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Friday, February 29, 2008

Niche Media and the Beginner's Mind 

I spent the early part of this week at the Niche Magazine Conference in Austin, TX, where I had the opportunity to contemplate both the state of b2b media and our nation's election process up close.

First, let me note that I thought the conference was a true gem--one of those events you don't necessarily want to tell others about for fear that it might ruin what makes the conference so valuable. But I'll take that risk, because it's the kind of event that I think more of us in b2b media should be attending. It was a shame, but not a surprise, that there was no media coverage of the event--probably because there were no big media stars on the agenda, no dazzling $100 million-plus deals being talked about, and very little representation from big b2b media companies among the attendees. Heck, there wasn't even an investment bank among the many fine sponsors. Apparently, there's little else worth covering in our "media about media."

What we did have were a couple hundred publishers of niche b2b and consumer magazines getting together to hash out real issues, learn from one another and have some fun. (After all, who can resist a conference with a miniature golf tournament, where one of the prizes was for "Biggest Cheater?") At its core, the conference was for people who actually scrape out a living doing smaller magazines and related media, people who have to meet payrolls and protect their life-savings, people who do publishing out of passion and love--you know, the kind of entrepreneurs who built this business in the first place.

I don't know about you, but my first jobs in b2b media were with small companies owned by entrepreneurs, before they were sold to larger companies. Most of today's large b2b media companies are aggregations of media created by entrepreneurs. In fact, most b2b media companies remain a bunch of small niche publications and media, writ large by shared corporate overheads and services, breathtaking debt and financial valuations.

No offense to other media conferences, but frankly, seeing the same faces at the same conferences talking about the same "big picture" publishing and media issues is a metaphor for the staleness that imbues b2b media. We're so experienced that we've forgotten how to look at problems with beginner's minds. We've let debt loads, investment bankers and private equity firms set the agenda for what we should or should not be focused on, as opposed to listening to and acting on our instincts--instincts which created this business and its successful brands.

Given that Texas is a current battleground state in our elections, and the issue of experience is a key theme, I spent more than a few minutes in Austin wondering if I and some of my colleagues in b2b media have become too experienced.

You see, the problem with "experience," in my view, is that it often blinds us to alternatives. Those of us with loads of experience spend a lot of time thinking about what can't be done, as opposed to what should be done. That's why it was good to spend a few days in an environment where small publishers were grappling with the same problems big publishers are, and finagling solutions with band-aids, hard work and ingenuity. Since they often don't know what can't be done, they just go ahead and do it.

The Niche Magazine Conference (NMC) was refreshing in all senses of the word. I returned home charged up with great ideas, and a commitment to looking at b2b publishing and media as if I were just starting out, not knowing any better. I'll bet I'll be able to serve my readers and advertisers better just by letting go of a few (or more) assumptions.

So thank you to Carl Landau, Nancy O'Brien and the staff, speakers and attendees at NMC. I'll certainly be there next year (April 27-28 in Denver, by the way). And I hope to see some major b2b executives on the attendance list, looking to open their minds and to remember the passion and love that built--and will continue to build--this business.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Anton on B2B's Deadly Sins 

Hanley Wood's CEO, Frank Anton, outlined b2b media's 10 deadly sins during an address at the Folio: Publishing Summit:

Since I didn't have the opportunity to attend the Summit (but I will be at the Niche Magazine Conference next week with a client in Austin, Texas), I would have liked some more detail in Folio:'s own coverage of the speech. (UPDATE: See complete video of the speech, below). But basically, here are the sins:

"...underperformance, cowardice, technophobia, inferiority, complacency, coziness, stinginess, cluelessness, disorganization and dullness...."

All are certainly deadly sins in the best of times, and completely fatal during times of technological change and potential economic downturn.

Here's Frank's speech--definitely worth 30 minutes of your time:

For more on this, see this Folio: video of an interview with Frank. Toward the end, he make this point pretty explicitly:

By the way, nice work to Folio: on the video itself, and the easy link to the code so that I could post the video on this blog. And disclosure: My company proudly counts Hanley Wood as one of our most important clients, and I think Frank is a very smart guy, so I'm biased.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

For Sale: Reed Business Information 

Rafat Ali is reporting that Reed Elsevier intends to sell its $1.76 billion Reed Business Information unit to reduce "exposure to advertising markets and cyclicality."

Interestingly, the company intends to keep its Reed Exhibitions unit, which is also a cyclical business--though that cycle has been riding high for some time--and which really doesn't fit with the company's purported focus on "subscription-based information and workflow solutions."

