Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Is there a strategy for B2Bs on tablets than makes good business sense? Publishers remain cautious as platform appears friendlier to consumer publishing model

It is the first question I ask any B2B publisher who has just launched a new iPad app: was there any discussion, prior to launch, about whether to charge for the digital issues, or require registering before being able to access the issues?

Many simply shrug and say that their first app was an experiment and over time these things will get worked out. Others say that they feel like the whole tablet platform is a bit of a mismatch for them, but that ignoring tablets didn't seem wise.

For consumer publishers, the talk around the talk is usually about Apple and its policy to take 30 percent of all subscription sales. Publishers aren't happy about it, but most grudgingly go along. Many talk about the sharing of reader information, but the fact is, which they will sometimes admit, they don't really know who buys their magazines on newsstands until they do the research, so if Apple (or the reader) won't share that information, well, that is simply business as usual.

Macfadden's Pizza Today
For B2B publishers, however, the situation is completely different.

In the B2B world, a publisher launching a magazine starts with a list of those in the industry. They then begin sending out magazines to those desired readers free of charge, and then begin to qualify them – the process of having a reader give them information that confirms that they are a desired reader. The big three questions asked of the reader to qualify them are "are you part of this industry?," "are you in a position of authority?" and "do you want to receive this magazine (which is free, by the way)?"

The process of qualifying readers is a major expense for many publishers. The old fashioned way of doing this was through the reader response card. Thousands of cards would be stitched into magazines or mailed out to readers.

Today, most B2Bs depend on telemarketing firms to do the job.

It is expensive and many publishers have decided to cut back on their qualification process. Many have dropped their BPA audits even though the cost of the actual audits is modest – it's the cost of qualifying readers that is the major expense.

B2B's need qualified readers in order to attract advertising. If a trade magazine has 70,000 readers they can then price their ads at a certain level and tell prospective advertisers that they will be reaching a desired audience. If the competition has less readers then chances are they will the first buy. If more, than the battle is over which magazine has more readers that are relevant to the advertiser, who has more qualified readers. If the B2B comes up short, they often receive a smaller ad schedule, if any schedule at all.

But the tablet platform doesn't fit well into this world of publishing. It too much resembles the consumer world.

Visit any physical newsstand with a good amount of magazines available. How many of these titles are B2B magazines? Generally few or none. The reason is that the newsstand model is too random. What are the chances that the owner of a pizza shop will stop by the newsstand and see Pizza Today? Slim. It is better if the publisher already knows who they want to read the magazine and sends the title directly to the desired reader.

Because of this, and the general weakness of the B2B industry in the U.S., few trade magazine publishers have experimented with the tablet platform. The numbers just didn't seem to add up.

Take the construction industry. I used to publish a magazine named Roads & Bridges (it still exists). When I was publisher the book had a circulation of 70,000. A portion of the readership was made up of contractors, the rest were engineers and government officials associated with the building and maintenance of roads. These readers were qualified to read the magazine by virtue of their positions of authority – often they were authorized to make purchases.

As a B2B publisher I could care less what kind of computer might be found on their desk, all I cared about was that they had the authority to buy an asphalt paver, or design software, or road salt.
The recently released Associations Now
But today, with tablet publishing, I also need to know if this desired reader owns an iPad. If they don't, then I know I can't reach them with my tablet edition.

Most B2B publishers currently are employing a "if you build it, they will come" philosophy. Launch a tablet edition and let anyone inside the App Store that wants to download the app do it, hoping that those who end up actually reading the issues or subscribing, even for free, will be the right audience.

That way of doing things doesn't work in print, of course. One can't print and distribute 100,000 magazines hoping that the right 10,000 will end up finding the title and read it. But in the world of digital, waste really isn't much of an issue (though some vendors do charge publishers for the number of downloads).

The perfect solution for many B2B publishers who depend on qualified readers would be a system where a reader could download the app but not access the app until they filled out a form that gave the publisher their name, company name, position, and other information. Apple's rules are a little vague about whether this would be possible. Certainly Apple does not allow for the automatic transferring of information through the device or Apple account. But whether a prequalification method would be allowable is very much debatable. Apple would have to approve this and institute it into their SDK.

Minus this, the alternative is to lure the reader into giving up this information voluntarily through surveys, contests, and the like.

One strategy that used to be used more often a decade or so ago was to charge non-qualified readers while giving away the magazine to qualified readers. The way this would work in the Apple Newsstand would be that the app would be free, but a reader would have to pay for access to the issues unless they were already a print subscriber. To become a print subscriber, of course, they would have to qualify. The original Apple developer rules definitely discouraged this two level approach. The idea was that Apple wanted whatever price that was charged in their store to be the lowest, so if something was free elsewhere it had to be free in their store, too.

But many publishers (and myself) have read those rules very closely and right now this approach may not be prohibited. But few are moving in this direction for one good reason: they don't want their brand new tablet apps to go unused.

As a former B2B publisher I would think that one of the biggest priorities for the associations representing me would be to work with the various app stores to develop new rules that are friendly and more appropriate for the B2B publisher.

But it may be that the whole qualified readership model is broken. Many B2Bs have abandoned their BPA audits to save money as advertisers flee trade magazines for direct marketing and the web.

To lure back these readers, a tablet edition of a print magazine may not be enough.

Yesterday I looked at a series of B2B titles and compared their ad page counts to the same issues two or three or more years ago. Without exception ad pages were down – in some cases so dramatically that one wondered how they titled was surviving. Books that held 25 or more ad pages were in the single digits.

Advertisers in the consumer world are not flocking to tablet magazines – at least not yet. Imagine the situation for B2B titles. Trade magazines with qualified readership models are, of course, completely dependent on advertising.

Here might be where the needs of B2Bs and companies like Apple may intersect. Apple is struggling with iAds, B2Bs need their industry advertisers to adopt tablets. Time Inc. is working with Apple to sell iAds inventory, showing that Apple is open to working with publishers, at least in this one area. Maybe there is a spot at the tablet for B2Bs – let's find out.