Trend watch: The talk outside the sessions at ABM conference

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The selection of speakers and panel topics at last week’s American Business Media Annual Conference in Amelia Island, Fla., made it clear that the move from print to digital is a central preoccupation of most b-to-b media companies these days.

There was a speech from Jason Young, CEO of Ziff Davis Media, who explained how he converted PC Magazine into an online-only brand. There was a panel on integrated digital/print sales success. And Frank Anton, CEO of Hanley Wood, and Matt Yorke, senior VP-corporate sales and marketing at IDG Communications, participated in a panel discussion on integrated programs—programs in which print advertising is almost an afterthought.

“Most of our customers don’t have [print] advertising budgets anymore,” Anton said. “They’re not advertising. I’m exaggerating, but you get the picture. We’re continuing to call on the top customers in this way. We continue to go in leading with marketing solutions and marketing events, instead of ad pages.”

But while generating more digital revenue is at or near the top of most every b-to-b publisher’s list, executives discussed other and sometimes more troubling trends off stage.

“The membership will have changed a lot by next year’s meeting,” one executive said with black humor. “There will be a lot of lenders who will be owners by then.”

That’s because many b-to-b media companies could be in violation of loan covenants and, as a result, lenders could take over those businesses. For example, GE Commercial Finance, which is a lender to b-to-b media companies, appears poised to take over ownership of Cygnus Business Media within weeks.

Some media executives, who declined to speak on the record, said they expected several companies would find themselves in similar situations before the end of this year.

Another trend media executives talked about is the diminishing importance of the print magazine circulation audit in an era when an increasing number of advertising programs are sold as multimedia offerings. In the hallways and at social gatherings at the conference, executives discussed investing less in requalifying requesters and Questex Media’s move from BPA Worldwide to Verified Audit Circulation.

“Nobody asks for the audit anymore,” scoffed one executive, who will be looking closely at the fallout, if any, from Questex’s shift.

As its members are hurting and searching for cost-cutting moves, so, too, is ABM. The organization’s budget for fiscal 2009 will be about $3.4 million—about half what it was in fiscal 2007.

ABM has cut both costs and staff. The association isn’t going to commit to a resort for next year’s annual conference until it has a better grasp of how its member companies are doing financially. Usually, the location of the next annual conference is unveiled with great fanfare at the current conference.

Not so in Amelia Island. Although Scottsdale, Ariz., is listed as the conference site for 2010, it’s not a done deal yet.

It’s just one more sign that business media is a changed industry. It’s just that nobody can gauge just how changed.

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