In my limited experience, RBI and Reed Exhibitions were the ultimate models for the dangers of b2b "siloization." The two companies worked together only fitfully, and often, I'm told, found it easier to do business and partnerships with outside firms (and competitors) than with themselves. In an era driven by the integrated media solution buzz-phrase, Reed did a less-than-stellar job integrating its print, online and trade show/conference solutions, and I'm sure they left business and profits on the table.

But given the complete separation of the business units, it should be easy to split RBI off, leaving a new buyer with the opportunity (and need) to add trade show properties in order to offer a complete media solution. And perhaps this represents an opportunity for Reed Exhibitions to broaden its media offerings online and--dare I say?--in print, to better serve its customers.

Disclosure: GRID Media did some consulting work for Reed Exhibitions a few years ago, completely unrelated to any issues of integrated media solutions.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

E-Sheet Music 

I remain a fan of and believer in the potential for e-paper to change the way we publish magazines. But I also think there will need to be other successful applications of the technology before publishers jump in.

Here's one idea which I think is a winner--music scores delivered by Bluetooth to e-paper, with a pedal to turn the pages. (This is, I understand, a concept, and not a real product...yet.) For performers, this could nearly be revolutionary.

In the comments section of the above link, someone also points out the potential for e-paper menus in restaurants--another idea I like.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Enthusiastic Media, Part Two 

After finishing my last post, I found this piece from the UK's Press Gazette on Future Publishing titled Future adopts B2B economic model.

Here's a quote from Future chief executive Stevie Spring:

“These characteristics, together with our engaged and loyal readership, mean that the economics of Future are more comparable to those of a business to business publisher rather than those of a general business to consumer publisher. We are, arguably, a business to ‘professional consumer’ – or ‘prosumer’ – publisher.”

The key element of the strategy: focusing only on "enthusiastic segments."


Monday, January 21, 2008

Enthusiastic Media 

David Nussbaum has been named chairman and CEO of enthusiast publisher F+W Publications. As long-time (and patient) readers of this blog will recall, I think a lot of David--his leadership at Penton saved that company. And this is a great move by ABRY Partners, which owns F+W, and which was backing David's most recent venture, Sundance Business Enterprises.

Folio:, in reporting the news, called the move "a bit of a departure for Nussbaum, whose career is overwhelmingly skewed to b-to-b media."

I don't think it's much of a departure. To me, the fundamental business models of b2b and enthusiast media are the same--both serve targeted communities of interest, with tightly focused editorial and circulation. Perhaps the biggest challenge enthusiast (or special interest) media companies make for themselves is thinking like general consumer media, using the metrics, marketing and mindsets of companies like Conde Nast or Hearst. That's a mistake, because the audiences of enthusiast publications aren't consumers in the sense that consumer media defines them. They're enthusiasts, passionate about the subject matter in a way that few readers are passionate about the content of, say, Vogue.

Because of the similarities, there's a lot that enthusiast media can learn from b2b, and a lot that F+W will be able to do with the benefit of David's experience and expertise fighting the b2b media wars: how to sell the value of smaller audiences to agencies who think in terms of lowest CPM, how to align a sales force to effectively serve smaller advertisers who may not have agencies, or even artwork, how to transition to web-based offerings, how to create successful events, how to create special projects and custom media offerings...the list of b2b weapons is a long one.

But as I think about this, I realize that there's also something that we in b2b can be reminded of by enthusiast media--and that's, simply, the power of enthusiasm. Enthusiast media attracts not just communities of interest, but communities of passion. You may read a b2b magazine because you have to to remain competitive and in the know. But if you also collect coins, you may read read F+W's World Coin News because you want to, need to. Because it's your passion.

Most b2b media does a good job of serving communities of interest, but gives little thought to creating communities of passion. In business, passion is often a mildly dangerous word, reserved for serial entrepreneurs who can't quite fit into the corporate mold. We all admire them, but wouldn't necessarily want to work with them, at least, for long.

And yet, without passion, business is, frankly, boring, and a lot of our coverage of that business is, as a result, boring. As is our selling, marketing and circulation promotion.

Let me give an example. One of the current buzz phrases for b2b media revolves around the need to sell "integrated media packages," as opposed to merely ad pages or booth space. The phrase itself resonates of spreadsheets, staff meetings and cookie cutter proposals (a page from column A, a web banner from column B, a conference sponsorship from column C...and if we're feeling really spunky, maybe a webcast). Most integrated media packages show all of the creativity of a cut and paste document file.

