood, a media company that focuses on the construction industry, has made a calculated effort to move well beyond its print products, such as Builder. The company has acquired data businesses and moved into custom content and marketing services.

The moves, said Hanley Wood CEO Frank Anton, are “a reaction to the softening, or in some cases the disappearance, of a market for standard media, be it print advertising or trade shows or sponsorships. Clearly, the tech publishers led the way because their customers' media preferences changed first. As other markets make the shift, b-to-b media companies adjust ... or fail.

“We're trying to adjust, and we've had some good success with custom marketing, data sales, distance learning, and event planning and marketing. These were entirely new businesses for Hanley Wood.”

Penton Media, a b-to-b media company that serves manufacturing and other traditional sectors, last week introduced the first of a number of website redesigns, an acknowledgement that digital is a key growth area. As Penton CEO Sharon Rowlands pointed out, Penton has experienced what the tech media companies have gone through with its own tech unit, which includes Windows IT Pro and which already garners about 70% of its revenue from digital.

Penton also plans to launch a marketing services unit “within the next six weeks,” Rowlands said.

At Access Intelligence, a company serving the health care and energy markets, CEO Don Pazour has experimented with marketing services but distrusts it as a recurring revenue stream. “For the publishers to create the kind of high value content we are used to on a custom basis requires a lot of investment for a revenue stream that can quite easily disappear,” he said.

Instead, he is looking for new ways to replicate the media model, which is based on creating content once and then selling it many times to both users and marketers. “My preference is to try to adapt our capabilities [intellectual and relationship capital] within our served markets to provide multiclient products,” he said. “Write once, create once, sell many.”

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