Over the years spent working at Underscore, my responsibilities have shifted significantly. It's one of the attractions of working at a small agency -- it's never the same workday twice. One thing that hasn't changed in more than seven years, though, has been my oversight of Underscore's business-to-business practice. I tend to thrive in chaos, and that's one of the things that makes B2B exciting -- I don't think too many other categories have experienced the near-total upheaval that B2B has seen in the past decade and a half.
In many ways, B2B marketing lags behind consumer marketing when it comes to the internet. In our dealings with sites that are important to our client campaigns, we often find niche sites at which the publishers are unfamiliar with things we take for granted on the consumer side -- rich media, third-party ad serving, effectiveness measurement via brand studies, those sorts of things.
In other ways, the B2B market is ahead of the consumer market because the internet was markedly more disruptive to a publisher's business model on the B2B side than it was on the consumer side. B2B publishers had a lot more to lose, since they lived and died according to their ability to charge a premium for reaching qualified audiences.
When I think about our typical B2B client, I can think of several characteristics they all shared when they first came to Underscore. Most were reliant on a finite set of print publications that had strangleholds on the audiences that were key to the client's business. Those publishers also tended to be in the event business and had become important to the client's communications plans by providing additional venues that helped drive the client's business. Some of these key publications had thriving websites, but most were struggling with the extent to which digital publishing was cannibalizing their print business.
Flash forward several years and clients have shifted much of their investment into digital, because many of those print publications are now out of business. Some titles just a few years ago would have been considered so important to a media plan that leaving them off would have led a client to think they should change agencies, and now they don't even publish anymore. In some cases, those titles showed signs of illness before they died -- decreased rate bases, thinner issues, or lighter publishing schedules. Other titles seemingly disappeared overnight, either becoming supplements to other, stronger titles the publisher was producing or ceasing publication outright.
Like I said, I thrive in chaos.
The publishers that are still relevant to our B2B clients' businesses share some characteristics. The ones with thriving event businesses are mostly still relevant. But the publishers that will ultimately survive long-term and remain key partners for our clients are the ones that developed proactive content strategies that leverage digital channels appropriately.
The smartest B2B publishers looked at how their audiences were consuming content and saw that the internet was biting off a huge chunk of consumption. But only a certain type of content lent itself to internet publication more easily than others. Breaking industry news was something that was best left to email newsletters and alerts. Run-of-the-mill industry news was best monetized on a website. In-depth analysis and longer-form industry trends stories, as well as reference material with longer shelf life, were able to live dual lives and be published both in the magazine and on the website. The smart publishers took a long, hard look at their content and developed separate roles and strategies for their digital properties and print titles.
Remember how I said earlier that B2B publishers had a lot more to lose to the internet than consumer publishers? I see supporting evidence every day, in both my business and my professional life. There are a lot of great B2B print reps making the transition to digital. I like being a job reference for the really good ones.
I have a friend in the construction business. Normally, advertisers pay a premium to reach someone like him through niche print, although if my buddy had his way, he probably wouldn't even own a computer. The digital channel is probably the best way to reach him now. We talk about how his business would have lost a ton of money had he not learned to buy and sell heavy equipment on eBay. We also talk about how his mobile phone, which he used to use exclusively for talking to customers or to summon work crews via the walkie-talkie function, is now a content consumption device as well as the conduit for email leads forwarded from the rudimentary website I set up for him last year. Those conversations remind me that even the industries that were dragged kicking and screaming into the digital sphere were dragged nonetheless. Digital is the best way to reach them now.
There are still naysayers in the B2B publishing business that truly believe their businesses can't be disrupted by the internet. They believe their hold of a particular niche audience is unbreakable. To an extent, even if they don't face competition from a more agile internet publisher in the same sector, their business is still being disrupted as we speak. Google (and to a lesser extent, other search engines) has loosened just about every B2B publisher's grip on their key decision makers. Heck, Google itself may not even realize the extent to which it plays a key role in reaching decision makers in just about every B2B subcategory. But it does, and that's immensely disruptive.
For most subcategories within B2B, the writing has been on the wall for quite some time. I've seen many custom surveys that show the extent to which upstart digital publishers, Google, and other digital information sources have put serious dents in a publisher's ability to serve as a "publication of record" for their industry. The question for these publishers is how to remain relevant to industry decision makers without the premium CPMs they've garnered in the past for reaching them. Advertisers both want and need to see publishers achieve this, lest they have to get into the content business themselves.
Tom Hespos is the chairman and president of Underscore Marketing and blogs at Hespos.com.
On Twitter? Follow Tom at @THespos1 or @_MarketingLLC. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.
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