Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Why few in the media business feel sad at the loss of their trade associations or their trade industry publications

There was once time when the B2B media industry was all about serving readers and selling advertisers. It was a simple game: give away the magazine to industry pros and sell those that want to profit from reaching those in it. I know, I was in that industry for almost two decades (and I consider TNM strictly B2B).

Today, it is not only the B2B industry, but the media part of it in particular, that now has it backwards. Selling ads to vendors is taking a back seat to selling the readers themselves – events, seminars, webinars, almost anything to take that last dime out of the pockets of media pros. It is as if these publishers and associations see the clock ticking and know their hour is approaching, so better to profit now while it is still possible.

I feel angry and quite defensive about our publishing industry. It has served me well for three decades in total, and I don't want to see it disappear. I only wish others felt the same way.

Not a day goes by when I fail to receive a solicitation to attend another function. Occasionally they are free, sponsored by vendors who are simply there to sell you their wares; other times they are outrageously priced events where one gets to hear speakers, mostly vendors selling their wares, but occasionally someone telling you about their own businesses. In the old days I'd simply call that person up and talk to them, apparently now there is a need for a price of admission. (Funny, I call media executives every day and have never been charged for the privilege.)

Last week we heard that the ABM, the trade association that is supposed to represent B2B publishers, would be absorbed by the SIIA. Few seemed very upset by the move. My own theory is that most B2B publishers don't like to pay those annual fees and see this as a good excuse to bail.

But I have a word of warning to those PE-owned B2B media companies who only see the end of their trade association as a way to cut a few more dollars from the budget: believe it or not, you're going to miss the ABM.

Again, I know through prior experience with this. Before being recruited to join the McGraw-Hill Companies as a publisher of a B2B newspaper, and later launching a magazine, I used to be in the newspaper business. For quite a while I was very successful classified advertising manager, back when such a thing was possible.

From the age of 22, fresh out of J-school, I quickly worked my way up to CAM at a daily newspaper – and have to say that we blew out our numbers on a consistent basis. That made it fun to attend those association events, especially the ones where the president of the association would call for a show of hands of those CAMs that had made their annual budget. Times were good and a majority of managers could raise their hands. Then the association head would ask how many beat their budgets by more than 5 percent, 10 percent, etc. Usually only a couple hands were left up – always one of those was the CAM at the San Jose Mercury News, as they were the leaders in the field year in and year out.

But there is no classified advertising managers association on a national level today and its loss is truly felt by every CAM left in the industry. I can not tell you how many good ideas I got from those industry events, and how many silly ideas – like Babies of the Year – ended up being enthusiastically embraced by my staff when I returned from the event. (That silly idea, where readers submitted pictures of their kids, then received a T-Shirt reading "Times Baby of the Year", resulted in the community awash in "Times Baby of the Year" T-Shirts, to the utter dismay of our competitor.)

But the reason few will miss their association, or the now thin-as-can-be trade magazines, is that it is hard to see how they actually support their industry. The latest issue of one trade magazine seemed to only contain guest posts by those seeking new clients.

Everyone, it appears, wants to sell us today. But who represents us?