Wednesday, December 15, 2010

B2B continues its struggles with New Media - part 1

Of all the publishing segments that are struggling with New Media, none are suffering quite as badly as B2B. Whether it is the web, mobile or tablets, B2B publishers continue to beat their heads against the wall hoping that one day all this mess will go away and we will return to the late nineties and good times.

The causes of B2B media's woes are quite complex: one could blame the PE firms who really aren't much interested in developing their companies beyond buying and selling properties, or the management teams who move from firm to firm like managers moving from one last place team to another. Others have argued that B2B editorial teams have never gotten the web, and never will -- but it should be said that that position is becoming less relevant as time goes on simply because new J grads are far more interested in New Media than B2B coming out of school.

But before examining possible solutions, let's take a look at the present state of the industry.

One firm that has publicly committed to electronic publishing is Penton Media. Recently the company redesigned and relaunched many (all?) of its B2B websites. The websites, such as this one for Electronic Musician are modern in appearance, clean, and attractive. One way to tell a "modern" websites is simply width -- is 970 pixels wide, compare that to the NYT, its about the same width. Now look at Editor & Publisher's website: it is 782 pixels wide, not counting the orphaned house ad on the side. It looks like it was designed a decade ago (thanks Nielsen).

Unfortunately, most website redesigned projects are obsessed with content management systems and page design. If either of these two elements were really that important would the Drudge Report be successful?

Most B2B websites suffer from the same three problems: they are not updated frequently enough, they are press release trash cans, and they have little personality.

With the exception of the major B2B brands, most B2B websites get updated "periodically", as if posting stories online were just another of several jobs to be done in a week's time. Electronic Musician, for instance, has four stories that rotate on its home page slide show. All the stories with bylines show that they were posted a week ago within a half hour of each other. The section below the slideshow is for the "Robair Report" (not to be confused with the Colbert Report, I suppose). The column from Gino Robair was last posted on the 9th -- not too bad -- but the links to the previous columns produce an error message, showing that the editors are not too concerned with their web content.

Of course, the world of media today is 24/7, so it hardly need be said that posting new material daily is vitally important to any commercial website. Looking at other Penton sites you see a mixed bag -- Ward's Dealer Business, for instance, seems to be updated regularly, but sadly the site is still using their old design.

Any blogger can tell you this simple truth: traffic is directly related to frequency of posting. Volume is not necessarily the key here -- one or two good posts a day will drive regular readers back to your site. But simply posting PR won't get it done.

Press Releases
OK, everyone knows that the press release is the life blood of the B2B editor, but things are really bad online where many sites only post press releases.

Look at the new website for Construction Equipment, the former RBI magazine, now part of Scranton Gillette. The site appears to be designed to be a press release magnet. "News", actually just links to items found elsewhere on the web, is relegated to second fiddle. If readers of this once dominant trade publication were hoping a change of scenery would improve the magazine's online efforts they were wrong.

B2B editors are pretty much invisible now-a-days. The days of editors like Howard Stussman, editor at Engineering News Record for 33 years, are long gone. It's not the tenure that is important here, but personality. Stussman's replacement at ENR, Janice Tuchman, has been there for almost ten years now, but anyone who endured attended a speech by Stussman at an industry event knew that the man was in charge of not only his magazine, but would have thought he ran the whole damn industry. Those of us who were either his colleague or competitor (I was both during my B2B years) bristled at the man's ego, but were ultimately jealous of his standing in the industry.

An editor like Stussman infused his magazine with his personality -- one way or another. This same sort of "putting one's stamp" on the product is missing from many magazines today, but is completely absent from most B2B web products.

Of the three points above, at least two of them could apply to many B2B print products today, as well. But B2B websites stand out in their blandness, and formulaic approach to their production.

One reason I think this exists is that management is enamored with CMS -- it is as if having an efficient and easy to manage content management system will lead to a profitable web strategy. Sorry, it doesn't work that way. Traffic and ad sales leads to profits.

One reason are so obsessed with their back-end systems is that they are so leery of their front-end -- that is, their editorial and sales staffs. At every B2B I've worked for, management tried to keep as much of the control and maintenance of the websites from the staff as possible. Editors simply posted stories -- layout, design, maintenance was not their area of concern. Imagine if print magazines were handled the same way?

Tomorrow: some suggestions for B2B managers.
Later: mobile and tablet editions and B2B.