Or take a look at one of your own magazine's editorial calendars. If it's typical, it's built around product focuses, trade shows and maybe some regularly conducted research. And if it's typical, it looks a lot like the editorial calendar you published the previous year.

Re-read your last issue. Does it give you a strange feeling of deja vu? Is there anything in it that's not only must-read, but want-to-read?

As the coming year unfolds, with a slowing economy, and pressure on ad spend and costs, b2b media that's passionate, creative and enthusiastic both on the editorial and business sides will stand the better chance of surviving and thriving.

If you have the time, read this post on Starbucks, by Jesse Kornbluth. (Jesse runs Head Butler, a lovely little service which reviews and recommends unique and different books, music and movies). Jesse's take on the problems facing the coffee giant is directly relevant to my thoughts here. In transitioning from a group of coffee houses for coffee--and community--enthusiasts, to a mass market consumer chain, something's gone wrong. The passion, the soul, of Starbucks is missing:

The crux of Schultz's dilemma is that Starbucks was once a community play, and a community play touches the heart and the imagination. That's as it should be --- a store that brews coffee can veer, at any moment, from a caffeinated office to with froth to a poetry slam. Management, however, wants to define what community means. I understand that impulse; corporate executives thrive on order and control. But the simplest fact of American life, now and in the years ahead, is change. Some will be economic. Some will be environmental. Much of it will feel disruptive. Little of it can be accurately predicted.

It's worth a read.

So, congratulations David, and congratulations F+W. It will be fun to watch what happens as b2b business models and enthusiast business models meld. I hope we'll all be able to learn from the experience.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Two Lessons for a B2B Slowdown 

Whether we're in for a full-blown media recession, or merely a short-term slowdown, remains to be seen. But in my recent conversations with b2b media colleagues, there's certainly something in the air: many advertisers across different markets seem to be hesitant to commit for 2008, even though January issues are long closed. Many of the commitments that are being made are lower than 2007's. And many b2b media companies have yet to fully lock down their 2008 budgets--I assume, waiting to see how the first month or so of 2008 shakes out.

Put all those things together, and the first quarter of 2008, at the very least, looks to be weak.

I've spent some time pondering the last few media recessions, and have come up with two lessons I've learned from those experiences.

The first, and most important, lesson: Don't panic. (With a tip of the hat to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.) In other words, don't overreact. The supreme temptation for media owners and publishers, when faced with a slowdown, is to slash and burn budgets, lay off staff, defer investment--generally, to hunker down. While it's important to be realistic, it's also important to remember that economic cycles are indeed cycles, and that what goes down usually comes back up again. Cast your mind back to the tech meltdown--it seemed like nothing would ever be the same again, and that there was no bottom to be found. But indeed, we found the bottom and rose again. It's my view that those who panicked during the last slowdown took longer to recover--or indeed, never recovered. They cut too much, too fast, and left themselves with little ability to take early advantage of the recovery. I hope the private equity players in our business won't lead the panic charge this time around, but I won't hold my breath on that one.

The second lesson: Be creative. Even in a downturn, business gets done. Advertisers and readers like to do business with the most creative media properties, even more so when the chips are down. My friend and client Lloyd Graff, the owner of Today's Machining World, has a rule: "Business gravitates to creative energy." As Lloyd puts it: "People like to be where they detect creative energy, even if they're not particularly creative or energetic themselves." Amen to that.

Lloyd's magazine is a fine example of how not to be the usual boring trade rag. Check out the chili recipes submitted by readers on page 48 of his December issue. Not your usual precision machining editorial fare. (A note: Lloyd reminds me a lot of Harry Newton, maybe the best publisher I ever competed with, in the sense that Harry imbued his magazines with his personality. Lloyd publishes a magazine that he himself would want to read. He's also a talented blogger.)

For us publishers, now's the time to go to each major client with something unique and different--a new way to reach out to the markets we serve. Now's the time to go in with proposals that aren't cookie cutter. Now's the time to think big. Even if the idea is too big for the client, I've long found that most appreciate the creative effort, and more often than not, reward that effort with extra business. You want to make sure that when media budget cuts happen, you're not the one getting cut the deepest. And the only way to do that is to be different.

When everyone around you is hunkering down with barebones staff, shrinking editorial wells, and P&L-driven management, it's pretty easy--and inexpensive--to set yourself apart.

I'll blog more about creative approaches in the new year. But for now, as we approach the holiday break, I'll be continuing to remind myself about these lessons.

I wish you and yours a wonderful new year.


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