Earlier this week the association for U.S. trade publishers, American Business Media (ABM), hosted an Executive Forum in Chicago centered around the theme of monetizing content. It was a good opportunity to speak with the president of the association, Clark Pettit, who took over his position last summer.
Pettit comes in to lead the trade publisher association at an interesting and challenging time. The effects of both the continuing digital media revolution, plus the very week economic times, is putting tremendous strain on the B2B publishing community.
But this week the ABM announced that it had added 15 new members, included in that list are some names new to the B2B industry, but indicative of where the industry may be headed: Moving Media+, the Bonnier spinoff and maker of the digital publishing solution Mag+, and RapidBuyr, a B2B daily deal site – two examples of new companies coming into the association as associate member; plus AOL Industry, the new AOL B2B unit, came into the ABM as a regular member.
Pettit joined the association in July of last year, and association members hope that his experience in the music and motion picture industries, and the experiences learned in their migration to digital, will be extremely useful in his new role.
"One of the biggest challenges is getting back to really differentiating the content that you can't get from anywhere else on the planet, and getting that properly valued, whether that is ad supported or paid (content)," Pettit said on Tuesday.
"To me the whole concept of B2B is this deep, vertical understanding of a deep, vertical business audience and the ability to provide unique, long-form, rich, kind of highly tailored, engineering-like, nerdy content that is uniquely valuable to them," Pettit told me this week.
"Yet, the normal kind of thing that happens when the Internet comes along is the value of content, in general, has been, I would argue, for an interim period, severely depressed. I think the really premium, high quality content went down also. And then when you compound that with the need to launch into new areas – and I know we're talking about digital, but it is true across all of them, it's true across events, it's true across any of them – sometimes you price based on past knowledge, into a business line you don't fully understand yet so you don't have the metrics to price so you have some price erosion."
To learn more about what members want from the association, Pettit has been on the road, meeting with members.
"Fundamentally what the members told me was there is a value problem in the market place, and that wasn't just about ABM pricing," Pettit said. "It was 'we are phenomenally busy with an exploding number of complex things', the CEO is being dragged in a thousand ways, the next level down is being dragged in a thousand ways, and even just showing up to an event, let alone paying for the membership right and privilege to go there, is a serious cost."
Indeed, one of the aspects of the B2B industry many outsiders don't realize, is the number of small to medium-sized companies involved. With several major media companies essentially pulling out of B2B – RBI and Nielsen as two examples – the trade publishing industry is left without the kinds of companies that would normally lead the way in the migration towards digital platforms. While Condé Nast and Time Inc. have enthusiastically embraced tablet publishing, for instance, there are far fewer companies to point to in the B2B area that are leading the charge.
But there are other areas, Pettit said, where B2B is actually leading the way in publishing.
"I came in thinking, well, B2B is probably mostly behind – and that's OK, it moves at a slower pace, the audience moves slower, so that's an appropriate reaction," Pettit said.
"But in things like lead generation, and really understanding your audience, and using that to drive content, that's well embraced in the industry and to a degree that is well beyond anything that is happening in consumer. I think consumer (publishing) is beginning to realize they also have to do that even though they are not in the deep vertical audience. They have to understand the behavioral shifts or their brands disappear."
While we held off discussing the topic of digital platforms and B2B in any in-depth manner, holding that for another interview, the subject could not be ignored, especially considering Pettit's experience in the music and film industries.
"What happens in any migration like that," Pettit said, "you have to re-understand who your audience is, who your customers are, and you have to get back engaged with them."
"So, if you're in the music industry you have to decide 'am I an artist services company? am I a consumer company" am I a retail service company? and am I serving them properly" or do I do multiple things?'"
"If you're in publishing, or in media," Pettit continued, "you have to ask the same questions: who am I fundamentally serving and how do I reengage with them to drive my product development cycle? And so the whole philosophy is, number one, I have to reengage; and number two, I need to stop going to them and saying 'here are my assets, how do I better leverage them with you?' – you need to instead say 'here's my relationship with you, what else can I do for you?'"
"And when the answer comes back, as we saw today, 'I need a custom built application…', the answer isn't 'well, I don't do that, I'm a media company', the answer is 'wow, great, let me do that for you.' By doing that you broaden your relationship, your penetration with that audience, your understand of what they need, and you build it out."
Conquering the challenges faced by the B2B community will be a tough task, but Pettit said he has heard the membership clearly and wants the association to focus itself on meeting those needs. Pettit said the members have been insistent, telling him "we need your help, you need to make this happen."